Art History Lab

Mortality, Art, and Environmental Ethics: Examining Damien Hirst’s Shark in Formaldehyde

Introduction to Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst is one of the most influential artists of the modern era. He is renowned for his unconventional approach to art, which has challenged traditional notions of aesthetics, beauty, and mortality.

Hirst’s work spans a wide range of media, including installations, sculptures, painting, and sketching. His art is both thought-provoking and visually compelling, full of symbolism and creative themes.

Hirst’s Creative Approach and Influences

Hirst’s art is heavily influenced by his exposure to Concept Art, which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement was characterized by a focus on ideas, rather than formal aesthetics.

Hirst’s interest in Concept Art is evident in his use of readymade objects, such as the shark in formaldehyde and the diamond skull. Hirst was also part of the Young British Artists group, which included artists such as Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas.

This group gained international recognition in the 1990s for their provocative and unconventional approach to art. Hirst’s involvement in this movement helped to further popularize his work and cement his status as a leading contemporary artist.

Hirst’s Diverse Practice and Exploration of Human Experiences

Hirst’s art is diverse in both its subject matter and execution. His work ranges from large-scale installations, such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, to smaller, more intimate pieces such as the butterfly and spin painting series.

Hirst’s art often explores themes related to human experiences, particularly those related to mortality. For example, his flower paintings use the traditional symbol of the fleeting nature of life to explore the transience of beauty and life itself.

Similarly, his butterfly installations, which use dead butterflies, are a commentary on the fleeting and fragile nature of existence.

The Shark in Formaldehyde Artwork

One of Hirst’s most iconic works is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. This artwork features a 14-foot tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde.

The piece was created in 1991 and was initially funded by Charles Saatchi, a prominent British art collector. The shark was caught by a fisherman in Queensland, Australia, and was purchased by Saatchi for around 6,000.

Hirst then used the shark to create his artwork, which was exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 1992. The artwork generated a significant amount of controversy and sparked debates about the definition of art and the role of shock value in contemporary art.

The concept behind The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is both simple and complex. On the one hand, it is a commentary on mortality and the fragility of life.

However, it is also a statement about the nature of art itself. By placing a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde, Hirst is elevating a common object to the status of art and commenting on the subjective nature of artistic value.


Damien Hirst’s artwork is full of creative themes and thought-provoking messages. His approach to art challenges traditional notions of aesthetics, beauty, and mortality.

Hirst’s work is a testament to the power of art to provoke conversations and inspire new ways of thinking. By exploring the diverse and complex themes in his art, we can gain new insights into the human experience and the role of art in contemporary society.

Deterioration and Substitution of the Shark

Hirst’s Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is an artwork that invites viewers to reflect on the concept of mortality, the nature of art and animals, and the possibility of an interspecies interaction. However, the artwork is not immune to the ravages of time.

Despite the initial claim that the shark would be preserved indefinitely, the original shark deteriorated due to inadequate preservation techniques. The murky fluid in the tank caused the shark’s skin to slowly decay and eventually become discolored.

The use of bleaching agents further accelerated the process of breakdown, causing the shark to slowly bleach into an unrecognizable white color. Hirst, realizing the inevitable deterioration of the original shark, made the decision to replace it with a new one in 2006.

This shift sparked heated debates among art enthusiasts and critics alike as to whether the replacement shark could still hold the same value and significance as the original. The conservation of the original shark was highly challenging, and Hirst admits that he used a DIY preservation technique in an attempt to preserve the specimen.

However, it was not until the artwork was acquired by Steven A. Cohen in 2005 that conservation specialists were called in to restore the piece.

They identified the fluid in the tank as the primary cause of damage to the shark and replaced it with a new one. The new shark was, however, a female, which was a minor compromise that garnered little response compared to the replacement of the shark itself.

To date, the artwork endures in the Saatchi Gallery, still inspiring conversations and provoking thought.

Response to the Shark Artwork

Hirst’s Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living has generated mixed reactions and heated debates from art critics, animal rights activists, and environmentalists. One of the main criticisms of the artwork is that it is an act of cultural obscenity that glorifies the killing of marine life.

They argue that in a world that is fighting to conserve biodiversity, Hirst’s art fails to promote kindness towards animals and the environment. Other criticisms of the artwork are that it represents a trend in contemporary art that uses deceased animals as part of the aesthetic value.

However, what is often forgotten is that Hirst’s installation intended to spark introspection on the continuum of life and death, the transience of life, and how art, by its nature, can freeze a moment in time. Despite the criticisms, the artwork remains a landmark of contemporary British art, having been acquired by Charles Saatchi, bought back by Hirst, and then bought again by Steven A.

Cohen. The artwork’s impact has also gone beyond the confines of Great Britain, representing a global representation of new art.

Moreover, the artwork’s impact goes beyond the debate on art or animal rights. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living prompts viewers to see the shark as both an object and a living creature, throwing open the conversation about the relationship between humans and non-human animals.

Furthermore, the artwork is also a meditation on the fragility of life and mortality, themes that are significant across cultures and economies. What is lost in the debate surrounding the artwork’s ethical or artistic value is the fact that Hirst’s creation is an emotional confrontation between an individual and their mortality.

It is a confrontation that is common to all living beings, a confrontation that might be the same regarding the passing of friends or relatives.


In conclusion, Hirst’s Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a complex artwork that has continued to fascinate and perplex audiences for decades. It has sparked debates about the nature of art, the ethics of using animals in art, and the significance of environmental conservation.

Above all, it endures as an artwork that highlights the transience of life and our collective responsibility to make the most of the time we have.

Interpretation of the Shark Artwork

Hirst’s Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living depicts a frozen moment in time, as if the shark is forever suspended in a vacuum. The artwork’s preserved nature invites reflections on themes such as existence, life coupled with death, and the human perception of other creatures that surround us.

The artwork offers a direct experience that challenges the viewer to reconsider their view of the shark from a living being to a mere object. The artwork captures the moment of transition from life to death and challenges individuals to confront a shared human experience of death.

Hirst’s shark is no longer living, but it is not quite dead either, for it remains a physical reminder of the magnificent and potent creatures that inhabit our oceans and that are continuously threatened by human actions. Furthermore, the artwork can be seen as an act of isolation, both physical and existential.

The shark is frozen in time and space, removed from its natural habitat and placed in a sterile white cube. The setting is designed, in a way, to emphasize the isolation of the creature and the human responsibility for such a state of being.

The artwork explores the materiality of the shark, which, by nature, remains such a profound and mysterious creature within the ocean ecosystem. That materiality transforms it into a mere object, something frozen outside its lifeworld.

Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living encourages individuals to stop and reconsider the objects and creatures around them and, ultimately, to contemplate our shared existential limits. It moves beyond the boundaries of a simple artwork to offer an invitation to viewers, to pause and reflect on aspects of life and death that are commonly overlooked, which makes it a compelling and unforgettable artwork.


Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde masterpiece is an artwork that has transcended multiple dimensions. It provokes conversations about life, death, art, objectivity, and existential isolation.

The preservation process and the conservation works remind viewers to be mindful of environmental factors and the scope of the human impact on the ecosystem. The artwork ultimately continues to be an invitation to reflection, offering, in its frozen state, a direct experience of existential isolation, materiality, and mortality.

Thus, embedded in Hirst’s artwork is an invitation to consider the meaning of existence for all life coupled with its ultimate end. In conclusion, Damien Hirst’s artwork Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a thought-provoking and highly controversial masterpiece.

Through exploring themes such as mortality, human experiences, and interspecies interactions, Hirst challenges traditional notions of art and aesthetics. Despite criticism from animal rights activists and environmentalists, the artwork holds immense cultural and artistic value, sparking global conversation and reflection on society’s attitudes towards the environment.

Hirst’s work highlights the importance of recognizing the fragile nature of life, including the interconnectedness of all beings within the ecosystem. Ultimately, Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is a testament to the power of art to spark introspection, reflection, and change.

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