A Shark in the Mind of One Contemplating Wilderness

A Shark in the Mind of One Contemplating Wilderness

A Shark in the Mind of One Contemplating Wilderness

A shark swims past me in a kelp forest that sways back and forth with the current. It is deliberate and focused.


A shark swims past me in a kelp forest that sways back and forth with the current. It is deliberate and focused. I watch the shark’s sleek body dart left and right as its caudal fin propels it forward. Its eyes seem to slice through the water in a blood gaze as the gills open and close, open and close. Around and around, I watch the shark maneuver through schools of fish. It must not be hungry. The only thing separating me from the shark is a tall glass pane at the Monterey Sea Aquarium. Everything is in motion. I press my hands on the glass waiting for the shark to pass by again and when it does, I feel my own heart beating against the mind of this creature that kills.

* * *

In the enormous blue room of the American Museum of Natural History, I stare at the tiger shark mounted on the wall of the second floor. Its surface shines with the light of taxidermy, creating the illusion of having just left the sea, now our own natural-history trophy. I see how out of proportion its mouth is to the rest of its body and wonder how many teeth hung from its gums during its lifetime, the rows of teeth, five to twenty of them, biting and tearing, thrashing and chomping on flesh, the teeth constantly being replaced by something akin to a conveyor-belt system. Somewhere in my mind I hold the fact that a shark may go through 20,000 teeth in a life span of ten years. I imagine the shark sensing the electrical field of a seal, swimming toward the diving black body now rising to the surface, delivering with great speed its deadly blow, the jaws that dislocate and protrude out of its mouth, the strong muscles that open, then close, the razor teeth that clamp down on the prey with such force that skin, cartilage and bone are reduced to one clean round bite, sustained over and over again. The blue water now bloody screams to the surface. Even in death, I see this shark in motion.

* * *

Sensation. I enter the Brooklyn Museum of Art to confront another tiger shark, this the most harrowing of all the requiem sharks I have encountered in a weeklong period. Requiem sharks. They say the name is derived from the observation that once these large sharks of the order Carcharhinid attack a victim, the only task remaining is to hold a requiem, a mass for the dead. Galeocerdo cuvieri. It is neither dead nor alive, but rather a body floating in space, a shark suspended in solution. Formaldehyde. To preserve. What do we choose to preserve? I note the worn, used sense of its mouth, shriveled and receding, looking more manly than fish. The side view creates a triptych of head, dorsal fin and tail, through the three panels of glass in the frame of white painted steel. I walk around the shark and feel the charge of the front view, a turquoise nightmare of terror that spills into daylight. Sensation. Damien Hirst is the creator of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).

I do not think about the shark. I think about myself.

* * *

I like the idea of a thing to describe a feeling. A shark is frightening, bigger than you are, in an environment unknown to you. It looks alive when it’s dead and dead when it’s alive…. I like ideas of trying to understand the world by taking things out of the world…. You expect [the shark] to look back at you.
   (Damien Hirst)

As a naturalist who has worked in a museum of natural history for more than fifteen years, how am I to think about a shark in the context of art, not science? How is my imagination so quickly rearranged to see the suspension of a shark, pickled in formaldehyde, as the stopped power of motion in the jaws of death, an image of my own mortality?

My mind becomes wild in the presence of creation, the artist’s creation. I learn that the box in which the shark floats was built by the same company that constructs the aquariums of Brighton Sea World. I think about the killer whales kept in tanks for the amusement of humans, the killer whales that jump through hoops, carry humans on their backs as they circle and circle and circle the tank, day after day after week after month, how they go mad, the sea of insanity churning inside them, inside me as I feel my own captivity within a culture–any culture–that would thwart creativity: We are stopped cold, our spirits suspended, controlled, controlled sensation.

Tiger shark, glass, steel, 5 percent formaldehyde solution.

Damien Hirst calls the shark suspended in formaldehyde a sculpture. If it were in a museum of natural history, it would be called an exhibit, an exhibit in which the organism is featured as the animal it is. Call it art or call it biology, what is the true essence of shark?

How is the focus of our perceptions decided?

Art. Artifact. Art by designation.

Thomas McEvilley, art critic and author of Art &Otherness, states,

The fact that we designate something as art means that it is art for us, but says nothing about what it is in itself or for other people. Once we realize that the quest for essences is an archaic religious quest, there is no reason why something should not be art for one person or culture and non-art for another.

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

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.”

Yes, Damien, exactly, you bad boy of British art who dares to slice up the bodies of cows, from the head to the anus, and mix them all up to where nothing makes sense and who allows us to walk through with no order in mind, twelve cross-sections of cow, so we have to take note of the meat that we eat without thinking about the topography of the body, the cow’s body, our body; we confront the wonder of the organism as is, not as a continuum but as a design, the sheer beauty and texture of functional design. We see the black-and-white hide; there is no place to hide inside the guts of a cow sliced and stretched through space like an accordion between your very large hands. You ask us to find Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything (1996).

We have been trying to explain, justify, codify, give biological and ecological credence as to why we want to preserve what is wild, like art, much more than a specimen behind glass. But what if we were to say, Sorry, you are right, wilderness has no definable function. Can we let it be, designate it as art, art of the wild, just in case one such definition should arise in the mind of one standing in the tall grass prairies of middle America or the sliding slope of sandstone in the erosional landscape of Utah?

Wilderness as an aesthetic.

Freeze. Damien Hirst brought together a community of artists and displayed their work in a warehouse in England, these Neo-Conceptualists who set out to explore the big things like death and sex and the meaning of life. Wilderness designation is not so dissimilar. In your tracks, freeze, and watch the performance art of a grizzly walking through the gold meadows of the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone. In your tracks, freeze, a constellation of monarch butterflies has gathered in the mountains of Mexico. No definable function except to say, wilderness exists like art, look for an idea with four legs, with six legs and wings that resemble fire, and recognize this feeling called survival, in this received idea of wilderness, our twentieth-century installation as Neo-Conservationists.

A shark in a box.

Wilderness as a box.

Wilderness as A Thousand Years with flies and maggots celebrating inside the corpse of things.

Q: What is in the boxes?
A: Maggots.
Q: So you’re going to put maggots in the white boxes, and then they hatch and then they fly around…
A: And then they get killed by the fly-killer, and maybe lay eggs in the cow heads.
Q: It’s a bit disgusting.
A: A bit. I don’t think it is. I like it.
Q: Do you think anyone will buy it?
A: I hope so.
   (Damien Hirst
   interview with Liam Gillick,
Modern Medicine, 1990)

Do I think anyone will buy the concept of wilderness as conceptual art? It is easier to create a sensation over art than a sensation over the bald, greed-faced sale and development of open lands, wild lands, in the United States of America.

I would like to bring Damien Hirst out to the American West, let him bring along his chain saw, Cutting Ahead (1994), only to find out somebody has beat him to it, creating clear-cut sculptures out of negative space, eroding space, topsoil running like blood down the mountainsides as mud. Mud as material. He would have plenty of material.

The art of the wild is flourishing.

How are we to see through the lens of our own creative destruction?

A shark in a box.

Wilderness as an installation.

A human being suspended in formaldehyde.

My body floats between contrary equilibriums. (Federico García Lorca)

When I leaned over the balcony of the great blue room in the American Museum of Natural History, I looked up at the body of the Blue Whale, the largest living mammal on earth, suspended from the ceiling. I recalled being a docent, how we brought the schoolchildren to this room to lie on their backs, thrilled beyond words as they looked up at this magnificent leviathan who, if alive, with one quick swoosh of its tail would be halfway across Central Park.

I only then noticed that the open spaces below where the children used to lie on their backs in awe was now a food court filled with plastic tables and chairs. The tables were crowded with visitors chatting away, eating, drinking, oblivious to the creatures surrounding them. How had I missed the theater lights, newly installed on the balcony, pointing down to illuminate the refrigerators humming inside the showcases with a loud display of fast foods advertising yogurt, roast beef sandwiches, apples and oranges?

The Blue Whale, the Tiger Shark, Sunfish, Tunas, Eels and Manta Rays, the Walrus, the Elephant Seals, the Orca with its head poking through the diorama of ice in Antarctica, are no longer the natural histories of creatures associated with the sea but simply decoration.

Everything feels upside down these days, created for our entertainment. Requiem days. The natural world is becoming invisible, appearing only as a backdrop for our own human dramas and catastrophes: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods. Perhaps if we bring art to the discussion of the wild we can create a sensation where people will pay attention to the shock of what has always been here Away from the Flock (1994).

Wild Beauty in the Minds of the Living.

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