Category Archives: Project One: Art & Ideas

Finding out more – Part two

Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living.

So the next exercise asks us to consider context, what areas of context there are for a particular piece, and also any references to time….which is what the next project is about.

So firstly I looked up context, its not something we generally look at from day to day so I wanted to make sure I understood it.
1.The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood:
‘the proposals need to be considered in the context of new European directives’

1.1 The parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning:

‘skilled readers use context to construct meaning from words as they are read’

Mind map of contextual references within Khan Academy discussion

I initially find this quite difficult as the discussion is quite spontaneous, but on discovering the transcript I’m able to read as they speak.
I find them discussing the piece in relation to Hirst’s own body of work. How it’s not the first piece he’s produced involving animals in formaldehyde. Although interestingly it’s the first one which decayed. I wonder if maybe he had a dodgy batch of formaldehyde, whilst the Khan Academy discuss the inevitability of death and the artist’s use of art to transcend death, but how all art eventually rots. How nothing is permanent.
I still think there was probably a chemical reaction between the shark (a waterborne mammal) and the formaldehyde. How a sheep is a land mammal so the composition of the skin would be different. Meanwhile the Khan Academy admit they feel like they’re making stuff up, and I can’t help laughing out loud…not just me then!
Meanwhile the Khan Academy has moved on to discuss death, the interesting play on words of Hirst’s piece, and how art through the ages has explored death. The video goes on to show other work displaying death, including one which looks like Ophelia from Hamlet. They seem enchanted by Hirst’s choice of a shark, how it itself is dead, and how Man considers it a predator. That by standing in front of the piece are you then processing death itself, or your fear of death, or maybe just your fear of the shark. I wonder if fear and death has always been interwoven, is it possible to have one without the other.
Finally the Khan Academy also discusses Hirst’s piece within the greater context of the art scene. They explore how 20th century art opened up with Duchamp’s fountain, and how Damien Hirst’s piece also pushes the industry from representational art to philosophical art. That modern art seems to be either profound or shocking, or in Hirst’s piece both.
 I love the title more than the shark. The fact the shark was killed specifically for the piece upsets me. Maybe I like it a little less because of this. Could he not have made the same statement without actually killing 2 sharks? I do however think it’s a clever thought provoking piece. I still think that without the title the meaning gets lost within the ‘shark in a tank’ narrative.

Finding out more – Part 1

So as part of Exercise 5 we have to practice our sketching skills with fish still life. I’m a bit out of practice with my sketching, so probably just as well!

Salvador Dali – Eucharist Still Life – 1952

imagePeter Claesz – Fish Still Life – 1637

Looking at context

For this exercise we’re asked to look at a piece of work by Damien Hirst. Its quite a controversial piece colloquially known as the shark in a tank. Its actual name is The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living. I remember seeing this piece for the first time a decade ago, and finding it hilarious. I know that it was an emotional response to seeing something so abstract in a gallery. You don’t expect to walk into a room and come face to face with a shark. Well not unless you’re exploring ruins under the sea.

I’m intrigued by Damien Hirst’s process. I’d love to know how he designed the piece – whether he came up with the title first, or he envisages the shark in a tank and then comes up with an appropriate title. I find the piece challenging intellectually. I think the shark was used intentionally to shock. I think it was meant to make us consider what comes after life. I think it’s meant to make you challenge the way you view death, and how as somebody who is alive we are unable to peer into what comes after death. How no one has ever returned from death, and because of this it remains a mystery.

Unfortunately I feel because of the design of the piece the thought provoking nature of the title has been lost in the spectacle.


The second part of the exercise is the examination of a painting by Edwaert Collier from 1696. It’s a piece known as a vanitas painting and it’s called Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’. On my first view it looks like a collection of instruments and food.  My initial reaction is one of clutter and the need to examine it quite closely as there is a lot in the painting to consider. I find the image unimaginative. I also find it a stark contrast to Damien Hirst’s piece, and initially I’m confused as to why we are comparing the images. Bizarrely I find the quote in the course notes “………it’s almost like painting with numbers” fits the still life more than Hirst’s piece. I don’t spot the skull in the corner until I further read my course notes.

I think Colliers piece is about man’s pursuit to collect and hoard and the skull in the corner is a nod towards the uselessness of it. You can’t take it with you when you die. Even the title contains a reference towards a book about collections. Most of the items within the picture are associated with great wealth, from the jewellery box in the background through to the instruments that most households would not have been able to afford in 1600s.

When I compare the two pieces of art I find Collier’s to be less challenging, that the message is hidden, neatly tucked away in the corner. Presumably in the 17th century only the wealthy would have been able to afford such a piece of art, so he probably felt less able to challenge society’s thirst for hoarding. I don’t know if Hirst is less worried about the sale of his art or it’s not something he necessarily needs. Is that the luxury of an artist living in the 21st century?

Art and art history.

I’m finding reading about art quite difficult. My brain seems to sieve the content, not always keeping the relevant bits needed for the exercises. Hoping this will improve with practice.

Exercise 3 Reading about Art

I found the paragraph interesting, especially after listening to Grayson Perry’s podcast about ‘what is art?’. The author seems to be trying to define art into black and white categories, and I’m not entirely sure that’s possible. They start by discussing a piece chosen by the Royal Academy in 2006 (Another day closer to paradise , David Hensel, 2006), where the sculpture became detached from its plinth. It seems to have created an uproar in the art community and some critics to employ an ’emperor’s new clothes’ critique. Interestingly I prefer the plinth without the sculpture. I personally find the laughing head quite grotesque, not that I believe all art needs to be pleasing to the eye. I also love the fact that as the plinth even looks like an unfinished work, and the fact that as an artist I find a complete piece quite elusive, I love the possible narrative that it creates.

So on to their defined categories, they broke art down into Fine Art, as academy recognised, Craft, as art created with a function, and then they add Contemporary Art as having no clear distinction. As if it breaks all moulds so they’ve neatly created a category so they can ‘black and white’ it.

The far more interesting bit for me is that art came from craft. That in Ancient Greece there was no concept of art or artists. That there were only craftsmen who made objects with briefs, like an applied artist today. Historically art was judged on its technical skill. I believe, for the most part, traditional art is still judged by those qualities today.

What is art? 

So exercise one is my response to Duchamp’s Fountain: The first time I saw Fountain I wondered what all the fuss was about, it’s just a urinal, people seem to be getting really upset about it. Now I think it’s Clever. It antagonises people into considering their concept of Art. I love the way he was challenging perception.

So I found exercise two really difficult to answer. I believe it’s art because someone has designed a concept or representation. I also think it’s the artist who decides what is art, or even at what point the piece is finished. We know it’s art usually because someone has told us it is, or because it’s labelled to help us understand the concept or artist. I don’t think it has to be in a gallery, there are some great examples of outdoor art from sculptures on roundabouts to woollen covered trees.

“to put art back in the service of the mind”

I think Duchamp meant that art needs to be more than pretty, it should provoke a reaction from the viewer, whether emotionally or intellectually.

Do I think technical skill is important? I think it depends on the intent of the artist and the art. If you’re trying to create a photorealistic image, then yes, technical skill is going to be important. I used to think it was the most important skill, but now I have seen more contemporary art maybe the message it is portraying is just as important. If we only created beautiful pieces how would we encourage discussion and debate? As an artist I feel I have responsibility towards challenging and educating as much as perfecting the latest technique in photography or oil painting. I’m starting to question whether creating art for the sake of it is actually diluting the industry, rather than using it as a platform to engage and contribute.