Breaking Down the Concept Behind Damien Hirst's Shark

Artwork(s) In Focus, Art History

August 4, 2019

The heterogeneous artistic practice of one of the best-selling artists on the entire globe, Damien Hirst, is based on the historical examples of Duchamp’s readymade, early post-war assemblage and Conceptual Art of the 1970s. The artist’s career came to prominence much faster than that of his peers from the Young British Artists generation, and so he gained fame with controversial hybrid works dominated by the motifs such as dots, skulls, and formaldehyde animals.

The early work which set the foundation for the upcoming success and critical acclaim for Hirst is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living or colloquially known as The Shark made by the artist in 1991. It is an actual tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine, and this installation was commissioned by Charles Saatchi who was willing to pay for whatever artwork Hirst wanted to produce. The animal was caught by a commissioned fisherman in Hervey Bay in Queensland, and the artist's desire was to have a specimen "big enough to eat you".

Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, A Shark in Formaldehyde
Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Image via Flickr

The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living

This Damien Hirst work was exhibited for the first time in 1992 as part of the Young British Artists show at the Saatchi Gallery, then located in north London. Alongside the shark, on display was also Hirst's artwork A Thousand Years; the same year the artist was nominated for the Turner Prize.

What makes this object so peculiar and staggering is the fact that the animal is depleted from its natural surrounding meaning that it is motionless, frozen and preserved. A large number of people have never seen a shark except on television or at an aquarium, so the work practically allows the audience to see it in a safe surrounding, and potentially face their abstracted fears.

Namely, this artwork opens up the question of how we interact with nature and other species, so the artist essentially becomes an intermediary of experience which makes this work operating on several levels – from a psychological perspective with human fears; from a zoological perspective with the features and characteristics of an animal; from the perspective of popular culture with the disturbing imagery; and finally from an artistic perspective with the broadening of the notion of an artwork.

Damien Hirst Shark - The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living

The Preservation And The Price of Damien Hirst Shark

Since the shark was initially not preserved well, it began deteriorating so the liquid changed color. Hirst claimed that decay was caused by bleach added by the Saatchi Gallery. The rooting original fourteen-foot tiger shark was replaced with a new specimen in 2006, and the process was supervised by a scientist and fish curator at London's Natural History Museum Oliver Crimmen. The animal was injected with formaldehyde, soaked for two weeks in a bath of 7% formalin solution, and was positioned in 1991 vitrine. On that occasion Hirst expressed his concerns whether the replacement of shark changes the work:

It's a big dilemma. Artists and conservators have different opinions about what's important: the original artwork or the original intention. I come from a conceptual art background, so I think it should be the intention. It's the same piece. But the jury will be out for a long time to come.

As it was mentioned, the work was initially funded by Charles Saatchi; Hirst paid £6,000 for the commissioned shark while the total cost of the work was £50,000. In 2004, Saatchi sold it to Steven A. Cohen for an unrevealed amount, and the odds are that it was a sum of at least $8 million.

Stuckism International Gallery - A Dead Shark Isnt Art
Stuckism International Gallery - A Dead Shark Isn't Art, 2003.

The Responses and Variants of Hirst's Sharks

In 2003 the Stuckism International Gallery displayed the shark which was displayed two years before Hirst's by Eddie Saunders in his London shop. The artists gathered around this movement claimed that Hirst probably got the idea for his installation from the shop display.

In 2004 while giving a lecture at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the art critic Robert Hughes used The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living as a solid proof that the international art market at the time was a cultural obscenity without specifically naming the work.

Despite the various critiques, in 2008 Hirst sold a variation of 1991 work titled The Kingdom at Sothebys auction for £9.6 million (more than £3 million above its estimate). The artist even produced a miniature version of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living for the Miniature Museum in the Netherlands - a guppy fish is located in a box (10 × 3.5 × 5 centimeters) filled with formaldehyde.

The Shark is undoubtedly saluted as one of the crucial works of British art in the 1990s and has become a symbol of Britart globally. In a period between 2007 and 2010, it was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and was even featured in one of the scenes of the British-Hungarian film The Nutcracker from 2009.

Whether we might argue it is bad or good art, or whether is it art at all, looking from current perspective it is apparent that The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living changed the course of 20th century art and moved its boundaries posing significant questions of interspecies communication, marine heritage, and human fears.

Editors’ Tip: Damien Hirst: Void

Damien Hirst has continually challenged the boundaries between art, science, the media and popular culture. A 12-foot tiger shark,a cow and her calf sawn in two, pharmacy bottles, house paint poured onto spinning canvases, cigarette butts, medicine cabinets, office furniture, medical instruments, butterflies and tropical fish, and, most recently, a diamond-encrusted skull are just some of the means Hirst employs to communicate his unflinching view of the ambiguity at the heart of human experience.

Featured image: Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1990. Image via Flickr.

Follow These Artists

Damien Hirst

Follow These Galleries


New York City, United States of America


Brooklyn, New York, United States of America

Puccio Fine Art

Water Mill, United States of America