Everything started with an order from Charles Saatchi. It was in the early 90s, and this ad magnate and art collector ordered a very specific piece from Damien Hirst. He payed 50,000 pounds to create an inspired shark sanctuary. It would be the first in a long series of animals sacrificed on the altar of art. In 1991, Damien Hirst asked Australian fishers to capture and kill a shark, a beast that’s 4.25 meters long. The tiger shark, which cost Saatchi 28,000 pounds, travelled for months in a specially equipped cargo hold before arriving frozen on the banks of the Thames. In 1992, the piece was exhibited for the first time at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Shock, dismay, fascination, the piece soon became emblematic of the strategy of provocation identifiable with the club of Young British Artists. “It became the logo of England in the 80s,” says Gordon Burn, writer for the Guardian. “It was everywhere: in political cartoons as well as in ads.” An icon was born.
But Damien Hirst was more interested by death than by scandal – a phenomenon that comes naturally when working with such a subject. “I wanted to make art that was more real, that truly evokes human nature. I wanted to put a real shark in a gallery instead of painting it on a canvas or projecting images of it. This brutality was necessary. Maybe I watched ‘Jaws’ too many times,” he joked. Hirst actually submerged the tiger shark in close to 850 liters of formaldehyde to question death, the death of a creature that elicits fear in mankind like none other. “I liked the idea of using something to describe a feeling,” that is to say, the obscenity of death. Each of Damien Hirst’s artworks pushes the question of death – occasionally attempting to give it a face, but always forcing us to look it in the eyes. “We don’t like to be put in front of our own decomposition,” he adds. But these pieces give off a real beauty – the beauty of life set in shades of green and blue.
Now, years later, the shark has decomposed. “It wasn’t as scary,” the artist reminisces. “You could see that it wasn’t real. It didn’t have any weight.” So the British artist got back to work – something close to a scientific experiment that required several specialists working in old British hangars from World War II. The idea: replace the decomposing tiger shark. So another shark was hunted and, during the operation, the air was so toxic that the site was shut off behind steel doors with special access codes. No one, not even the artist, was authorized to see the shark without wearing protective gear. After injecting formaldehyde straight into the animal’s veins, the artwork was able to find a new buyer who, for the sum of 12 million Euros, acquired one of the most emblematic works of art of the 21st century.