Exercise 5: Finding out more

We are asked to find two examples of still life work that include pictures of fish, so I chose two pieces from the Bridgeman site and sketched them in my notebook (there is a reason why I am interested in writing and photography, rather than in painting or drawing!).

Sketches of two still lifes with fish, 05/03/2016

The two images and notes are as follows:

  1. Sandra Lawrence, Starfruit and Fish, 1999 (acrylic of canvas)
    I liked the symmetry of the fish in this image and the way their curves contrast with the angles of the starfruit. There is also a hint of realism about the painting.
  2. Reuven Rubin, Still Life with Anemones, (oil on canvas)
    This image appealed to me for quite different reasons—I liked the stylized flowers and fish lying on a copy of the Haaretz newspaper. The painting is evocative rather than realistic and I think a boat and a tree are to be seen through the curtains. To be honest, I didn't even notice the boat-like shape until I started to make this rough sketch of the painting. Perhaps one value of sketching is that it forces us to slow down and be more attentive to what is in front of us.

The other part of this exercise involved watching a Khan Academy video on Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The speakers on the video discussed possible interpretations of Hirst's piece as well as meaning in contemporary art. Like me, one of the participants wondered if the title of the work was a piece of wordplay and mentioned that he could interpret, but felt "like I would be making stuff up."

One of the participants gave a useful quotation from Marcel Duchamp to the effect that "a work of art is completed by the viewer." I think that is a helpful insight: the artist makes some choices for the audience (one participant says Hirst "has framed the shark for us") but it lies with the audience to bring something to the exchange. Once we get away from the older still life that we saw in the previous exercise, where there is a familiar frame of reference, the artist can suggest possibilities to an audience that may reply with a range of interpretations, expected or unexpected. I think this can be both exciting and unsettling all at once.

The other line of discussion had to do with the fact that we all face death and don't like it. Hirst's shark is a physical demonstration that in spite of extreme measures—up to and including formaldehyde tanks—we cannot escape the effects of time and, ultimately, death. One speaker mentions how mummified Egyptian kings are an example of how constant the fight against impermanence has been in human history. This brought the discussion back to the issue of meaning and how much of contemporary art turns around issues of philosophy, aesthetics and the limits of interpretation: "is this a grand joke if nothing is off-limits?" Well, if the viewer is responsible for helping to bring meaning to art, then there is likely no final and satisfying answer to that question.

The additional contextual information about The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was helpful in reassuring me that there is probably no final "meaning" for a given work of art and that we are instead drawn into a discussion. Some points of view may be more informed, richer and more suggestive than others, but none is likely to be "correct."

Exercise 4: Looking at context

Looking at Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991

Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece.  

Puzzlement; uncertainty; grasping at meaning

Do you have an emotional response to it? 

No, no particular emotional response. It leaves me unmoved. 

What do you think it's about? 

It's static, frozen artificially in time (won't rot like any natural dead thing would). The shark looks like it's alive and swimming, but it's not. It looks as though it is threatening, but it is not.  Is it a caricature of a shark or of life? Is it about the appearance of life in death? The persistence of memory? It's hard to say with any certainty. 

 What do you think about the title? 

The title is ambiguous: the impossibility of whose death -- the thinker's or someone being thought of? Is the title even related to the piece or is it a joke on the viewer?


Looking at Edwaert Collier's Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes,' 1696

 Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece.  

Visually rich; lots to explore; engages the mind

 Do you have an emotional response to it? 

There is some immediate comfort in the familiarity, but the piece feels old-fashioned and tired.

 What do you think it's about?

This was a fairly common type of painting, generally a lesson about the certainty of death and how that knowledge should inspire us to sober reflection and living.

 What do you think about the title?

The title is bluntly descriptive of the image, but doesn't allude to any deeper meaning. It does make me wonder what Wither's Emblemes was about, though.


Of the two works, Hirst's definitely makes me work harder. With Collier I'm on more familiar ground and have a frame of reference that helps me to interpret it, even if not completely or perfectly. With Hirst, I'm quite lost without a guide to help me understand.