“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is Frightening But Also Very Philosophical

Damien Hirst's famous sculpture challenges us to contemplate death and its meaning
Frontal view of a shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde

Credit: clc.sllf.qmul.ac.uk

Damien Hirst is a world-renowned contemporary artist who specializes in creating works that shock the senses. His 1991 sculpture titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is perhaps the best example of his shocking brand of art.

The piece is considered a “natural history” work. It consists of a once-living, 13-foot-long tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. The sculpture weighs upwards of 23 tons. As with all art, the meaning behind the work can be dissected and pulled apart by the viewer, and this piece conjures up endless ideas about the nature of death. As the title suggests, we as living beings cannot truly grasp the meaning of death. And so the title can mean as much, if not more, than the sculpture itself.

Shark displayed in a tank of formaldehyde to symbolize the mystery of death

Credit: travelblog.org

One can argue that by calling his sculpture “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” Hirst is challenging us to comprehend death. He’s telling us we can’t fathom the eternal slumber known as “death,” even though we are face-to-face with a dead animal.

That he chose a shark speaks volumes as well. We can literally look something in the eye that would be able to end our lives if we were in its natural habitat. But the thing that could kill us is what’s dead, not us. The meanings behind the shark are endless. The shark’s mouth is also wide open, suggesting that it is lunging toward us, ready to devour us whole.

We Cannot Escape Decay

Hirst’s choice to use formaldehyde is also very interesting. As it happens, the original shark began to decay after 10-plus years in the formaldehyde tank. In 2006 a new specimen replaced the original shark. It has been debated whether or not Hirst used a weak formaldehyde solution knowing that it wouldn’t last. If his intention was for the original body to decay, then it could be seen as another futile human effort to halt the inevitability of decay.

The decision to replace that original shark was met with a fair amount of criticism. Hirst himself acknowledged the dilemma of whether or not it could be considered the same piece as the original.

Woman taking a photo of "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"

Credit: darkroom.baltimoresun.com

“Artists and conservators have different opinions about what’s important: the original artwork or the original intention,” Hirst said in a New York Times interview from 2006. “ I come from a conceptual art background, so I think it should be the intention. It’s the same piece. But the jury will be out for a long time to come.’’

For this kind of piece, I think that intention should definitely be considered the more important aspect. Hirst is making the case that even though death is ever-present and we are constantly reminded of it, we really can’t understand its meaning. “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is philosophical at its core. To come face-to-face with something that is dead, something that, were it living, could end your own life, is a very thought-provoking and, ultimately, frightening thing.

Check out the video below to hear an interesting discussion about the piece and its meaning.


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