Exercise 4: Looking at Context

This exercise asks us to look at Damien Hirst’s 1991 piece title The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The work is essentially a steel and glass tank filled with blue formaldehyde and a suspended shark. The piece is also referred to as ‘the shark in formaldehyde’.

We are asked to answer to following questions:

• Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece.
Weird. Scary. Ugly.

• Do you have an emotional response to it?
The thought of the formaldehyde makes me feel a bit queasy. The work in general makes me just shrug my shoulders. I am of the generation where the strangeness of contemporary art doesn’t really surprise us, although the price some people will pay for it makes us angry.

• What do you think it’s about?
I imagine it’s about the fact that it’s extremely difficult to imagine what death is really like. Seeing the dead shark preserved in the formaldehyde represents the way that we can’t or don’t want to imagine what happens to a living creature when it dies. Perhaps there is also the idea that if the shark was alive and we were that close to it, we would probably be dead very shortly.

• What do you think about the title?
Long winded. I wonder whether the title came first or the artwork. If I had to guess, I’d say the title. It sounds like some kind of prompt you’d get in a philosophy class.

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