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Swimming Form in Endless Motion

Swimming Form in Endless Motion
acrylic, painted aluminium, shark and formaldehyde solution
36 x 144 x 72in. (91 x 365.8 x 182cm.)
Executed in 1993
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner circa 1995.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Lot Essay

Acquired directly from the artist shortly after its creation and held in the same private collection since, Swimming Form in Endless Motion (1993) is a poetically beautiful sculpture by Damien Hirst. A rare early example from his ‘Science for All’ series, which features animals preserved in clear acrylic tanks, it restages what is perhaps the most iconic image of Hirst’s career, and the most infamous in British art history: the shark, first seen in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). Here, rather than a vast tiger shark, a smaller specimen is encased in a vitrine. Its transparent case perches on a white-painted aluminium railing, which forms an ellipse more than 3.5 metres wide. While it is perfectly still, the shark appears to be travelling in a perpetual, looping circuit. Its propulsive, streamlined natural form contrasts poignantly with the artificial geometries of acrylic and metal. Suspended between life and art, freedom and entrapment, it is emblematic of Hirst’s enduring themes: our reluctance to confront death, and the inexorable passage of time.

While Hirst’s sculptures owe a formal debt to Minimalism and Conceptual art, their inclusion of animal bodies lends his explorations of mortality a uniquely visceral charge. One of the artist’s earliest works featuring formaldehyde, Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding (Right) (1991), comprises thirty-eight different fish sourced from Billingsgate Market, London, each enclosed in its own vitrine. ‘The fish pieces came first’, Hirst said, ‘because you have to take them out of their element (the sea) and put them into formaldehyde. It preserves them in a very similar state to their natural one, only they’re dead. I used “swimming” in the title because they’re not’ (D. Hirst, quoted in I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, p. 298). This same irony pervades the present work, which arrests the shark in a paradoxical state of suspended animation: it has the appearance of life, achieved only through the eternal stillness of death.

Francis Bacon, acknowledged by Hirst as a significant influence on his own oeuvre, used cage-like ‘space-frames’ and other linear forms to offset and contain the spasmodic bodies in his paintings. His 1965 canvas After Muybridge Woman Emptying a Bowl of Water and Paralytic Child on All Fours (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) offers an intriguing parallel to the white railing in the present work. Bacon depicts two figures suspended upon a circular structure, which is raised on struts above a formless red abyss. The structure appears like a metaphysical racetrack: the crawling child in the foreground mirrors the crouched woman beyond, giving form to the endless cycle of life from birth to death. In Swimming Form in Endless Motion, Hirst mounts a similarly existential tableau.

In his career-long focus on mortal themes, Hirst has often investigated religion, science and art as intersecting belief systems. Religion holds the promise of eternal life; science seeks to prolong and optimise our earthly existence; art can extend beyond the maker’s death, granting a certain form of immortality. The shark—enshrined like a relic, preserved through scientific methods, and staged in its theatrical transit through art—touches on all these ideas. Roberta Smith wrote of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living that ‘the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank. It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form’ (R. Smith, ‘Just When You Thought It Was Safe’, New York Times, 16 October 2007). Here, as the slender creature balances precariously on its beam, Hirst’s vision is one of fragile hope. With a striking economy of means, he probes some of the most profound, even romantic, mysteries available to art: how do we keep going in the knowledge of life’s inevitable end? Are we truly free, or does our fate run on fixed tracks towards its only certainty?

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