Wednesday, August 13, 2008

rotting art

Damien Hirst's famous (Australian) shark in a tank, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), is of course no longer the "original". The first shark was replaced in 2006. Despite earlier attempts to maintain it, the shark had decomposed and lost its shape due to inappropriate preservation techniques. The fact that a new shark is in the tank doesn't make any important difference to the art — this isn't a case of substituting an inferior or forged artefact. Any shark will do as long as it looks powerful and threatening. In its perfectly preserved state the work deals sculpturally with the sublime.

The interesting point that the episode raises for me is the attempted halt by an artist to the natural process of decay. Its one thing to stick a shark in a tank, its quite another to attempt to preserve its menace against the ravages of time. The work is far more interesting for its failure to maintain ferocity. Not only beauty fades.

I still wonder if the sharks died for a worthwhile cause. Science and art alike take from the natural world what they will. I admire the form and the concept. But I am uncomfortable about their encapsulation in a work that destroyed the processes giving rise to both.

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