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

Beth Harris, Sal Khan and Steven Zucker discuss the Damien Hirst sculpture, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and issues of interpretation. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Sal Khan.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Beth: We're looking at one of my favorite works of art, from the last 30 or 40 years. This is Damien Hirst. I'll admit that one of my favorite aspects of this work, is its title. Male voiceover: I feel like just those words could be a work of art. I'm not even looking at the shark. The idea of the "Physical Impossibility of Death," "in the Mind of Someone Living." There's different ways to parse that, actually. It's either word play or deep. I haven't figured that out yet. Beth: It strikes me as 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 a 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. Make voiceover: I agree with you about the title. That title, I'm going to think about it all day. I mean, that's why we're so afraid of death. We just can't process it. What we're looking at is, I'm assuming, a non-living shark. Looks like a very large shark, in a tank. What am I looking at, actually? Beth: It's a real shark that was caught and killed, and suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. Make voiceover: It's stationary, although it looks like it's moving. Beth: It is stationary. It's in a kind of beautiful tank. Something that the artist is sort of framing the shark in, for us to see it. Male voiceover: Just go back to, I guess, both the title, and it being a work of art. I'm just trying to appreciate. 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 wooly mammoth or something. The title, combined with this, makes me think. There's some obvious things here. It's dead. I can interpret it. I just feel like I'd be making up stuff though. Beth: I think that's part of the idea. When artists make things in the 20th and 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. 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." Let's talk about our associations with it. Male voiceover: Yes, we're almost challenged, that it's physically impossible to comprehend death, in the mind of a living. I believe I'm living. Based on the title, I'm being told that I can't comprehend death. Then 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. The shark is dead, although it looks like it's swimming. It's also something that could kill me. This is post the movie Jaws, so there's few animals that occur to humans as something scary, more than a big shark. Beth: Yeah, when you stand in front of this, it's scary to look at. Male voiceover: It's like, "Oh my God," "I'm very close to something that could kill me." I guess 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 what I'm afraid of?" Why couldn't he have put a tiger? Maybe he could have. He just chose to use a shark. A shark is more convincing or it's just diff ... Male voiceover: He does use other animals. There's a 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. The formaldehyde, of course, is trying to maintain the intactness of the shark, and, perhaps, even its viciousness. This notion of its livingness. We fail. This still dissolves. This still, in a sense, even with that shark ... Male voiceover: That wasn't by design though. He intended this to be a permanent. Male voiceover: I think he is struggling to keep this shark intact. That's exactly right. We don't have the means to do that. Beth: Who isn't struggling to keep themselves intact? Male voiceover: I haven't completely bought this layer of interpretation. This feels like a completely inadvertent side effect. 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. It's kind of falling apart. That wasn't the artist's intention. Male voiceover: 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 art. Beth said a minute ago, that art for its entire history has tried to transcend human death. 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. Male voiceover: Yeah. Male voiceover: Here is something that is not paints. Here's something that's not marble. Here's something that is flesh like we are. Yet, there is this vain attempt to have it outlive us and it doesn't. Beth: I think he knew. Yeah. Male voiceover: It wasn't just a design flaw. He could have stuck this in amber or something. Male voiceover: There's too much art that has changed over time, for him not to know. He's too sophisticated. Male voiceover: To know that this would have been kind of a ... Beth: The ancient Egyptians mummified bodies. There's a whole history of human beings trying to stop time. We all know that we can use our best chemicals, we can do plastic surgery, we can do all sorts of things. Nothing is going to stop the inevitability of decay. Male voiceover: Yeah. He could have stuck it in amber or something, and been that much more preserved. Beth: Would have been even slower. Male voiceover: It would have been, yes. Yes. Male voiceover: Or he could have done something much more traditional, which is, he could have represented a shark, and made it more permanent in that way. Male voiceover: Right, right, right. Male voiceover: By choosing the thing itself, he created the impossibility of its own preservation. Male voiceover: Yeah, my brain just keeps going back and forth. Once again, the title by itself is all you need. Male voiceover: 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. Beth: Yeah, I don't think it's just in the title. The title is lovely and really speaks to me, I admit it. But the title together, with the sculpture, is a really complicated experience. Male voiceover: I feel like there should almost be a new type of museum, called a philosophy museum. Especially if you look at a classical art museum. It is about the history and the conversation that people are having, but it is a lot about aesthetics. Maybe, actually, modern art should be called philosophical art, or a museum of philosophy. It really is, even the word museum, I feel, is wrong. 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, put the philosophy in your face, right now without an answer. I don't know whether I'm being hoodwinked or not. Male voiceover: I think that question about always being a little bit worried, about this being a kind of grand joke in some way, is always there. It's something that gets given voice quite a bit. In part because in art now, almost nothing is off limits. Artists find ways of asking profound questions, about things that can be very mundane. Or seem overtly silly but can actually be ... Male voiceover: Or intentionally shocking. Male voiceover: Absolutely. I think, in some ways, the art world asks for that cynicism. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that profound ideas aren't being asked. (piano music)