A Shark in the Mind of One Contemplating Wilderness | The Nation


A Shark in the Mind of One Contemplating Wilderness

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Wild. Wilderness. Wilderness by designation. What is the solution to preserving that which is wild?

About the Author

Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams is the Provostial Fellow at Dartmouth College. Her most recent book is When Women Were Birds (...

Also by the Author

Big Brother: watching, listening and…; nukes on our mind

A conversation about a new documentary, its provocative claims—and the facts it leaves out.

I remember standing next to an old rancher in Escalante, Utah, during a contentious political debate over wilderness in the canyon country of southern Utah. He kicked the front tire of his pickup truck with his cowboy boot.

"What's this?" he asked me.

"A Chevy truck," I responded.

"Right, and everybody knows it."

He then took his hand and swept the horizon. "And what's all that?" he asked with the same matter-of-fact tone.

"Wilderness," he answered before I could speak. "And everybody knows it, so why the hell do you have to go have Congress tell us what it is?"

Damien Hirst's conceptual art, be it his shark or his installation called A Thousand Years (1990)--where the eye of a severed cow's head looks upward as black flies crawl over it and lay eggs in the flesh that metamorphose into maggots that mature into flies that gather in the pool of blood to drink, leaving tiny red footprints on the glass installation, while some flies are destined to die as a life-stopping buzz in the electric fly-killing machine--all his conceptual pieces of art, his installations, make me think about the concept and designation of wilderness.

Why not designate wilderness as an installation of art? Conceptual art? A true sensation that moves and breathes and changes over time with a myriad of creatures that formulate an instinctual framework of interspecies dialogues; call them predator-prey relations or symbiotic relations, niches and ecotones, never before seen as art, as dance, as a painting in motion, but imagined only through the calculations of biologists, their facts now metamorphosed into designs, spontaneously choreographed moment to moment among the living. Can we not watch the habits of animals, the adaptations of plants, and call them performance art within the conceptual framework of wilderness?

To those who offer the critique that wilderness is merely a received idea, one that might be "conceptually incoherent" and entranced by "the myth of the pristine," why not answer with a resounding yes, yes, wilderness is our received idea as artists, as human beings, a grand piece of performance art that can embody and inspire The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living or Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (1991).

Call it a cabinet of fish preserved in salt solution to honor the diversity of species, where nothing is random. Or call it a piece of art to celebrate color and form found in the bodies of fishes. Squint your eyes: Imagine a world of spots. Colored dots in the wilderness. They're all connected. Damien Hirst paints spots.

"Art's about life and it can't really be about anything else. There isn't anything else." Tell us again, Damien Hirst, with your cabinet of wonders; we are addicted to wonders, bottles of drugs lined up, shelf after shelf, waiting to be opened, minds opened, veins opened, nerves opened. Wilderness is a cabinet of pharmaceuticals waiting to be discovered.

Just as we designate art, we designate wilderness, large and small, as much as we can, hoping it begins a dialogue with our highest and basest selves. We are animals, in search of a home, in relationship to Other, an expanding community with a mosaic of habitats, domestic and wild; there is nothing precious or nostalgic about it. We designate wilderness as an installation of essences, open for individual interpretation, full of controversy and conversation.

"I always believe in contradiction, compromise...it's unavoidable. In life it can be positive or negative, like saying, 'I can't live without you.'" Damien Hirst speaks again.

I cannot live without art. I cannot live without wilderness. Call it Brilliant Love (1994-95). Thank the imagination that some people are brave enough, sanely crazy enough, to designate both.

"Art is dangerous because it doesn't have a definable function. I think that is what people are afraid of."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size