The title card for the new installation of the Damien Hirst piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York lists the materials as "glass, steel, formaldehyde, shark," a deceptively straightforward description of what is one of the most iconic artworks of the past 20 years. The piece, titled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,'' consists of a large glass tank holding a 13-foot tiger shark, preserved in formaldehyde the color of a dreamy David Hockney swimming pool. The shark itself actually looks sort of sad, and already a bit worse for the wear. (In fact, the original shark disintegrated a few years after Hirst "immortalized" it in 1991.) Its wrinkled, velvety gray skin appears worn, like the Velveteen Rabbit after the fire. Suspended in its tank, it doesn't so much menace the viewer as evoke a deep loneliness: the terror it evinces is not of outside threat, but of the mortality we carry within ourselves. It seems fitting that Hirst's first specimen rotted from the inside out.
Ever since Marcel Duchamp displayed his dadaist "Fountain" in 1917, detractors have dismissed conceptual artworks as the sum of their parts, and sometimes used that logic as an excuse to form opinions without taking the trouble to see the actual pieces. In its current display, the shark—which will be at the Met for three years, its first extended stay in the United States—argues the importance of firsthand experience, not just of art, but of life. We are so accustomed to seeing images of sharks packaged for entertainment in full attack mode ("Jaws," "Shark Week") that it comes as a shock to see something we think we already understand, and notice all the details we got wrong. It's no coincidence that Hirst's piece shares a room with a copy of John Singleton Copley's 1778 "Watson and the Shark." Copley, who lived in London for most of his life, most likely never had the opportunity to see a real shark, and may have based his depiction on a set of shark jaws. We can forgive the erroneous assumptions Copley made about the creature, such as that tiger sharks have lips. But those who make assumptions about Hirst's work without seeing it no longer have the same excuse.