In this vast Gloucestershire flatland dotted with abandoned airplane hangars, a former Royal Air Force Station where pilots once plotted classified missions during World War II, the artist Damien Hirst was overseeing a secret operation of his own one recent morning.
It was a delicate undertaking, one that required rubberized protective jumpsuits, long tables of medical equipment and more than 848 liters of formaldehyde. The goal: to replace the decaying tiger shark that floats in one of Hirst's best-known works of Conceptual art, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
As rap music quietly played in the background, five men and one woman wearing bright yellow suits, black rubber gloves and breathing masks huddled over the shark's hulking 3.9m replacement. The immediate impression was that the shark was being treated by a team of acupuncturists: some 200 large needles dotted its body.
So toxic was the air that the property could be reached only through security-coded iron gates, and no one, not even the artist, was allowed near the shark without protective gear. As Hirst, 41, looked on, he plucked a long hypodermic needle from a nearby worktable.
“Three different lengths of needles are being used to inject the shark with formaldehyde,” he said proudly, with the air of a child showing off a new toy. He flexed the syringe to demonstrate how the needles are inserted into the animal twice, each time penetrating deeper into the body cavity. “The last shark was never injected, so it decayed from the inside.”
The original shark — a 4.2m that was caught and killed by a fisherman in Australia at Hirst's behest in 1991 — was first unveiled to the public in its glass tank the following year at the Saatchi Gallery in London. It quickly became a symbol of the shock tactics common to the circle known as the Young British Artists.
Charles Saatchi, the advertising magnate and collector, had commissioned Hirst to make the work for £50,000 pounds, now about US$95,000. At the time that sum was considered so enormous that the British tabloid the Sun heralded the transaction with the headline “50,000 for Fish Without Chips.”
But as a result of inadequate preservation efforts, time was not kind to the original, which slowly decomposed until its form changed, its skin grew deeply wrinkled, and the solution in the tank turned murky. (It didn't help that the Saatchi Gallery added bleach to the solution, hastening the decay, staff members at Hirst's studio claimed.) In 1993, Saatchi's curators finally had the shark skinned and stretched the skin over a fiberglass mold.
“It didn't look as frightening,” Hirst recalled. “You could tell it wasn't real. It had no weight.”
In recent years, Saatchi has been selling off works by the Young British Artists that he collected so voraciously in the 1990s, and two years ago The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was purchased by the hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen, who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. He paid US$8 million for it, one of the highest prices at the time for a work of contemporary art.
The impetus was a call from Larry Gagosian, the Manhattan dealer, alerting him to Saatchi's intention to sell. Cohen knew the shark's history and its problems: that the piece was never properly injected with formaldehyde, and what was floating in the tank was a fiberglass shadow of its former self. But in a funny way, that too had its appeal.