Damien Hirst’s Shark Explained

The Shark at the Metropolitan Museum The Shark at the Metropolitan Museum (Image courtesy of Art Siegel via Flickr).

Exhibited for the first time in 1992 as part of the Young British Artists show at the Saatchi Gallery, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (or The Shark, as it’s casually known) rocketed Damien Hirst (and an actual tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde) to worldwide fame amid a tidal wave of public acclaim and critical derision. 

This is the work that established Damien Hirst as a major presence in the art world. Today, The Shark and its formaldehyde-filled case is considered one of the most recognizable pieces of contemporary British art. It’s a format that Hirst continued to develop in the following decades, varying the size of the tank, and even replacing the original shark to push the artwork’s conceptual idea to the limit. 

Rocketing to fame riding a new wave of the Postmodern Young British Artists and with the support of advertising tycoon, Charles Saatchi, Hirst’s shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde both wowed and repulsed when it was first exhibited. Hirst said his work; “first came from a fear of everything in life being so fragile” and explained that he wanted “to make a sculpture where the fragility was encased… [and] exists in its own space.”

Condemned by critics for being a tool of immediate, frequently visceral sensations, it was embraced by audiences for the very same reason, as they delighted in marvelling at the fish out of water and the idea of a new, thrilling approach to art. Not only a high watermark for popular Postmodernism, the success of The Shark propelled Hirst to worldwide fame and notoriety. He became the richest living British artist according to a 2020 Sunday Times Rich List. His wealth is estimated to be $384 million, and it’s the cultural impact of The Shark that instigated his artistic and financial ascendency.

So, what is Damien Hirst’s Shark?

It’s an actual tiger shark. There’s no artistic or manufactured substitute. It was caught by a fisherman off the coast of Hervey Bay in Queensland, Australia. His brief from Hirst was to find a specimen “big enough to eat you”. Preserved in a 5% formaldehyde aqueous solution, the tiger shark hangs motionless in a thick steel-framed glass tank that’s roughly 7-foot by 17-foot by 7-foot. 

Damien Hirst - The Kingdom.

Damien Hirst – The Kingdom. Sold for £9,561,250 via Sotheby’s (Sept 2008).

Charles Saatchi, the advertising magnate and collector commissioned Hirst to make the piece for £50,000 (approximately $95,000 today). At the time that sum was considered so enormous that the British tabloid The Sun lampooned the fee with the headline “£50,000 for Fish Without Chips.’’

Despite not finding friends in the popular tabloid press, The Shark remained a sensation with the public, who revelled in the spine-tingling thrill of being in the presence of one of the world’s most fearsome predators, within the safe confines of an air conditioned museum. It also appealed to hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for a figure reported by the Saatchi Gallery as £6.5m ($8 million) in 2004. This was one of the highest prices at the time for a work of contemporary art. However, the only original piece that he purchased was the glass tank.

Is it original?

In short, no. No it’s not. It’s an entirely different shark to the original “big enough to eat you” tiger shark. It all started with the inadequate preservation of the shark when first exhibited and over time the original decomposed until the formaldehyde solution started to go murky, the shark’s skin wrinkled, and it started to lose its domineering shape. According to staff members at Mr. Hirst’s studio, this was exacerbated by the fact that Saatchi Gallery added bleach to the solution, which hastened the decay. So, just a year after it was first exhibited in 1992, the shark was skinned and stretched over a fiberglass mold by Mr. Saatchi’s curators. “It didn’t appear to be as terrifying,” explained Hirst “It was fake, that much was clear. It was weightless.” Such was The Shark’s poor condition that is was even rejected for exhibition by The Louvre in Paris during this time.

Damien Hirst - Away From the Flock, Divided.

Damien Hirst – Away From the Flock, Divided. Sold on for $3,376,000 via Christie’s (May 2006).

And this is how the shark remained – as a shadow of its former fearsome self – until it was sold to Steven A. Cohen in late 2004 in a deal brokered by the Gagosian Gallery. Surprisingly, when Hirst heard of Cohen’s wish to buy the 22-ton work, he offered to replace the shark. The whole artwork. Cohen even agreed to pay the cost of the replacement, which he called “immaterial”. The formaldehyde preservation process cost over $100.000. Explaining his decision, Hirst said, “I frequently work on things after a collector has them. I recently called a collector who owns a fly painting because I didn’t like the way it looked, so I changed it slightly.’’

Like James Bond, the shark would seamlessly assume a new identity, as a new one was caught off the coast of Queensland. The female shark was around 25 years old (middle-aged for a shark) when caught and preserved in 2006 with the help of Oliver Crimmen, a biologist and marine conservator from the Natural History Museum, London. To avoid the same mistakes of preservation, formaldehyde was pumped into the shark before it was bathed in a seven percent formalin solution for two weeks. It was then restored to its original 1991 glass tank.

Momentous in his decision to replace the decaying artwork, Hirst was fully aware of the artistic quandary in which he placed himself. “It’s a big dilemma,’’ he said. “Artists and conservators have different opinions about what’s important: the original artwork or the original intention. 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.’’

Similarly, Hirst’s sentiments were echoed by Cohen, who argued that the rules that apply to a painting cannot be applied to the Postmodern shark. “We’re dealing with a conceptual idea,’’ he said. “The whole point is the boldness of the shark. Damien felt strongly that this was the best option.’’

What does it mean?

Damien Hirst - Mother and Child Divided

Damien Hirst – Mother and Child Divided (Image courtesy of Bosc d’Anjou via Flickr).

Art historians might well argue for decades to come about the legitimacy of an artwork that’s been replaced, but as Cohen stated at the time of his purchase, the conceptual idea remains, along with the original glass tank. 

Bold, striking, and fearsome, The Shark frightened and captivated audiences enraptured by the spine-tingling thrill of standing directly in front of one of the planet’s most fearsome predators, but safely removed from danger, just like in a horror movie. With its teeth bared and muscular frame there for all to see, the reaction to its unveiling was immediate, raw, and visceral, as many people had never seen the fish quite so out of water.

It’s a strange, captivating, and astounding artwork, made all the more fascinating by the fact that it’s been removed from its natural environment and placed motionless and weightless in its glass display tank. The fact that it’s frozen in place and motionless gives viewers only used to seeing sharks on TV or within the an aquarium the unusual opportunity to fully absorb the powerful creature from every angle. This allows the viewer to reconsider the shark from a new perspective and think about how we view the animal. 

Confronting the materiality and realism of Hirst’s work is not just a voyeuristic thrill, as it also aims to reframe basic problems about the nature of existence and the frailty of physiological existence. Death is never far from much of Hirst’s art and that’s perfectly evident here. The display case acts as a portal and a barrier. It brings the shark to life, while also confining and objectifying his material.

The idea of inevitable death lurks behind much of Hirst’s art, exposing a desire to protect (usually animals in a glass tank) and a fear of death. The Impossible Lovers (1991) features glass jars in a cabinet filled with cow organs, while sharks again feature Myth Explored, Explained, Exploded (1993), calves in Cain and Abel (1994) and Mother and Child Divided (1993), fish in Love is Blind (2008) and Saint Philip (2005), and sheep in Away From Her/Flock (1994). 

What Style, Movement or Genre does The Shark belong to?

Along with his fellow Young British Artists, Damien Hirst announced himself to the world with a notorious willingness to shock at the 1998 Freeze exhibition he organised (a play on words, referring unheated warehouse in which the exhibition was held, and in reference to Frieze, the art magazine and fairs). The exhibition not only transformed British art, but also lifted his fellow exhibitors to fame and showcased his artistic influences, ranging from Duchamp’s readymades, to early post-war assemblage, and Conceptual Art of the 1970s.

Characterized by an open approach to process and materials that resulted in a tiger shark in a 14 foot glass tank, the Postmodern roots of Hirst’s work can be traced to the Fine Art course at Goldsmiths College, London, where the traditional segregation of artistic training into painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture was abandoned in favor of mixed studios.

The Shark instigated a monumental turning point for British art and proved to be a cash cow (pun intended) for Hirst, and the YBAs. While it would eventually turn into something resembling an entrepreneurial exercise for Hirst, his early work spearheaded a revolution that smashed elitist barriers surrounding art, transformed national awareness, and aggressively flung British contemporary art onto the international map.

Distinctly Postmodern in its destruction of the distinction between high and low culture, Hirst’s art embodied more than one aspect of the Postmodernism that dominated art of the 1980s and 90s in Europe and America. They both shared the use of appropriation, a rejection of traditional fine art materials, and a media savvy focus on spectacle, while the conceptual nature of The Shark was confirmed when Hirst replaced the original shark, pushing the expectation of what constitutes art to its limit in a typically rebellious fashion.

And, like Postmodernism, there is no one style or approach to Hirst’s art. There’s a willingness to shock with outrageous imagery (For the Love of God used a real human skull) and a desire to stretch the limits of decency (Sensation is a portrait of child mass-murderer Myra Hindley, made using children’s handprints and was vandalized when first exhibited), which were all seized upon by a derogatory UK press. Turning expectation on its head, the negative coverage was central to Hirst’s success, as it allowed him to shock a mainstream audience and push the boundaries of taste into the suburbs. He’s a master provocateur and made an art form of this conceptual process, which also made impossibly wealthy.   

Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Damien Hirst – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Image courtesy of Art Siegel on Flickr.

The Legacy of Hirst’s Shark 

The Shark is unquestionably praised as one of the key pieces of British art from the 1990s and has come to represent Brit art across the world. It altered the direction of 20th-century art and expanded its limits, raising important concerns about interspecies interaction, marine biodiversity, and human anxieties in the process.

Hirst uses a variety of media to convey his unwavering view of the ambiguity at the core of the human experience, including a 12-foot tiger shark, half a cow, drug store containers, house paint pumped onto rotating canvases, cigarette butts, office and surgical equipment, insects, and a diamond-encrusted skull.

Controversy and success are inseparable for Hirst, which all began with The Shark. A shrewd businessman, Hirst transformed early fame into a Postmodern personal brand that’s relentlessly enterprising and commercial in its approach to art. It’s not only his contemporaries, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin, who have mentioned Hirst’s impact on their work, but Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons have even cited his influence. Perhaps the most prominent artist of recent decades, such is Hirst’s success that his work helped to establish the Tate Modern, London in 2000 (he donated a number of his works, including The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living). Tate Modern has since become the most-attended modern art museum in the world.

Perhaps Hirst’s biggest legacy, though, is his ability to commodify his art and revolutionize an artist’s ability to make money. Once upon a punk of the art world rebelling against form and convention, Hirst is now firmly established at the top of the art world and one of the richest artists on the planet, showing that rebellion can not only further ideas of conceptual Postmodernism, but that it’s also incredibly lucrative business too. 

Sources: Widewalls | Daily Art Magazine | Art In Context | Medium | NY Times | The Art Story | Tate | The Art Newspaper | The Guardian | Independent