BAIT AND SWITCH

Build your own Damien Hirst for just $88.

“I [am] getting bored with the dead animals.” — Damien Hirst, in the New York Times, March 14, 2005

Last spring British artist Damien Hirst’s 14-foot tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde sold to Steven A. Cohen, a New York City hedge fund magnate, for $8 million. Weeks later Hirst announced that he’d grown tired of his work with dead animals. So with one of the world’s richest, most sensational contemporary artists out of the pickled shark game, Radar decided to fill his spin art–splattered shoes. We gave writer Gersh Kuntzman a $100 budget and two days to create a sculpture that could net millions. Here’s his report.

A. FISH You can’t buy a 14-foot tiger shark at your local fish store — even when your local fish store is New York’s Fulton Fish Market, where 270 million pounds of seafood are sold every year. The fish­mongers had plenty of salty words (“Yeah,” said one, grabbing his crotch, “I got a shark for ya right here!”), but no sharks. Fortunately, one old guy had something equally menacing: a scaly lump of flesh so ugly, so misshapen, that it just might pass for art. “It’s a lumpfish,” he said, “a bottom dweller. Uglier than your cousin!” For just $20 I was in the art business. But how did he know my cousin?

B. TANK INTERIOR A 20-foot-long tank like the one Hirst used costs $10,000. I bought a 10-gallon one for $8. Hirst’s tank contains 6,000 gallons of formaldehyde. Price (not counting the rental of a ventilated warehouse, as required by OSHA): $72,000. I bought five gallons on bestlabdeals.com for $60. “You’re working with formaldehyde?!” shrieked the medical examiner’s spokeswoman when I called for advice. “It’s cancer-causing. You need a ventilation hood.” But at $12,500, I decided the cost was prohibitive. If I died of cancer, well, that would only drive up the asking price.

C. PRESERVATION For embalming tips I called Oliver Crimmen, curator of fish for the Natural History Museum in London. Crimmen taught Hirst to inject formalde­hyde deep into an animal’s tissue, a breakthrough akin to Braque teaching Picasso about cubism. (Although Hirst may not have listened too closely: His shark is reportedly decaying from within.) Crimmen’s advice, fish curator to artist? “Watch out when you’re injecting the skin, because it sometimes shoots right back out and gets in your eyes,” he said. “Also, Damien uses fishing line so the fish doesn’t sink.”

D. TANK SIDES With a hypodermic, fishing line, and the help of taxidermist John Youngaitis, I assembled the sculpture in about 15 minutes. I sealed the tank with special caulking that Crimmen recommended. “If you plan to show it publicly, some bureaucrat might ask you for proof of sealant,” he said. If I’m ever confronted by such a meddling philistine, I plan to respond, “I’ve got your proof of sealant right here!”

TOTAL COST To my eye Hirst’s 1991 piece, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, was no better than The Big Ugly Fish in the Tank of Formaldehyde. Since mine was about 1/100th the size, I set the price at $80,000. Neither Steven A. Cohen nor Hirst’s dealer, Larry Gagosian, returned my calls. Instead, Radar is auctioning off this masterpiece online.