Exercise 4 – Looking at context

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (installation 1991, new installation 2006)


Fig. 1 Damien Hirst’s Shark (2008)

At a first look this striking piece makes me think of the poster of the thriller film Jaws (1975) by Steven Spielberg and I imagine that perhaps the artist too might have had this film at the back of his mind when he conceived this installation. I associate it also with some very unpleasant images of dead human babies in formaldehyde that I saw once in a museum when I was a child.  It reminds me also of those glass shrines showing the corpses of saints and Popes that are quite common in Catholic churches.

The blue colour of the liquid in which the shark is immersed looks like water but it’s a deadly water and even if frightening and huge the fish looks rather small and somewhat alone in that great case with so much liquid around it. So my emotional response is of sadness and not of feat at seeing such a once powerful creature reduced to an helpless object in a museum.

I think this work is about death and terror in front of it, about our helplessness and total sense of bewildered loss when we look at death in other creatures and I believe that the title The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living conveys this deeply engrained and irrational feeling that nothing as terrible as that is ever going to happen to us. So in a sense we are terrified at looking at this dead now defenceless creature but also comforted that we still alive.


Edwaert Collier, Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ (1696)


Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes' 1696 by Edward Collier active 1662-1708

Fig. 2 Still Live With a Volume Of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ (1696)

This painting gives me a feeling of claustrophobia with its high number of objects in an enclosed space. The prevailing earth tones strengthen this feeling. I cannot say that I am emotionally moved by it even if it is a very fine painting.

I can see why vanitas paintings are mentioned in connection with Hirst’s work: they have the theme of death in common, but I think in a different way. In this still life I see human resignation, death is recalled and accepted as an inevitable fact of human  life. In Hirst’s installation I see a non-acceptance of death, as if the hard truth of death were not really understandable and were emotionally denied by who is alive.


List of illustrations

Figure 1. Meier, Allison (2008) Damien Hirst’s Shark (“The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living” 1991 and 2006)  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [photograph] At: http://www.flickr.com (Accessed on 05/08/16)

Figure 2. Collier, E. (1696) Still Live With a Volume Of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ [oil painting] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/ (Accessed on 05/08/16)



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