Damien Hirst is in talks with US hedge fund manager Steve Cohen to replace the shark in his iconic work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991.
The animal suspended in formaldehyde has deteriorated dramatically to the naked eye since it was first unveiled at the Saatchi Gallery in 1992 because of the way it was preserved by the artist. The solution which surrounds it is murky, the skin of the animal is showing considerable signs of wear and tear, and the shark itself has changed shape.
In a statement to The Art Newspaper, Hirst’s company Science Ltd said: “Damien will happily help to refurbish [the shark] as he would with any of his works that are over ten years old.”
The case raises important questions about the longevity of contemporary works of art made with unconventional materials.
The shark was commissioned by British collector Charles Saatchi directly from the artist in 1991 for £50,000. It was sold to Mr Cohen in late 2004 in a deal brokered by the Gagosian Gallery for a figure reported by the Saatchi Gallery as £6.5m. This price is the highest ever paid for a work by a living artist with the exception of early work by Jasper Johns.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, the dealer Larry Gagosian said: “The shark is a conceptual piece and to substitute a shark of equal size and appearance, in my opinion, does not alter the piece. Steve Cohen is very happy with the piece and is not troubled at all with having to substitute it. It’s not a direct analogy but if you have a work by Dan Flavin and one of the lights goes out and you substitute it, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect the significance of the piece, or the value of the piece.”
When the sale of the shark was announced, we raised questions about the shark’s long-term preservation after speaking to conservation scientists and natural history specialists.
Oliver Crimmen, curator of fish at the Natural History Museum, who advised Hirst on the necessary measures to be taken for the conservation of the shark in 1991, said the long-term preservation of large specimens for scientific purposes requires an alcohol-based solution rather than formaldehyde. If a formaldehyde solution is used then a large specimen like the shark would need to be injected with this to prevent internal decay, according to Alexis Turner, a natural history antiques dealer.
But Mr Crimmen said that Hirst “did not inject the deep tissues of the shark with formaldehyde and this has caused it to undergo some changes in shape”. He believes the tissue of the shark could be shrinking and put the cloudiness of the formaldehyde down to the chemical composition of the solution used by the artist.
According to a 2000 report which includes a section on the Hirst shark by Alison Bracker of the Royal College of Art, the artist used a formaldehyde solution of 5% strength for the work. The report states that “conservation scientists have queried the wisdom of employing a weak solution to preserve an entire shark”.
Speaking to critic Stuart Morgan in 1996, Hirst said: “I did an interview about conservation and they told me formaldehyde is not a perfect form of preservation…They actually thought I was using formaldehyde to preserve an artwork for posterity, when in reality I use it to communicate an idea.”
Earlier this year a new, smaller version of the shark was purchased by the Samsung Museum in Seoul for $4m from the Hilario Galguera gallery in Mexico City. Hirst has since said that he is working on other versions of the shark in a tank.
In a second statement to The Art Newspaper, Hirst’s company, Science Ltd said: “When the shark was originally preserved 15 years ago, a different technique was tried. With this technique, formaldehyde wasn’t injected into the deep tissues as it was with all the other formaldehyde works made before and after this.”
“The process didn’t work and Damien has never been satisfied with the look of this shark. He is currently in discussion with Steve Cohen about refurbishing the work, though nothing has been decided yet.”
If Hirst does replace his iconic shark with a new specimen, will it compromise the integrity of his original? Art history will be the judge.