The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a conceptual installationby British artist Damien Hirst (Bristol, 1965), colloquially known as “the shark”. It consists of a large tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. Created in 1991 on commission by Charles Saatchi, it reflects on the decay of the physical body.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is an installation created in 1991 by Damien Hirst, a leading member of the Young British Artists (YBA). It consists of a preserved real tiger shark, exhibited in a glass-panel display case full of 848 litres of formaldehyde. It is an iconic and controversial work of British art from the 1990s. The chemical substance prevents the decomposition of the animal specimen, and the display is reminiscent of those in natural science museums. The hybrid installation also draws on Marcel Duchamp’s readymade aesthetic and 1970s Conceptual Art.
Damien Hirst, at the time only 26 years old, became famous with the formaldehyde shark and other works featuring the recurring motifs of skulls, dots, and preserved dead animals. Hirst’s reflections address the theme of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, considered a phase of life itself.
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was originally commissioned by British naturalized Iranian art gallerist Charles Saatchi, which left the artist free to work on any subject. The first tiger shark used for the installation measured 4.3 meters and was caught by a commissioned fisherman in Hervey Bay in Queensland, Australia. The artist gave precise information about the size of the specimen: it had to be “big enough to eat you”.
The “shark” was first exhibited in 1992 in the first of a series of Young British Artists shows at the Saatchi Gallery, and then in Saatchi premises in St John’s Wood, London. The artwork was sold in 2004 to Steven A. Cohen for $8 million. However, a recent essay by the scholar Don Thompson speculates the higher figure of $12 million. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City kept Hirst’s artwork on loan from 2007 to 2010.
The shark inside the installation is not the same one from 1992. The first tiger shark was substituted with another specimen in 2006 due to the deterioration of the original one. Oliver Crimmen, scientist and fish curator at London’s Natural History Museum, assisted with the preservation of the new shark. This operation provoked a debate among critics and Damien Hirst himself on whether or not this replacement can be considered an artistic operation or a counterfeit of the original artwork. The artist, whose practice refers to conceptual art, clarified that it is sufficient to maintain the original intention of the installation rather than the original sample.
Hirst’s installation and frequent use of dead animals raised numerous ethical, animal rights, and ecological controversies. According to an estimate conducted by Artnet in 2017, Hirst used approximately 913,450 living things, including farm animals, marine, butterflies, and other insects.
The installation displaying a motionless animal uprooted from its natural environment and preserved in an artificial tank raises reflections on several levels.
The first meaning is a macabre exploration of the themes of mortality, the fragility of life, and physical decay. The title itself refers to the human impossibility of fully processing and conceiving death while one is still alive. The use of formaldehyde seems to be an attempt to keep livingness, to preserve longer an organic body destined to decay.
Tate Gallery scholar and lecturer Luke White advanced another reflection on Hirst’s installation as an investigation into the topic of human fear. The impressive shark is a disturbing image that both intimidates and seduces the viewer. White speaks of the philosophical concept of the “natural sublime”, the emotion felt by humans when faced with frightening and uncontrollable nature.
Finally, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living expands the concept of the artwork, too. It activates a reflection on the ephemeral dimension and the impermanence of art.
Damien Hirst realized variants of the installation with different sharks in a vitrine: The Immortal (a great white shark, 2005), Wrath of God (2005), Death Explained (a shark split in two, 2007), Death Denied (2008), The Kingdom (2008) and Leviathan (a basking shark, 2010).
He also displays other animals preserved in formaldehyde, including a cow and a calf (Mother and Child (Divided), 1993), a sheep (Away from the Flock, 1994), and a dove in flight (The Incomplete Truth, 2006).
Hirst created other artworks that address the theme of mortality, like For the Love of God (2007), an 18th-century human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds, and other paintings and installations dealing with medicine and diseases, like Flumequine (2007) and Pharmacy (1992).