A tiger shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde: Damien Hirst’s 1991 sculpture set contemporary art on a new path and remains one of the world’s most recognisable pieces of contemporary art.
It is also an icon of the movement known as the YBAs (Young British Artists), a group of maverick artists in the UK in the 90s who set contemporary art on a new course and revitalised the British art scene, taking art from fusty galleries into the global limelight of Cool Britannia.
The shark sculpture came about when advertising mogul and art collector (and highly influential gallery owner) Charles Saatchi went to a warehouse exhibition organised by the young Hirst in 1990 and saw another one of his sculptures titled A Thousand Years – a glass box with a rotting cow’s head inside it being eaten by flies and maggots. Saatchi bought it and offered to pay for Hirst’s next artwork. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was born.
It was exhibited in The Saatchi Gallery’s YBA 1, the exhibition that truly launched the movement, with Hirst as its leader. Despite his profound subject matter – death – Hirst is criticised as much as he is praised, often for his trivial sensationalism and lack of substance. Regardless of his artistic merit, perhaps Hirst’s most profound (and sensationalist) artistic achievement is the way he has operated in the art market.
After falling out with Saatchi many years later, in 2007 Hirst ditched the gallery system and sold his next exhibition’s works direct to the public at an auction. Although a risky stunt at the time, the auction sold out, setting a new record for a single-artist auction of £111 million. Among the artworks was For the Love of God – a platinum cast of an 18th century human skull studded with 8,061 diamonds. It sold for £50 million. The consortium that bought it included Hirst and his gallery.