The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

The shark’s mouth was a few feet away, its mouth gaping as wide as my shoulders. Row upon row of dagger like teeth extended from its grey lips into the back of its mouth. It looked back at me with dead uncaring eyes. The moment had an air if inevitability, finality, about it. Too late to move out of the way, only dumb luck can save me now.

On the other side of the gallery a young couple with a small child in tow stared blankly at a rotting cow’s head sitting in a large glass tank full if flies. Not exactly family viewing but never mind. The Royal Academy, London, was showing the Sensations Exhibition. A collection of British modern art owned by Charles Saatchi, advertising mogul and collector of the Young British Artists movement.

The shark is an installation artwork by Damien Hurst, entitled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991). It’s a sixteen foot long Mako shark pickled in huge tank full of formaldehyde. The shark floats silently in the tank its face level with yours. Is it art? Does it matter? What matters is that it makes you think.

We’ve all had those “oh shit” moments. Those “I’m going to die – and it might be right now” epiphanies. That split second when you realize that you might have just made your last, biggest, dumbest mistake. That moment when you glimpse a truck bearing down on you out of the corner of your eye. The truck you didn’t see when you stepped off the curb. But it all happens so fast. One moment you think you’re going to end up a bloody mess in a track wheel arch. Next you’re teetering back on the pavement with truck rushing past your face.

The Possibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living II - AvalancheAfterwards the day seems brighter, the sky bluer, the World is that much more alive. That night when you’re half asleep you’ll relive it. It’ll snap you right back awake; the rush wind, the look on the driver’s face when he sees you, the hiss of brakes and the smell of hot diesel fumes. For a fraction of a second you’re right back there. Then you’re right back here – in bed, warm and safe.

The shark lets you relive that moment in freeze frame. Twenty minutes to contemplate what it would be like to end up as the chum course on the Great Barrier Reef restaurant menu. One long “Oh Shit” moment. Half an hour to think about whether you did right by your life and the people that mattered to you. That’s twenty nine minutes and fifty seconds longer than you’d get between the curb and the truck wheel arch. Time to think about where you’re going in life.

For the most part moments you get in the mountains are “truck” moments. One second everything is fine. The next, a hold breaks, you lose your balance or a snow bridge collapses and you’re falling through space. A split second later the rope catches you and it’s all over. You get back up, get it together.

The Possibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living I - CrevasseSometimes you have a “shark” moment. A half minute sliding down a snow gully watching the rocks below getting closer. Forty minutes spent hanging in the bottom of a crevasse wondering if the roof will collapse. A morning descending a steep face loaded with snow, every footfall a potential avalanche trigger. A day climbing an alpine snow ridge with no place to fall. During those shark moments you get the time to think about why you’re there and what matters.

Those aren’t the moments you climb for but they are one of the things that defines climbing. They continually remind you about what’s really important in life. When you get to the end of one of those days life is just that much more vivid. The people in who were important before are that much more significant afterward. The things that didn’t matter anyway matter even less. Those are the days you swear you’ll marry that girl, call your parents every week or finally quit that bullshit corporate job.

If you let them those days can be the first day of your life. But only if you let them.

Damien Hirst’s work is an examination of the processes of life and death: the ironies, falsehoods and desires that we mobilize to negotiate our own alienation and mortality.