17 June 2009

A kick in the teeth

Walking around it, staring at it staring at you, you felt an undeniable frisson of real physical danger...The shark was art, of course; but the art also consisted in the primal reaction to it -- a reaction over which any human had almost no control.
-- from a review by Felix Salmon of Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, quoted by Dean Crawford in Shark. Crawford also quotes the critic Jonathan Jones:
Death, decay and the sublime were the themes of the British art that defined the end of the 20th century: the horror of the shark swimming towards you through formaldehyde...The sublime was the aesthetic of these years...an awe of art itself, or at least a desire to experience that awe; to be knocked over by art, to be kicked in the teeth.
Hirst's shark supplier, notes Crawford, was Vic Hislop, "the world's most notorious shark hunter":
Hirst bought his original tiger shark from Hislop for $10,000 [it was later sold for $8 million]. He has since purchased three more from him: two freshly caught tiger sharks along with a great white that Hislop said he had in the freezer. The 1.5 metre tiger shark that Hirst sold to a South Korean art dealer for more than $5 million was something that Hislop had tossed in as a freebie.
Crawford has earlier noted:
When they come to write the history of the shark’s demise - assuming we haven’t mustered the imagination and the will to save them - our descendants will focus on four important dates, all of them remarkably recent relative to the millions of years that sharks have been swimming on the earth. In [July] 1916, [in the same week that, on just one day, the British Army suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 deaths], the American media redirected public hysteria to a series of shark attacks that took the lives of four young men, and thereby created the myth of a malevolent rogue shark that preys on human flesh. In 1945 the USS Indianapolis sank (after delivering the atomic bomb) and, because of the inept bureaucracy of the US Navy, 900 survivors were left for five days in water frequented by the ocean’s greatest scavengers, with predictably horrifying results. In 1975 one of the world’s greatest movie directors made a horror movie, using not the usual Dracula or werewolf myths but a newer (yet perhaps more basic) terror, elevating the shark’s mythical status to that of a totem. [1]

But perhaps the most significant date, at least so far, is 1987, when the Chinese authorities determined that shark fin soup was not so bourgeois or politically correct after all...[and] worldwide demand for shark fins has soared.


[1] Popular monster totems have changed since the 1970s (see the intro to Representing Animals by Nigel Rothfels for an analysis). In the present decade zombies seem to top the bill (see Anne Billson and point 6, 'appetite and fear', in this post.)

[2] It was estimated in 2006 that as many as 73 million sharks were being 'harvested' every year for their fins. More here.

P.S. RB sends a link to another of the (101?) uses for a dead shark: smuggling cocaine. Also, Dean Crawford describes Blue Demon, a 2005 film with the apparently absurd premise that the US Defence Department have implanted computer chips into the brains of genetically modified sharks to use them as weapons against terrorists (but the sharks run amok!). This is actually based, in part, on an actual DARPA project, albeit one that has only, so far, tinkered with dogfish.

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