Executed in 1995 as a gift for Bowie, Untitled Fish for David is directly related to Hirst's first Natural History works Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Left) and (Right), both from 1991, which represent the first examples of the artist placing animals within Perspex boxes filled with formaldehyde. Here in the present work, the fish solitarily enshrined within its own glistening enclosure seems perpetually frozen. The chemical acts aesthetically to maintain an illusion of life in death. The early fish works such as this hold a place of prominence in Hirst’s oeuvre alongside the iconic tiger shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, exhibited at the Young British Artists show held at the Saatchi Gallery in 1992. Formaldehyde performs a metaphorical role for the artist, offering a feeling of permanence amidst the impermanence of life. The poisonous liquid encompasses the power to both preserve and harm, and serves as an aesthetic metaphor here preserving the illusion of the fish's life underwater. Speaking of this quality, the artist has stated he ‘employed [it] as much to communicate an idea as to preserve, act[ing] aesthetically to maintain an illusion of life in death’ (the Artist quoted in Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London, 2005, p.9).
By encasing the fish in formaldehyde and presenting it in the Minimalist perfection of the vitrine, the artist conveys a profound inquiry into human existence. From this elemental concept, the vitrines have come to encapsulate ‘a fear of everything in life being so fragile and wanting to make a sculpture where the fragility was encased. Where it exists in its own space. The sculpture is spatially contained’ (the Artist, quoted in Virginia Button (ed.), The Turner Prize (exh. cat.), London, Tate, 1997, p.114).
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