Memento mori

I read in the NYTimes the other day (my favorite way of procrastinating) that the infamous Damien Hirst art installation, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, ie, the shark in the tank of formaldehyde, is going to be on display at the Met! I’m so excited! This means I’ll get a chance to actually see it!

I’ve read about the shark before, but mostly with a kind of grisly fascination. In the last couple of years, since leaving school, I’ve turned towards modern art with a fresh eye, and I think there’s something really witty here. Even without having seen the actual installation, the author of the NYT article said something that made me think that Hirst – and other modern artists of the last fifteen years, especially in light of the tremendous number of disasters and terror scares and destruction and everything else – is on to something: “If you bend down and peer through its sharply jagged teeth, you’ll be looking past the pure white mouth at the large black hole of its gullet.” Oooooooh, that just sends shivers down my spine.

Medieval art has the convention of the memento mori: trinkets, usually prayer beads, but sometimes graphically carved maggot-eaten skulls, to remind the penitent that YOU WILL DIE, your body WILL DECAY, and only the soul is eternal. That is, ignore the earthly, and concern yourself with the afterlife. (Can you imagine saying your Hail Marys while contemplating such gore? Please, God, deliver me from being food for worms. Make my flesh shining and bright, for all eternity. Oh, wait, that only happens to saints.) The medieval approach is a little heavy-handed, but Hirst’s installation reminds us that, uh, yes, we still have predators, that our flesh still tears, that we are mortal, that there are animals on this planet who see us blindly as food, and who are not afraid. We look into the black gullet of that shark, and we see, for an instant, a little bit of our own death.

Oh man, as I think about this, my mind spins in a gazillion directions. There really is a whole PhD thesis here, or at least a really good paper. I bet someone has published it already. Do you think it’s time to return to school, yet??

Edited on 10/31 to say: I discovered the diamond-encrusted Hirst skull just after posting the above; talk about memento mori! So fantastic and brilliant! Basically a refinement of all of the death themes that had come before. And yes, I’ve been doing some reading around, and lots has been said about Hirst and death, both by Hirst himself and his critics. Little has been said specifically about the medieval angle…so I’m still mulling it over. I think I have much reading and thinking ahead of me, still.

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~ by ecp on October 18, 2007.

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