On being a plagiarized artist

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Sep 052010
 

News have it those days that the mildly spectacular art produced by Damien Hirst actually reproduce the works of earlier installation artists. I am not mentioned, but I am sure I must be one of them. Damien Hirst is the artist who used, among similar activities, to pickle big fish is glass tanks and sell them for fabulous sums.

Shark in formalin tank

Damien Hirst: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image from Wikimedia is copyright, and is used here only because it is necessary for the discussion here.

The world’s museums art teeming with this kind of artwork. I was down in the fluid collection building here in Stockholm the other day, with a group of non-biologists, and as we were talking it did strike me what a marvelous exhibition we were standing in. Our collection is semi-open, so wherever you turn you are surrounded by glasses of fish and other animals, big and small, glass of different height and design, dirty or shiny, with alcohol from transparent to dark tea. And if you are lucky, the light falls so that you are yourself mirrored around the curves of the containers. There is beauty and dignity in the works of all curators in the past assembling and conserving those collections, and in the animals and animalicules themselves. A beauty from within, which is the beauty that comes with all the knowledge and wisdom embedded both in the objects themselves and in their potential for scientific research. What can be more attractive than the essence of scientific quest?

I would not call in the copycat shark installations. I and collegues have done better pieces for centuries, arranged them better, and we know how to preserve the soul of a fish. Our fish are not cheap either. It costs enormously to keep scientific collections. But that’s were the money should go. If you think of spending on pickled fish, talk to me …

Museum Wormianum

Ole Worm's(1588–1654) cabinet of curiosities. From Wikimedia, public domain

Indeed, today’s scientific collections sprang out of the whim of the 17th-18th Century curiosity cabinets, later natural history cabinets, maintained by individuals of the nobility or wealthy, and those were not primarily scientific, but art exhibits, specimens carefully chosen (or according to one’s purse) , cabinets meticulously handcrafted, and displays harmonizing with architecture and style of decoration. Everything after that pretending to be art is a bleak copy of the creations of the hands of mostly nameless master taxidermists and other conservators.

What, me envious?

Rather than worry, this is a strong recommendation to spend the weekend, or any day, at the nearest museum. Find the fish in ethanol, they are not many those days because of fire regulations, bleaching in light exposures, and the general trend in natural history museum exhibitions to prefer paper, plastic, and LCD  screens.  If you find one, maybe it conveys the sense of  the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living, maybe something else, or maybe you are just happy that I reminded you of the richnesses of the world’s natural history museums and scientific collections.

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