Project 1 – Exercise 4

Exercise 4 Looking at context

Write down a few words giving your first reaction to the piece. Do you have an emotional response to it? What do you think it’s about? What do you think about the title?

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst, 1991






I feel that I would have a greater emotional response if I were seeing Hirst’s shark in front of me, because I think an important part of this piece is to be faced with the size and menace of a shark that is placed in an environment it does not belong in. However, I can still have this feeling of awe at the animal and become thoughtful and pensive about its frozen state and what it might mean. I think the piece is precisely about this, about a frozen menace, about a feeling of anticipation for something that is not happening and about to happen, about fear of the unknown.

I understand what the title is referring to, of how it is unthinkable and uncomfortable to imagine how and what death is and the fact that it can’t be avoided. The shark’s menacing, yet unmoving, pose of anticipation before the kill can easily relate to the mystery, fear, and certainty that is death.

Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes' 1696 by Edward Collier active 1662-1708
Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’, Edwart Collier, 1696, Photo: © Tate, London [2016]





Even though this painting contains symbols relating to death and mortality, I don’t feel many negative emotions by looking at it. I feel a certain joy because of the various instruments and the focus on music, as well as the hopeful feeling that, even though death will come, there are ways to enjoy life and the pleasures that come with it.

A vanitas painting, such as this one, contains “symbols of death or change as a reminder of their inevitability” (New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition). Like with Hirst’s shark, I can feel the anticipation of something that is about to happen and death’s constant presence within life. Amongst all this luxury and pleasure, death is waiting just around the corner (literally) and it cannot be avoided. 

The title seems to be very direct, simply that this is a still life containing a book by George Wither. Doing some quick research, I find that an emblem is a symbolic representation of a quality or concept and that George Wither’s Book of Emblems is made up of his verses alongside allegorical illustrations. I’m not sure what the relation really is about, but I can assume that Collier wished to emphasise his own symbols with the presence of a book about symbolism.



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