The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
The shark has landed. On Tuesday Damien Hirst’s killing-machine-in-a-box begins its three-year stay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It lies in wait on the second floor, close to a bank of south-facing windows, entombed in a steel-and-glass tank that suggests a collaboration between Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. On sunny days the light should intensify the azure cast of the 4,360 gallons of formaldehyde. After dusk, when I saw it, the window reflects the tank back at you, doubling the piece into a shark gantlet.
How does it look? Weird. Usually “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” as the sculpture is formally titled, is seen in like-minded company. A few of Mr. Hirst’s sliced-up cows and sheep would set the stage, or works by his fellow Young British Artist, or Y.B.A., shock jocks.
On its own the shark looks a bit tamer than usual, though at the Met, of course, it still shocks. If you passed it at the American Museum of Natural History across Central Park, you might not look twice.
Gary Tinterow, the Met’s curator of 19th-century, Modern and contemporary art, who brought the shark here, emphasizes its art status by hanging three shark-themed paintings from the museum’s collection in the gallery. Two are American: a late-18th-century anonymous copy of John Singleton Copley’s famous rescue drama “Watson and the Shark,” and Winslow Homer’s “Gulf Stream” (1899), which shows a black sailor adrift on a hurricane-battered fishing boat encircled by sharks.
The third and most appropriate is “Head I” (1947-8), by the British painter Francis Bacon, a recent bequest to the Met. Bacon’s interest in twisted flesh and howling mouths is often cited as an influence on Mr. Hirst, and “Head I” fills the bill. Its central gray mound is featureless except for an upturned, gaping, sharp-toothed mouth that is more than a little sharklike and also echoes Picasso’s monstrous “Olga” paintings of the late 1920s.
Some have argued that Steven A. Cohen, the owner of the Hirst shark, is using the Met to increase the work’s value and fame, but it seems more like the other way around. The display advertises the Met’s intention to be a player of sorts in the feeding frenzy surrounding the new and the next.
The shark is a symbol of the onset of this frenzy. Made on commission in 1991 for the collector Charles Saatchi, it is synonymous with the Y.B.A. art scene, from which descend, arguably and with some simplification, Mr. Saatchi’s controversial “Sensation” exhibition, the Tate Modern, the Frieze Art Fair and the bustling London art market that the fair has fostered. (There have been no Y.B.A.’s like the first Y.B.A.’s, but never mind.)
If the shark is a beginning, perhaps the peak (and beginning of the downward spiral) is Mr. Hirst’s latest controversial artwork, the diamond-encrusted platinum skull shown in London this summer. It seems like the perfect summation of our wasteful, high-priced, oblivious moment, an implicitly regal 21st-century equivalent of Cellini’s gold saltcellar.
But the Met means to be hip, if only in its fashion. At 16, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is a golden oldie. It suggests that the museum intends to show only unquestionably anointed art, preferably at least a decade after its anointment. If you want to accuse the Met of letting itself be used to inflate contemporary-art values, a recent show of brand-new paintings by Neo Rauch would make a better example.
Will the shark attract a new audience to the Met? Maybe. Is it worth the trip? Definitely. Mr. Hirst’s detractors accuse him of being a Conceptual artist, with the implication (misguided even for most genuine Conceptual art) that you don’t need to see the work in person. 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. It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form.
The shark in the tank is a recent replacement of the original, which more or less disintegrated. It is smaller but more fierce, and it seems to surge forward, ready to pounce on some unseen prey just beyond the tank. If you bend down and peer through its sharply jagged teeth, you’ll be looking past the pure white mouth at the large black hole of its gullet. It’s a reasonable visual metaphor for the crossing-over that we think will never happen.
“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.