Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"
This post contains Affiliate Links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn through qualifying purchases.
“I was taught to confront things you can’t avoid. Death is one of those things. To live in a society where you’re trying not to look at it is stupid because looking at death throws us back into life with more vigour and energy. The fact that flowers don’t last forever makes them beautiful.” - Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst is reportedly the United Kingdom’s wealthiest artist. A central figure in the Young British Artist movement, Hirst’s work has often involved a shock factor. Most famously, in the early 1990s, Hirst unveiled, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The piece features a 14-foot tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde.
There’s a lot to unpack here. The work’s title, which some argue is the most impressive part of the work, implies that none of us can really see death. We try to understand it but as a living person, we can’t really see it.
The shark is motionless, with its mouth open and ready. We come face to face with death itself. For me, the piece invokes both fear and a bizarre sense of calm. The formaldehyde is blue. The case made of cold steel and glass. Roberta Smith famously wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Hirst often aims to fry the mind (and misses more than he hits), but he does so by setting up direct, often visceral experiences, of which the shark remains the most outstanding. In keeping with the piece’s title, the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank.”
But does this work stand the test of time? It quite literally did not. The shark floating in Hirst’s tank was hunted and killed off the coast of Australia for the sole purpose of Hirst’s artwork (there’s actually a running tally of how many animals have died for Hirst’s work.) Hirst’s stipulation for the shark was reportedly, “big enough to eat you.” And because the shark was poorly preserved and began decaying, a second tiger shark was captured and killed in 2006 to replace the original decaying shark, which was a whole controversy in itself about art that can be so easily replicated and whether changing the shark, changes the work entirely. Hirst 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 some time.”
So how in the world do you explain any of this to a 5 year old? Why would you?
When I decided to do a Shark Week again, I instantly remembered learning about The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living in an art history class in college and I knew that I wanted to study it with Mr. J. It’s very different than the lighthearted work we’ve studied recently in John Bramblitt and Jason Mecier. This piece is heavy, it’s controversial. But I was excited to share it with Mr. J. Personally I have very mixed feelings about this piece. From a moral and ethical standpoint, I’m offended by the hunting and killing of the shark for Hirst’s work. But I also do see the beauty in the obscene here. It’s a powerful piece.
We began the conversation by talking about how the piece made us feel. I kept my opinions to myself and Mr. J immediately remarked how “it wasn’t nice to kill the shark because sharks are important.” I explained that lots of people agree with Mr. J. Sharks are important and millions of sharks are killed by people each year which poses a threat to our ecosystem.
But I played Devil’s Advocate a bit and explained that we don’t have to like every piece of art we see but that doesn’t necessarily make it “bad.” We can try to understand what story the artist is trying to tell through their art and that sometimes making us feel shocked or surprised is a part of the art in itself.
We then talked about other ways Hirst could have potentially told his story. Mr. J said he could have “made” the shark which was a great segue into our art project, a diorama and sculpture influenced by Hirst’s work. I explained to Mr. J that he could recreate Hirst’s shark in a box in any way he wanted and I’m pretty blown away by what he created!
Shoebox or other small box
1. Using air dry clay, invite your child to sculpt a shark. We used Crayola air dry clay and I’m so pleased with the quality of it! It worked great and Mr. J really enjoyed using this medium for the first time.
We had learned a lot about shark anatomy over our Shark Week so Mr. J was excited to put that knowledge into practice. He showed me the first dorsal fin up top and I was so impressed when he remembered that sharks have gills and used his fingernail to make “gills” on his shark.
He also made some other sculptures because he was enjoying working with the clay so much. I especially loved that he decided to make a shark tooth model as well after our shark tooth dig kit!
2. Once the shark is sculpture is complete, a helpful adult should use a sewing needle to make a whole through the middle of the body of the shark. This is what you’ll use to thread the fishing line through to suspend the shark in its tank.
3. Next, invite your child to paint their tank (the shoebox) in any way they choose. Here, Mr. J decided he wanted his tank to be more like the ocean with waves and colorful coral on the floor.
Yes, he's wearing a bowtie to create art. He picks out his own clothes and I just love it.
4. Let both pieces dry overnight.
5. Measure out how far down you want the shark to hang in the box and cut a piece of fishing line accordingly. Thread the fishing line through the shark and secure the fishing line to the inside top of the box. I used gaffers tape on ours. You could also probably poke a hole through the top of box to thread it through instead.
6. Encourage your child to come up with a name for their work! Mr. J named his piece "Hand." I'm not sure what his motivation was behind the title but I think it's pretty poetic since he made this shark with his own hands.
Bonus project: We found a great step-by-step how-to draw a shark video on YouTube we enjoyed as well!
I hope you’re enjoying Shark Week with your kids! You can find more activities and lesson ideas in my full Shark Week post here!