Damien Hirst, Essay Example
The Anthropocentric Critiques of Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (approximately 1830-1833)
Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (approximately 1830-1833) from the perspective of form can be considered to be radically different. In the case of Hirst’s piece, it falls within the Western genre of conceptual art and uses the unlimited conventions of this form to produce a piece consisting of a shark in a formaldehyde filled tank, whereas with Hokusai’s work, the piece falls within the Japanese tradition of woodblock prints. On a prima facie level, however, these opposed cultural forms seem to unite around a common theme: that of the sea. Yet to reduce their similarity to this motif would be superficial. Rather, both works of art appear to communicate a certain sublime power that is immediately beyond human comprehension: in the case of Hirst, the inevitability of death, and in the case of Hokusai, the power of nature. What is crucial to both these pieces however is the sense in which they challenge our anthropocentric viewpoint on reality, demonstrating that existence is not oriented around the human: there are forces of nature which render the anthropomorphic viewpoint entirely trivial, such that both works displace this viewpoint, forcing us to look at existence from an entirely different perspective.
The cultural contexts that inform both pieces, as mentioned, present perhaps the starkest of possible contrasts. Hirst’s work is clearly bound to the Western paradigm of conceptual art, although this in itself is a highly malleable context: conceptual art essentially challenges the boundaries of what is considered to be art, by making the “concept” central to artistic creation. This is obviously the case in Hirst’s work. Operating within this liberating aesthetic space, Hirst presents a challenge to rigidly defined standards of art by making a piece that would appear to be home at a science museum in a zoological exhibit, thus falling in line with the tradition of 20th century Western art that continually interrogated the meaning of art itself. Insofar as Hirst’s piece functions as a basic form of taxidermy, the practice by which dead animals are presented for public display, the artist opens up the possibility that such taxidermy is also a form of art, thus interrogating what the latter means. This serves as a drastic counterpoint to Hokusai’s piece, which belongs to a clearly defined tradition of Ukiyo-e art, a form of woodcut art. Hokusai’s piece does not break with the conventional forms of this genre, as such types of art emphasize scenes of nature. Accordingly, Hokusau’s work is profoundly Japanese. Yet Hokusai’s immediate choice for a violent depiction of the sea shows the uniqueness of his voice: the tranquility of the landscape is dashed by Hokusai’s careful line-work as a testimony to the aggressive force of nature. Hence, even within a Japaense traditional form of art, Hokusai, like Hirst manages to interrogate the boundaries of the genre in which he works.
However, such basic challenges to conventions of genre are arguably not the most crucial focus of both works: they are not merely operating as critiques of art itself. This would be a message that is wholly insulated to the art world, whereas both artists portray something not only transcendent of the art world, but that of the human as well. They therefore transcend their cultural and historical contexts by making a non-relative claim about human existence; however, the twist is that both artists questions the solipsism of human existence itself. In the case of Hirst, this becomes more apparent when one considers the title of the work, a significant aspect of conceptual art since it seems to indicate the ideas at stake in the piece. The provocative phrase of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is quite explicit in its proclamation: the structure of our human existence is built around a certain rejection of our own mortality. Certainly, to think about our death at all times would be a form of pathological illness, paralyzing us from our ability to act: but Hirst nevertheless makes clear in his title that the living being cannot conceive its own death, although this death itself is inevitable. There is thus a fundamental illusion at the heart of our existence, an illusion that reveals that death is the ultimate end of this existence: the human is not able to overcome this death. As the curators of the piece at the Tate Gallery stated regarding its content, the work is “brutally honest and confrontational, he draws attention to the paranoic denial of death that permeates our culture.” (Stallabras, 20) In this sense, Hirst’s piece contains a profound critical function, attempting to show the unconscious prejudices that underlie our relationship with the real. Hokusai also attempts this difficult gesture of re-framing our understanding of existence. Hokusai thrusts us into the midst of a violent sea, thus eroding the security of our social structures. Caught in the aggression of a power that is entirely outside of the remit of anthropological hegemony, the viewer of the Great Wave experiences his or her perceptions being overrun by the outside world. The detailed depictions of the wave with its crest that indicates a sharpness of a blade function in Hokusai’s work as a radical displacement of the anthropocentric viewpoint, forcing us to view the world from a point that is beyond human control. Hence, as King writes, the wave dictates the message that “man’s role is to understand that he is part of nature and must adapt itself to its various moods.” (4) However, the objective is arguably more radical: Hokusai wants us to glimpse the world for a fraction of an instant from another perspective, such that it is not a question of adaptation at stake in the piece, but rather an issue of wholly questioning our views by depicting a scene that is entirely indifferent to human existence itself.
Such a similarity can be yet further developed in the consideration of why Hirst and Hokusai use motifs from the sea. Such a decision transcends any cultural relativity. In the case of Hirst the choice of a shark for his piece provides the clearest anti-anthropocentric motif of the work. With this decision, Hirst de-centers our views of death from the human being; everything is subject to death. It is thus not only the case of our own human denial of death, but rather that death is pervasive in life: life must somehow ignore death to continue to live. Yet the shark underscores that this is not a mode of existence native to the human him or herself, but is rather a condition of existence in its entirety. Hirst thus displaces anthropocentrism on two levels: by showing that humans ignore a death which is the end of the anthropocentric perspective; and that this death is not only a human experience, but one inherent to all of nature. Hokusai also wishes to question our anthropomorphism, but his selection of the sea differs in this respect: land as the dwelling place of man is replaced by the alien world of the sea as the attention of his work – this is a world constituted by vicissitudes and contingencies, as the human is subject to the capriciousness of nature in a clear way. The sea does not harbor human life; it nevertheless does harbor life. By thinking about the life and existence of the sea Hokusai plunges the viewer into a world wholly uncontaminated by anthropocentric motifs.
Hence, although employing radically different forms of aesthetic practice, Hokusai and Hirst nevertheless can be interpreted as presenting a harmonious viewpoint. The aim of both works tries to critique a human-centered view of reality. Hirst accomplishes this by suggesting the ultimate death of this viewpoint itself, whereas Hokusai depicts a nature that is beyond human control. In both pieces, therefore, there is an underlying theme of a confrontation with the illusory secure “worlds” that we construct around our existence: in their own particular manners, Hokusai and Hirst give us a glimpse into the outside.
King, James. Beyond the Great Wave: The Japanese Landscape Print. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2010.
Stallabrass, Julian. High Art Life: British Art in the 1990s. London: Verso, 1999.
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