Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living, 1991. Glass and steel. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Figure 1. Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living, 1991. Glass and steel. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Julia Dry

Postmodernism is an artistic, architectural, and critical movement, which emerged in the 1960s and 70s. According to Kevin Hart, it is “an open set of approaches, attitudes, and styles to art and culture that started by questioning or exceeding or fooling with one or more aspects of modernism.”1 The postmodern approach is skeptical of totalizing philosophical or political theories and statements, and refuses ‘dominant ideologies’ that strengthen societal, political, or economical norms.2 It is a rejection of traditionally taught ideas of origins and foundations, of realism, the belief that language can translate the truth about reality, and of humanism, the idea that man was the source of knowledge.3 From a postmodern viewpoint, complete understanding of reality is unattainable.

The preceding movement that postmodernism grew out of is modernism, which dominated Western culture from the 1850s-1960s.4 In his Postmodernism: A Beginner’s Guide, Kevin Hart cites the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, to help explain the character of its response to modernism:

If the modern designates the era of emancipation and knowledge, consensus, and totalities, then the postmodern marks an attitude of disbelief towards the modern… Postmodern is what is most radical and irritating in the modern, what offends the canons of good taste: it insists on presenting what we cannot conceptualize, what we cannot find in our experience.5

Postmodernists disagree with modernists in their view that an artwork can connect to all of humanity through universal themes; they prefer to explore what might exceed our abilities to interpret.

A work that embodies this postmodern mindset is Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) [Figure 1]. He rejected the modernist focus on technical originality and instead embraced the deliberately impersonal through mechanical methods or deskilling.6 The work is a vitrine made up of steel and glass, sectioned into three cubes filled with formaldehyde, which hold the divided remains of a thirteen-foot, twenty-three ton tiger shark. The modernist ideal of authorship—of the unique presence of the artist’s hand as determining the authenticity of the work—is rejected through the use of found and industrially fabricated materials, which leave no sign of the artist’s craft. Regarding the author as the origin or authority of a work would be “privileging a particular set of meanings.”7

Hirst embraces a postmodernist approach by making art that follows the look and logic of consumerism. The tone of his work often emulates the spirit of accessible entertainment, in a way that rejects the high-minded seriousness of modernism. The vitrine recalls the display methods of department stores, and other popular forms of entertainment, such as aquariums. His glass cases evoke the spectacle of mass culture, and the ways in which its entertainments are packaged. In fact, one of Hirst’s favorite materials is glass. He views it as “a way to separate people but engage them. You can invite them in and keep them away at the same time.”8 The fact that Hirst is as equally interested in appealing to his viewers as he is in distancing them is another sign of his postmodern mindset.

Postmodern artists are not comfortable with inherited notions of “truth,” resulting in their association with the deconstruction of ideas. In this work, Hirst deconstructs the idea of death as a “physical impossibility.” Hirst says he chose the title of his work because it poetically expressed “something that wasn’t there, or was there.”9 The deceased shark, suspended in a tank of blue formaldehyde, looks as if it is swimming, and therefore still alive. The animal’s skin is preserved to look fresh, defying the traditional image of death associated with lifelessness and decomposition. Hirst plays with our perception of life and death, and our confidence in distinguishing between the two. He seems to be suggesting that rather than functioning in reality, we live in a world of shifting representations of it. Even the most basic distinctions—the one between life and death, for example—can no longer be upheld in a world of partial understandings. In his book, Postmodernism A Very Short Introduction, Christopher Butler summarizes the process and outcomes of this kind of postmodern deconstruction:

Understanding is always a form of misunderstanding,because it is never direct, is always a form of partial interpretation, and often uses metaphor when it thinks it is being literal. It is this central use of deconstruction to subvert our confidence in logical, ethical, and political commonplaces that has proved most revolutionary – and typical of postmodernism.10




  1. Kevin Hart, Postmodernism: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2004), 18.
  2. Christopher Butler, Postmodernism a Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 29.
  3. Hart, Postmodernism: A Beginner’s Guide, 19.
  4. Gambino, Megan. “Ask an Expert: What Is the Difference Between Modern and Postmodern Art?”, September 22, 2011.
  5. Hart, Postmodernism: A Beginner’s Guide, 2-3
  6. Gambino, “Ask an Expert: What Is the Difference Between Modern and Postmodern Art?”
  7. Butler, Postmodernism a Very Short Introduction, 23.
  8. Damien Hirst, interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist, An Interview, 2008.–huo.
  9. Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work, (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), 19.
  10. Ibid., 21.