Part 1. Project 1. Exercise 4: Looking at Context

This exercise focussed on a work of art by Damien Hirst entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece

The name of the piece seems unrelated to the actual artwork. It seems to be a dramatic statement with very little point.

Do you have an emotional response to it?

My main emotional response to this was a sigh of exasperation. I find Hirst to be a showman with no substance, when you look past the glitter there is very little for me to see there.

What do you think it’s about?

I think this piece is about the fact that someone is only truly dead when no-one still living  remembers them. Photos and mementoes of a persons life may record the fact that they walked the Earth but the actual person themselves is only remembered by those who knew them.

Whilst writing an answer to this question I explored the internet a little further. I’ve always been quite anti-modern art so I know I’m going to need to consult a lot of different sources to help me attempt to adjust my viewpoint. Whilst reading various articles I came across an interesting essay entitled ‘Damien Hirsts Shark: Nature, Capitalism and the Sublime’ from the following address .

Within this article the author compares Hirsts shark to Capitalism, an idea which initially I scoffed at but the ore I read through the pages the more I understood him to be correct. Even though I now understood the symbolism of the shark and how the film Jaws was a any layered stamen about how we live in a controlled state, I was still unimpressed by Hirsts installation, like a doughnut without a filing.

And then…

I scrolled through the essay a little more and I found another installation by Hirst which I understood immediately.

‘The Acquired Inability to Escape’ symbolises exactly what I hate about working at a desk. It feels as though you are trapped in a box with no room for individuality or spark, no sense of joy or satisfaction is allowed to enter the box. As entrepreneur Daniel Priestley describes in his book ‘Entrepreneur Revolution’, we in the Computer Age are subject to a system which directs us through a certain life path, it makes us worker bees. The system also looks after us, I do not mean to infer that we need to set fire to the institution, merely that I can empathise with this piece. In my current job I am not trapped at a desk all day, I am merely trapped in the wrong industry. Being an engineer bores the pants off me, every work task is like being stuffed into a box like this, a box of the mind, in addition it is one of the reasons that I started this degree! To escape!

Having stared at this installation for quite a while I have come to the conclusion that I have misjudged Hirst, maybe the Shark in the tank does for some people what that desk in a box is doing for me.

What do you think about the title?

I think the title of Hirsts shark installation is part of the piece. It has to be because without it you would have no idea what point Hirst was trying to make. In my opinion you should be able to look at a piece of art and be able to tell what it is about without having to read the exhibition programme. I am also of the opinion that you shouldn’t have to read the name of something to know what it is, the one exception being the artistic car crash (often with added superglued pasta) being thrust at you by a proud 6 year old or similar.

When considering the title of Hirsts piece I also find that it carries a message all by itself, I do not need to see a giant shark in a tank of preservatives to be able to generate meaning from his choice of words. I am sure I should be saying that the shark adds value to the piece as a whole, that it creates some kind of valid point worthy of consideration. But try as I might I just cannot come to that conclusion, I think Hirst is making a valid point but his choice of illustrating it is about as effective as the Brexit Bus. Not enough information, over the top showing off, it just annoys people.

I then had to look at a vanitas painting by Edward Collier called ‘Still Life with a Volume of Withers Emblemes’ painted in 1696. The same questions were to be answered.

Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece

Talent. That silver bowl at the front left is ridiculously lifelike. Warm light is welcoming. Myriad of interesting objects to spot. It’s a picture to investigate.

Do you have an emotional response to it?

Yes. I am drawn to this painting. The warm light makes it a welcoming scene for me. I am also drawn to the cluttered nature of the elements within the frame. A picture that I can investigate is one that I can spend hours looking at. Whilst investigating each element I am very impressed by the level of talent of the artist. The realistic renderings of each individual item are very impressive and demonstrate a skill level which I can only dream of attaining.

What do you think it’s about?

Initially I was wondering if the painting might be about showing off. The images contains food, music being played ad poetry being read which in former times were tools one would use to show off in society. In truth it reminded me of me being sat here right now attempting to learn my way through Art Theory, as soon as I attain this degree I will be dropping it into conversation and showing it off at every opportunity (hence the link!)

I then read further in the course manual and read the description of the contents given to it by the Tate website. This description informed me that it was more along the lines of mortality and contrasting it with death. I found that quite interesting because I associate the warm glow of the paining and the objects within to be more elements of life! Collier arrived in London in 1698 to sell still life paintings to the English market, I am curious to know whether this influenced his choice of objects within the frame. I imagine he made it more to do with life than death for this reason. Not many people would choose to pay money for a morbid painting to hang on their wall!

The more I study this painting the more interesting I find it. I found the arrangement of items particularly good. By this I mean how the book page with the mans face on is a natural point of focus and has been positioned on the top left thirds point. The way the light falls on this page means that it took me a while to spot the skull in the shadow on the top left hand corner. The bright light on the objects on the left and the contrast with the darker negative space on the right draws the focus of the viewer to the objects that symbolise life as opposed to death.This could possibly be a nod towards the fact that the majority of people are drawn to life, to fight for it against sometimes impossible odds.

What do you think about the title?

The title of this piece in contrast to Hirsts is a lot more descriptive. It tells you what is in the image rather than directing you in how to respond to it. I am unsure as to whether this is for more practical reasons, ie because the original name of the piece got lost through time and a museum had to give it one for the sake of differentiation at a later date or whether this really is a practical title that Collier gave his piece.

It works a lot better for me than Hirsts title. I needed Hirsts title to make sense of the installation that he presented. I would far rather be left to explore a painting like Colliers for myself and come to my own conclusions.


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