Article by Kat Isaac
“The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”, which is the extravagant title that Hirst gave to his shark in a tank of formaldehyde, has become one of the artist’s most notorious statements. Alongside other high-profile pieces such as Tracey Emin’s bed, the shark has become emblematic of the 90’s BritArt movement and its ethos.
The initial shock factor of the artwork, especially when seen in its original context at the 1992 Saatchi exhibition of Young British Artists, might have made it seem like a radical and exciting, if controversial, novelty. Conceptually however, as is usually the case, it was not without precedent. In employing a prefabricated object (in this case a shark) Hirst emerges at the tail-end of the readymade tradition in 20th century avant-garde art.
Since Duchamp’s urinal first provoked outrage when he attempted to exhibit it in 1917, artists have been exploring the potential of the readymade object as a critical tool, pushing the boundaries of what we call “art”. We can think back to Minimalists such as Carl Andre with his piles of bricks stacked on gallery floors, to Pop Art in the 60’s with Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and rows of soup tins, even to Jeff Koon’s balloon animals and displays of household objects in the 80’s. For many decades artists have been asking the same question: what separates art objects from other objects in the world?
Hirst upholds the tradition of the readymade, but with one noticeable change. Where previously artists had used ordinary, commonplace, often industrially produced objects, Hirst uses the opposite – extraordinary objects, such as the shark. By substituting the likes of a cardboard box for the frightening, visceral melodrama of a 13ft long tiger shark in a glass tank, suspended as if it were still swimming, still alive and dangerous, Hirst has brought a new dimension to the avant-garde device of the readymade. That is to say, he has transformed it into a spectacle.
This is hardly surprising. For the YBA’s, who can be thought of as the first superstars of the art world, spectacle was everything. It was intrinsic to their image and concept. “Sensation” was the title of their 1997 group exhibition because this is what they caused; in the press and in the media, in the dusty citadels of arts institutions, in the casual-gallery-goer public who loved to hate them.
The spectacle is especially important to Hirst, it is the common denominator in all of his work. This spectacle is not something derived solely from the objects he chooses – although as we have seen with the shark, this is always part of it – but is generated from the aura of media celebrity which belongs to the artist himself, his artistic status which he has made into a brand.
Backed by advertising guru Saatchi, the YBA’s became experts at selling their art as a projection of themselves; a luxury commodity with a price-tag to match. It is this clever commodification process which makes Emin’s bed, not much more exciting than the one you woke up in this morning, worth £2.2 million. It is what makes Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull (which the artist himself played no part in making) dare to ask a price of £50 million.
The much inflated value of these readymades, of what are essentially still just objects (albeit in the case of the jewelled skull, valuable ones) is symptomatic of what Marx described as the fetishization of commodity. Marx warned of losing the real value of human labour as a by-product of the estranged economic relations we experience within a capitalist consumer society. It is tempting to use Hirst’s skull to illustrate his point.
In regards to the shark, however, the spectacle is not quite as shallow or straight-forward. One of the elements that makes it an alluring and desirable object (or product) is the strange title Hirst has given it. A title which perhaps becomes the shark’s most evocative aspect. It is beautiful and poetic in its clumsiness: “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”.
The phrase is simple and chimes with the infallible truth, revealing in a second the folly that underscores the human condition: that we are born to die and can never come to terms with that fact. For me the title transforms the creature, no longer a fear-inspiring monster it becomes sad and forlorn. Isolated and remote and trapped there in death till the end of time (or at least until it rots away and has to be replaced, as in 2006, but the sentiment stands).
The theatrical cruelty of the object is no longer the shark as an agent of death, but that of death itself, of the promise of death. And as we look at the shark in this new light it becomes almost heart wrenching to behold, engendering that feeling of pathos which Hirst will later perfect with another of his formaldehyde projects: a cow and its calf in separate tanks and severed in half entitled “Mother and Child (Divided).”
In these “Momento Mori” works we realize we are not just looking at animals in tanks but at ourselves, at our own mortality. The artist has shamelessly and brilliantly brought the nihilistic glamour and tragedy of death – as a timeless, universal and sublime truth – into his spectacle. In Hirst, it seems, anything and everything can become part of the commodity.
To Hirst’s staunchest critics he is merely a savvy player of the contemporary art game with no real or authentic talents to speak of. It is certainly true that he is a far cry from that romantic artist prototype – the inspired, misunderstood genius labouring his whole life for little reward – he is rather a businessman and an entrepreneur. But maybe we should stop to wonder if this is not just a natural consequence of our times, a reflection of the increasingly materialistic world artists must negotiate, a world which beckons its own kind of artistic genius. In this context that question which has hung around since the dawn of modernity, that question of “what is art”, has become even more problematic.
Whilst no one has held back on their criticism of Hirst over the last decades (he has been variously named a con-artist, a fraud, and just simply bad) this has done nothing but help bolster his exposure and consequentially add to spectacle of his personality and his art, cementing works like “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” into the history books of the future.
Kat Isaac is a recent graduate in History of Art from the University of Reading, UK, and a freelance writer on contemporary art and theory. Kat’s writings are featured on Janus: Reflections of Contemporary Art . email@example.com
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