Damien Hirst & Edwaert Collier (Project 1: Arts and Ideas – Exercise 4)

Damien Hirst – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living & Edwaert Collier – Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’

Hirst - shark
Fig. 1 Hirst, D. “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991)
Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes' 1696 by Edward Collier active 1662-1708
Fig. 2 Collier, E. “Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes'” (1696)

PART 1 – Damien Hirst – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

 

  • Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece
  • Do you have an emotional response to it?
  • What do you think it’s about?
  • What do you think about the title?

My immediate response is a combination of cynicism and curiosity. I will return to the cynicism in Part 3, but my curiosity stems from both the shark and the title of the work.

Having used google to see more images of the work, there are a few features that stand out. Firstly, the shark’s mouth is open, in what appears to us as spectators, as a threatening pose. Its teeth are clear to see and the width of the opening of the jaw suggests that the shark is attacking something of significant size.

Secondly, sharks hold an interesting place in our culture. Spielberg’s film Jaws thrills and scares us through his exploitation of a very basic human fear, namely of unseen attack (from the sea, in the film’s case!) The UK BBC news will report Shark attacks in the seas around Australia. Sharks are also the epitome of the predator at the top of it’s food chain.

In this work, however, the shark is dead, the teeth are useless and the open jaw a pose. It is confined to a tank. Any fear we have, if we feel fear, is not of this particular shark but what it represents. But perhaps this is the point; the work represents humankind’s ability to master and conquer our fears?   

I do not have an emotional response to the work. It is not something that appeals to my sense of aesthetics and doesn’t frighten nor repulse me. My response is more of reflection than emotion. One thought lingers, however. The title is telling me that I cannot conceive of death whilst I am alive, and perhaps this is actually the significance of the work; no matter how we hide it, disguise it or attempt to control it, the shark is reminding us that there is no escape from our mortality.

Given my comment above about mastering and conquering our fears, I suspect that this work is one of irony. Whilst it suggests that we can master and conquer our fears, there is no escaping the ultimate conclusion of our lives.

PART 2 – Edwaert Collier – Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’

  • Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece
  • Do you have an emotional response to it?
  • What do you think it’s about?
  • What do you think about the title?

 

My immediate response is a combination of interest and dislike! This work appeals to my sense of aesthetics even less than the shark. I am interested, however, in the contrast between the symbols of the good life and our mortality.

My emotional response is just my dislike of the work. The title is of interest, however. Whereas the title of Hirst’s work explicitly mentions life and death, Collier’s is simply a still life with attention drawn specifically to ‘Emblemes’. Our mortality is contrasted to the fleeting pleasures of life. Yet the work suggests something else to me. The volume of Emblemes and the music are printed. These and the musical instruments will last longer than the grapes. I am reminded of the expression Ars longa, vita brevis and wonder if the artist wasn’t also saying something about the power of art in general, and his work in particular, to outlive our short lives.

Part 3 – two other thoughts

Firstly, it will come as no great surprise that the Collier work above reminded me of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. I tend to think of that painting as contrasting specifically the Ambassadors’ sense of power, influence and importance to their mortality, rather than the more general notion of the good life they might have been leading. The same principle is at work, however.

Secondly, I wish to examine my cynicism about Hirst’s shark. As much as I found the work interesting, I have to admit that a part of my immediate response was cynicism. Was he just trying too hard to be original? Was he just looking to shock his audience?

On reflection I feel that these thoughts are actually quite unfair. As I mentioned in an earlier exercise, part of our judgement about art is originality. If I am going to suggest that a piece of work cannot be art if it just copies or borrows too heavily from what has gone before, I cannot then criticise an artist for striving for originality!

Similarly, in an earlier exercise I explained that I preferred Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel to Picasso’s Bull’s Head, precisely because it was a statement intended to provoke a reaction. Again I feel that I cannot then criticise Hirst if he was trying to shock his audience.  

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Hirst, D. (1991) The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living  At: http://www.damienhirst.com/the-physical-impossibility-of (Accessed on 4 April 2017)

Figure 2. Collier, E. (1696) Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’  At: http://tate.org.uk/art/artworks/collier-still-life-with-a-volume-of-withers-emblemes-n05916 (Accessed on 4 April 2017)

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