Exercise 5: Finding Out More

This exercise asks us to watch/listen to a discussion from the Khan Academy on Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde piece (here).

We are asked to make notes, paying particular attention to the following:

• Hirst
• the piece
• Hirst’s other work
• information on other artists whose work is concerned with mortality
• references to ‘time’

There is a transcript available under the video, so I won’t type up all of my notes, but I will mention the information relevant to the ideas above.

With relation to Hirst and the piece itself, a lot is said about the title of his works and, in this case, the fact that the the shark alone could be just another natural history display, while the title is what makes you think. It is when they are combined that they make a ‘complicated experience’ which requires you to really consider the piece on a deeper level.

There is only a brief mention of his other works, specifically, Away From the Flock (Divided), whereby Hirst cut a sheep in half and displayed the two pieces in separate formaldehyde filled tanks (see here).

There is no mention by name of other artists’ works concerned with mortality, but it is said that, looking back at the history of art, it was all about ‘coming to terms with mortality, transcending the physical body, and of the afterlife.’ The speakers also say that art throughout history has asked big questions, and that Damien Hirst’s shark piece has sought to answer them.

The references to time include the fact that the first shark actually dissolved in the formaldehyde, so a second shark is now being used. There is discussion around whether or not this was intentional. It is said that the philosophical definition of art is something that outlives us and is trans-generational. One of the speakers says that Hirst clearly thought the piece would last a long time, but that it didn’t hold up to that. Another of the speakers questions whether this was intentional and speaks about how, throughout history, human beings have tried to stop time (e.g. the Egyptians and their mummies), but that we are all well-aware that nothing can stop the inevitable decay. They conclude that, with everything we know, it’s impossible that Hirst didn’t know what would end up happening to the shark. It’s also noted that traditional art is paints and inks, but by using something that is flesh and bone, placing it in formaldehyde is only a vain attempt at having the piece outlive us, and there is a general impermanence to art after the late 20th century.

The exercise then asks if knowing the contextual information about The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living has changed our views on it. I have to say that I think my initial thoughts on it seem to match what the speakers in the Khan academy talked about, and I stick by my ideas. I didn’t, however, know that the first shark had dissolved. I don’t know all that much about Hirst, but, for some reason, I feel like the first shark dissolving, and it’s waters becoming murky and unclear, was not something that Hirst planned, although I can’t deny it adds even more meaning to the whole piece.

The final task of project 1 is to go and look at a 2012 Guardian article where Adrian Searle reviews Hirst’s Tate Modern survey show. The general conclusion from Searle is that Hirst’s works started off as original and exciting, but that 20 years later, he has become something of a disappointment. He states Hirst’s ‘capitulation as an artist’ as the main problem. I haven’t really come across this term before, but looking at the various definitions, I take it to mean the act of surrender – of Hirst ‘giving up’ as an artist.

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