Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Shark at the Metropolitan Museum

The Met does not allow photography of the Shark, so I got this from Raw art Weblog, and think the blogger probably did what I had hoped to do but did not dare, just take a photo discreetly. He did dare, so I will use his photo, the best one I could find easily that shows the tank before the windows.

This is not news, Damien Hirst's infamous shark in formaldehyde is now on view at the Met and has been for about a month now. I went to see it on my day of going through the museum as I have heard about it for years, and while I have seen other works by Damien Hirst, had never this iconic piece.
Pretentiously titled, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, it is a shark suspended in a beautifully built tank of blue green formaldehyde. It is important, whether one likes it or not, because of the impact it has had on the art world, and the tremendous attention it received and continues to receive in the art and general media. Before I go into my reaction and thoughts on it, let me share a snippet of a review of it from the New York Times by Roberta Smith:

"In keeping with the piece’s title, the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank. It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form."

photo taken from the NYT website, again because I could not take my own. This does show the gaping maw, the most impressive aspect of this installation.

Wow. Deep. I had to see the shark for myself after reading this review.

While formally beautiful, the tank is beautifully well made, the formaldehyde is clear greeny blue, like glass; the shark itself is sad. Looking into its gaping maw and seeing the rows of sharp triangular teeth is a bit scary, if you can fool yourself for a second of suspended disbelief. I could only do that for a second, the rest of the time the shark just looked dead, really dead, wrinkling in the solution, with holes where it had been shot or harpooned to death, its eyes white and rolled back into their sockets, not threatening at all. Sad when one thought of this tremendous animal which normally is no threat to humans, and only rarely attacks us, on display like the trophy of some testosterone driven hunter. I could not generate the frisson that the reviewers apparently experienced. It just did not do for me.

The main reason the shark is worth seeing is to see it for yourself, it cannot be ignored, it has established a place for itself in the artworld. I am disimpressed by it, and feel it is a con, but it is amazing to me how many people have fallen for it. After seeing it, I was very happy to go look at works of art that actually touched me, moved me with their authentic human expression, as the other shows at the Met I saw that day and discuss in an earlier post did.

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