09/02/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Primal Fear and the Legacy of Damien Hirst

What artworks of the past 25 years will we care about in the future?

Damien Hirst's 1991 tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, should be among them.

Why is this work so important? In the past when I have lectured on Hirst, I've focused on the following:

  1. Its revision of minimalism, i.e. how it takes the very closed and complete containers of someone like Donald Judd and fills them, in this case with an animal, recalling the "meat pieces" of Paul Thek.
  2. Its challenge to Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg, i.e. if art can be anything and include animals, why can't art be a very large animal preserved in formaldehyde with little else indicating it as art?
  3. The tremendous amount of controversy it generated when it was initially shown in the first "Young British Artists" show at the Saatchi Gallery in 1992. In the UK, it's been called one of the top three art controversies ever, paralleling those surrounding the exhibition of Carl Andre's work in the 1970s and James Abbot McNeill Whistler one hundred years earlier.
  4. Its relation to Hirst's previous and subsequent work as well as the subsequent history and influence of the YBAs.
  5. The commanding scale of the work, which paralleled the size of Abstract Expressionist paintings, the increasing scale of photography and reflected a return of sculpture.
  6. The theme of death, a reading catalyzed by the title. Meaning in this work (if understood through the title) thus sways between affirmation and hopelessness regarding death. In other words, it entertains both the fact that staring at a dead animal allows you to understand death better as well as reinforces our inability to conceptualize death. More broadly, the title also makes us think about so many other historical works (whether they depict Jesus or Marat or John F. Kennedy) that have tried to put the idea of death into our minds. Like Hirst's shark, do these works allow us to better understand the experience of death or do they further distance us from the reality?

Again, the aforementioned is what I have (more or less) focused on in the past. Yet when I returned to my notes the other day, I realized I had downplayed a major issue: fear.

Hirst's shark also scares people. This could be the most important part of the work.

Maybe I'd always glossed over this aspect -- or dealt with it indirectly through a discussion of the controversy surrounding the piece -- because I thought shock value was too easy, too commonly-associated with the YBAs and not actually relevant when you spent the time getting to know the work.

Or maybe I was trying to be objective in the face of my own fear of sharks. I saw Jaws at a young age and have not been entirely enthused about swimming in deep water ever since.

Whatever the reasoning, in remembering this work and thinking about my experiences of it (in person, in reproduction and in the various other ways in which we engage with artworks in our heads), I realized I also thought about the fear this work prompts in me, and it seemed important to try and inject this feeling back into the interpretation of the work.

So here are some further thoughts on the shark, particularly how this work focuses on fear:

A Shark Versus Other Animals
Hirst could have put any animal in the tank but decided on a shark, one of the scariest animals to humans. Why are sharks scary to us? Not because there is a real risk of danger: your chances of being attacked are extremely low: 1 in 11.5 million. (You're actually at higher risk of being smothered by a hole you've dug at the beach.) Widespread shark fear is better traced to one 20th century event: a series of great white shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916 (chronicled in the book, Close to Shore).

These attacks, unparalleled in subsequent history, spurred a media frenzy, often pushing the news of WWI out of American newspapers. Close to sixty years later, Peter Benchley used the New Jersey attacks as the basis for his novel Jaws, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 44 weeks. And then, as many know, the novel became the basis of a movie, which became the first summer "blockbuster" and ruined the experience of ocean swimming for millions, including me.

Hirst did not just pick any shark for the work, but a huge 13 foot-long tiger shark, which rank second to great whites in attacks on humans. Hirst had originally wanted to use a great white like the one in Jaws but he couldn't because the fish are endangered. Yet the tiger shark still fit the bill. (When he commissioned the catching of the fish, allegedly one of his stipulations was that he wanted something that looked "big enough to eat you.")

Looks Real
Hirst has spent a significant amount of time and effort to make sure that the shark looks alive to the viewer. This is no more evident than in the fact that he decided to completely remake the piece in 2005 (after its sale to Steven A. Cohen) because the initial preservation process did not result in what looked like a real shark. In Hirst's words, "It didn't look as frightening. You could tell it wasn't real." To be specific, the body of the 14-foot shark had started to decompose, changing its form and wrinkling the skin. The current version -- a 13-foot shark -- was preserved using an alternative method.

Hirst's shark is not just displayed like animals are characteristically preserved in formaldehyde --such as those seen at a natural history museum -- but dramatically posed, so it looks alive and about to eat you. The water is blue; the shark is suspended so it looks like it's still swimming, and in the current version, the mouth has been opened wide, so you can easily see rows of sharp teeth and its deep throat. This is no subtle, psychological image like what we're used to in an art context but a very aggressive and realistic encounter. You react primally rather than intellectually. You might check to make sure the tank is secure, that the shark is really dead, and that there is enough room to run if neither are true.

Please feel free to contact me with your feedback, either here or on twitter. This is the fifth in a series of posts on individual artworks. Previous posts have concerned one of Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills, Jean-Michel Basquiat's Pegasus, 1987, Keith Haring's "Crack is Wack" mural and Banksy.