In honor of shark week, I wanted to answer the age old question – “What is your dissertation about?” Well, in fact, it’s about a shark – a very specific two ton shark.
In 2004, British artist Damien Hirst sold a work entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991, pictured above) for $12 million. The work is a fifteen-foot tiger shark taxidermy, mounted as triptych in an enormous glass vitrine. The shark sculpture floats in a greenish solution of formaldehyde, mouth wide open as if caught in mid-swim and mid-meal.
Actually, my dissertation is about contemporary dance licensing practices (hehe) and intersections of art-making and business structures. But it turns out the Hirst shark is my favorite referent for the entire conversation.
The shark fell apart, literally. The solution got murky and the shark’s skin got wrinkled and green, and then a fin fell completely off. The curators tried to help by pouring bleach into the tank, but..welp…that was not a great idea. Eventually, the entire shark had to be skinned and the skin was stretched over a weighted fiberglass shark sculpture. This didn’t look quite right so there was an entirely new shark caught and displayed (twice, at least). Hirst, not trained in taxidermy, never touched any shark. He directed its display. Also, the shark is hard to move. It’s big and heavy, as you can probably imagine.
So, dance licensing. Dance is in a constant state of decay, steps lost through failures in memory and incomplete preservation technologies. New bodies are constantly needed to keep the work visible. The choreographer directs stagers and rehearsal assistants, but often never sees remountings first hand. (It may not be taxidermy, but dance repeteurs certainly have a technical skill different from those who make the dances.) And well, $12 MILLION DOLLARS FOR A SHARK, A GREEN MOLDY SHARK! To put it simply, ascribing monetary value to art can be bizarre.
I spend my days thinking about how the lessons of a $12 million stuffed shark help me understand the worth of choreographic commodities. This is, of course, the short/simple answer, but…hey…you asked! Happy Shark Week!