The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991

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Damien Hirst

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

1991

Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution

2170 x 5420 x 1800 mm | 85.5 x 213.4 x 70.9 in

Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Exhibitions (5)

Solo Exhibition - 2012
Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom
Group Exhibition - 2007
Kunsthaus Bregenz, Bregenz, Austria
Solo Exhibition - 2003
The Saatchi Gallery, London, United Kingdom
Group Exhibition - 1997
Royal Academy of Arts, London, United Kingdom
Group Exhibition - 1992
Saatchi Collection, London, United Kingdom

Context

‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ has become embedded in popular culture as one of the most iconic images of contemporary art. Conceived by Hirst in 1989 whilst at Goldsmiths, the ‘Natural History’ work consists of a thirteen-foot tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, weighing a total of 23 tons. The shark is contained within a steel and glass vitrine three times longer than high and divided into three cubes. 

According to the artist, the title was, “just a statement that I had used to describe the idea of death to myself”. Thought of prior to the sculpture, it was taken from Hirst’s student thesis on Hyperreality and the work of Robert Longo and Umberto Eco. Hirst recalls liking the title’s poetic clumsiness because of the way it expressed, “something that wasn’t there, or was there”.[1]

The sculpture, which successfully pushed the boundaries of contemporary art, generated colossal press attention when exhibited at The Saatchi Gallery’s ‘YBA 1’ at Boundary Road in London (1991). Explaining “I didn’t just want a lightbox, or a painting of a shark” Hirst’s intention was to force the viewer out of their element by introducing into a gallery setting, a shark that was “real enough to frighten you”.[2] By isolating the shark from its natural habitat, with the formaldehyde providing an illusion of life, the work explores our greatest fears, and the difficulty involved in adequately trying to express them. As Hirst states: “You try and avoid [death], but it’s such a big thing that you can’t. That’s the frightening thing isn’t it?”[3]

In 1997 ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ was included in ‘Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection’ at the Royal Academy, London. A decade later, Hirst chose the work as the focal piece in ‘Re-Object’ (Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2007) – in which Hirst, Jeff Koons and Gerhard Merz each presented an artist’s statement in an exhibition exploring the influence of Marcel Duchamp.



[1] Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, ‘On the Way to Work’ (Faber and Faber, 2001), 19

[2] Quoted in ‘The Truth About Art’ (ZCZ Films, Channel 4, 1998); , ‘I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now’ (Booth-Clibborn Editions; Reduced edition, 2005), 32; Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, ‘On the Way to Work’ (Faber and Faber, 2001), 19

[3] Damien Hirst, ‘We’re Here for a Good Time, not a Long Time’, Interview with Alastair Sooke, The Telegraph, 2011