If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:7:49

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

Video transcript

so we're looking at one of my favorite works of art from the last 30 or 40 years this is Damien Hirst and I'll admit that one of my favorite aspects of this work is its title I feel like just those words could be a work of art I mean I'm not even looking at the shark the idea of the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living and there's different ways to parse that actually it's either wordplay or deep and I haven't figured that out yet it strikes me is this great truth the impossibility of really coming to terms with death as someone who's living in many ways the history of art is coming to terms with mortality of transcending the physical body of the afterlife art through history has dealt with big questions this is a work of art taking on those big questions I agree with you about the title the title I'm going to think about it all day and that's why we're so afraid of death because just can't process it but what we're looking at is I'm assuming a non-living shark looks like a very large shark and a tank but what am I looking at actually it's a real shark that was caught and killed and suspended in a tank of formaldehyde it's stationary although it looks like it's moving it is stationary and it's in a kind of beautiful tank something that the artist is sort of framing the shark in for us to see it and so I mean but just go back to I guess both the title and it being a work of art and I'm starting to appreciate I mean because you know you could put this in a Natural History Museum this is a shark this is what a shark looks like study it it's like a stuffed bison or what will you mammoth or something but it I mean the title combined with this makes me think I mean there's some obvious things here it's dead I mean I can I can interpret it I just feel like I'd be making up stuff though I think that's part of the idea when artists make things in the 20th and the 21st century they're more open to interpretation than art in the Renaissance we're looking at art which is meant to be kind of open to interpretation it's not just what the artist said it meant but we're allowed to bring our own ideas and associations to it to fill out its meaning to complete it in fact Duchamp said that a work of art is completed by the viewer so let's talk about our associations with it yes we're almost challenged that it's physically impossible to comprehend death in the mind of a living I I believe I'm living so based on the title like is Kent I'm being told that I can't comprehend death and I'm done I'm just being faced with death right there I've been faced with a very big version of death on kind of multiple dimensions I mean there's the the shark is dead although it looks like it's swimming but but it's also something that could kill me if I were as and you know this has post the movie Jaws so the shark you know there's a few animals that occur to humans as something scary more than a big shark and when you stand in front of this it's scary to look at like oh my god I'm very close to something that could kill me and I guess you your brain keeps going back and forth am i really processing death here or am i fearful of this thing that I can't process and that's why I'm afraid of well why couldn't he put a tiger and maybe he could him he just discharged to use a shark or a shark is more convincing or just differ I mean he does use other animals this is famous series where he slices sheep lengthwise and puts them in tanks this is not the original shark in other words this sculpture now has a second shark because the first one dissolved despite the formaldehyde it decayed and the formaldehyde of course is trying to maintain the intact nough so the shark and perhaps even its viciousness and this notion of its living this but we fail you know this still dissolves this still in the sense even was that that wasn't by design though he intended this to be a permanent I think he is struggling to keep this shark intact that's exactly right but we don't have the means to do that but who isn't struggling to keep them but here I'm feeling that there's a I guess I haven't completely bought this layer of interpretation because this feels like a completely inadvertent side-effect of ha the fact that he put a shark in formaldehyde to me implies that he was hoping that this would be around for a long time his design didn't hold up to time and so it's kind of falling apart I mean but that wasn't the artists intention well it's interesting by the time we get to the late 20th century artists are well versed in this idea of the impermanence of our Beth set a minute ago that art for its entire history has tried to transcend human death and in fact one of the definitions one of the philosophical definitions of what a work of art is is something that outlives us that is transgenerational but here's something that is not paints here's something that's not marble here's something that is flesh like we are and yet there is this vain attempt to have it outlive us and it doesn't I think he knew yes it wasn't just a design flaw I mean I stuck this an amber or something there's too much there's too much art that has changed over time for him not to know he's too sophisticated to know that this would have been an event you know the ancient Egyptians mummified bodies amoenus there's a whole history of human beings trying to stop time we all know that you know we can use our best chemicals we can do plastic surgery we can do all sorts of things and nothing is going to stop the inevitability I mean he could have stuck at an amber or something and then that much more prison flower would have been or or he could have done something much more traditional which is he could have represented a shark and made it more permanent in that one right right right but by choosing the thing itself he created the impossibility of its own preservation yeah I mean my brain just keeps going back and forth once again the title by itself is all you need so you have that whole conceptual dimension but then you have this absolutely physical dimension and you have this clash between that physical and that poetic it's in that contradiction it's in that confrontation that I think the art really exists yeah I don't think it's just in the title is lovely and really speaks to me I admit it but the title together with this sculpture is a really complicated experience I feel like there should almost be a new type of museum called a philosophy museum I mean especially if you look at like a classical art museum it is I mean it is about the history and the conversation that people are having and that but but it is a lot about aesthetics and it seems like MIT that may be actually modern art should be called philosophical art or a Museum of philosophy because it really is and even the word museum I feel is wrong because museum seems to be let's preserve something that someone else has created while it seems like a lot of this modern art is really about kind of put the philosophy in your face right now without an answer I I don't know whether I'm being hoodwinked or not I think that question about sort of always being a little bit worried about this being a kind of grand joke in some way is always there and it's something that gets given voice quite a bit in part because in art now almost nothing is off-limits and artists find ways of asking profound questions about things that can be very mundane or seem overtly silly but can actually or intentionally shock you absolutely I think in some ways the art world asks for that cynicism but on the other hand that doesn't mean that profound ideas aren't being asked