This is the full text of an article about a preserved and abandoned shark I submitted to Vice in early 2019. Vice weren't interested in my extended ramblings at the time, so I present them here.
This article contains hyperlinks.
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In 1991, advertising mogul Charles Saatchi gave young British artist / Young British Artist Damien Hirst £50,000 - or maybe a blank cheque - to make an artwork of Hirst's choice. Hirst paid for a four metre tiger shark caught off the coast of Queensland, Australia to be preserved in formaldehyde and mounted in a glass and steel vitrine. I can’t conceive of a world in which you haven’t heard of this work. A few years later, the piece sold for eight million dollars. Or maybe twelve million dollars. Who knows? These are internet facts.
One of the striking things about the work is how neatly it fits together. The shark is a carrier for two slightly different thoughts about death. Standing in front of a large predator in what appears to be its natural state is to experience some level of apprehension about one’s own imminent death. But at the same time, the viewer is in presence of an actual corpse, close at hand yet simultaneously out of reach. To stand with the work is to oscillate between a conception of death as very close and impossibly far away. Something huge and ungraspable and a little exciting. The title is so apt: "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." It’s a really smart, deft piece.
Or maybe I’m talking shit. I’ve never been to London or New York or Austria or any of the places that have hosted this or Hirst’s subsequent series of shark pieces, of which there are now more than ten. (The guy really churns them out). In all likelihood I never will. A lot of things and places in the world currently exist for me only as ideas. Hirst's sharks, the ten thousand year clock, the continent of Antarctica. Ungraspable in a metaphorical sense, but also in the very real one that plane travel is expensive.
A few weeks ago I saw an ersatz Hirst on the outskirts of Melbourne, though, and I have some thoughts about that.
Here’s some more facts, in so far as the recollections of people directly connected to the events can be considered facts. Over a period of time in the late nineties, a large white pointer shark was sighted repeatedly in the waters off Port Lincoln, South Australia. The animal was seen often enough for locals to give it a nickname - Rosie.
In 1998, Rosie was caught and killed in the tuna nets of professional fisherman and champion weightlifter Dean Lukin. Via a series of events that I’m still not entirely clear on, Rosie’s corpse was bought, preserved in formaldehyde, and mounted in a steel and glass vitrine the size of a bus. Chris Cohen, one of Rosie’s subsequent owners, tells me preserving Rosie would have cost a small fortune. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of $250,000 dollars. 
Who does that? People spend that sort of money on asinine things like houses, objects viewed solely through their potential to provide a tangible return on investment. Throwing around bulk cash for a shark is an act that concords with the contemporary art world’s magical relationship with money, where an object and its cost have no discernible connection. But I find it hard to imagine that anyone outside that world would view a preserved shark as anything but the most speculative of buys. What does that leave as motivation? Who is so in possession of their desires that they say, yes, this is where my money will go. This is the financial hill I will die on. 
Late last year, a recent acquaintance that had been dipping their toes into the urban exploration scene told me over a beer that within an hour and a half of where we were sitting, a four metre white pointer was preserved in formaldehyde in an abandoned wildlife park. They told me that people in the “urbex” community were usually quite careful with this sort of knowledge - that facts of this sort are typically held closely - but they personally couldn’t understand how they’d seen something so compelling and bizarre and someone else couldn’t. They gave me the name of the park and where I could find it, and then we talked about dogs for a while.
After Rosie was pickled (quite possibly before then - maybe he was the one that dropped the coin on her preservation), she passed into the ownership of Victorian businessman Ken Armstrong. Armstrong intended for Rosie to become a star attraction at the Seal Rocks Sea Life Centre in Phillip Island. At the time, a fairly typical small-scale ecotourism venture comprising of education displays, cafes and gift shops; the Seal Rocks Centre had wild plans in the late nineties to become something far grander. A planned second stage of development would have comprised the extension an underwater tunnel to a large fur seal colony some distance offshore, where tourists could stand on a viewing platform and see both the seals and, somewhat morbidly, the sharks drawn to the colony, up close. Fur seals make up a significant portion of the Great White Shark diet, so you can probably see the aesthetic, if not necessarily the fiscal, synergy in such a display.
The centre’s ambitious expansion plans ultimately fell though over contractual disputes with the incoming Bracks state government in 1999, and the scope of the centre was reduced from something akin to the undersea park in Jaws III to what The Age later described as “a glorified kiosk where you can get a cup of tea and go to the toilet.” 
Left without a suitable exhibition space, Rosie was temporarily rehoused in a small wildlife park off the highway between Melbourne and Phillip Island largely dedicated to the conservation of the Gippsland Giant Earthworm.
Steven Spielberg has said that much of the success of Jaws, the movie that made his career, ultimately came down to the crappiness of the mechanical sharks constructed for the film. With the sharks falling somewhat short of total verisimilitude and prone to failure, the movie was largely constructed around the suggestion of a killer shark; a kernel of an idea around which viewers could construct a much more impressive creature.
In the days after initially finding out about Rosie, I spent some time searching the internet for more information. It’s a testament to the prudence of the urbex community that despite the shark’s fairly obvious appeal, search queries like “shark in formaldehyde -Hirst” and “abandoned park +shark” came up largely empty. The juiciest results were this immensely evocative photograph and an accompanying thrilling, but sadly vague, reddit post.
With only a single image to go on, I was free to make what I wanted of the shark in my mind. The imminent possibility of standing before it prompted all sorts of thoughts about the effect that Hirst’s shark is supposed to have on the viewer, and triggered intense memories my own childhood spent largely around the ocean.
I remember a time in my mid teens, for instance, when my father and I came across a long, disgusting trail of fat on the surface of the ocean off the West Australian coast. We followed that slick in dad’s little aluminium runabout for a couple of kilometres before discovering an enormous pink corpse at the end, like a repulsive pot of gold. A dead sperm whale was slowly rotating on the water’s surface as dozens of sharks and hundreds of sea birds slowly stripped it of flesh. When we got close enough to spook the birds, they ineffectually tried to fly away; too fat to take to the wind. The smell was unforgettable. Like someone forcing a stick of rancid butter into my nose and mouth.
I’d seen a lot of stuff like that and, even after moving away from Western Australia, had vivid dreams about the sea well into my twenties. I was fully primed for a Stendhal moment spent hyperventilating in front of a magnificent corpse that someone had made, mounted, and discarded.
In 2003, not long after Rosie was rehoused at Wildlife Wonderland (home of the Giant Earthworm), the park, and - importantly - all documented and undocumented additions were bought by locals Robert Jones and Chris Cohen. Jones told me that the duo expanded the park’s wildlife offerings to include animals with more pull than earthworms - koalas, dingoes, that sort of thing. In the early years of his ownership, Jones said, the park did a brisk trade with tourists driving from Melbourne to the larger attraction of Philip Island. The previous owners had charged entry to see Rosie, who had by then been housed in a shed attached to the park replete with the usual museum-style info stations about shark types and the food chain. But Jones and Cohen were confident enough of Wildlife Wonderland’s other attractions that they pulled out the turnstiles to the shed and let visitors in for free.
I find it strange that someone would do that. If people want to see something, why not milk it? It’s not like a preserved shark’s a low maintenance asset. Aside from the upkeep of its shed, the ongoing preservation of the shark was somewhat involved. Under Rosie’s vitrine at Wildlife Wonderland was a large void space for draining her preservative fluids when staff needed access to (for example) replace loose teeth. The formaldehyde solution had to be continually topped up and pumps circulated and filtered the fluid to keep it from going murky. There were, in other words, costs involved, as well as some interest in the shark from abroad. Some time after dropping Rosie off at Wildlife Wonderland, Ken Armstrong, Rosie’s original owner promised the shark to the Melbourne Museum, who were understandably keen to acquire it, to the point of entering a legal stouche with the park. Then-director of collections Robin Hirst (Hirst!) described Rosie as “an extremely important specimen for the public,” and “one of the largest known specimens.” Having seen the museum’s plaster sharks I can see their point. The fake article’s not the same.
But Jones and Cohen held their ground and defended their ownership of a shark they were letting people see gratis as if it were a nice bonus to holding a koala or learning about earthworms … and won. No one disputes that Armstrong offered the shark to the museum, but ownership appears to have rested on the timing of that offer. When Armstrong offered to donate the shark, the park had already been sold, along with it the entirety of its contents, listed and otherwise, meaning the shark stayed where it was, among decidedly terrestrial animals. When I asked about all this, Museums Victoria, parent organisation of Melbourne Museum, told me that they “investigated the acquisition of this specimen some time ago, but the decision was made not to acquire the object due to its poor condition.” Maybe. Jones tells me Museum staff would hang around the park eyeballing the shark, so I guess they liked it once.
Not having a car, it took me a couple of weeks to find a suitably enthusiastic friend willing to drive out to Wildlife Wonderland to see Rosie with me. (I guess I’m not very persuasive). A few days before we planned to go, a video popped up in my YouTube feed of local urban explorer LukieMC entering the park and encountering the shark. Promoted by YouTube as a “recommended” video, the footage accrued millions of hits in a matter of days. First, let me say this: I was into the shark before it was cool. Secondly, I was curious that despite the massive attention it received, LukieMC’s video featured very little of the shark itself.
Title and thumbnail aside, the vast majority of LukieMC’s footage comprises standard urbex fare of documenting the kipple that’s slowly overtaken the park in the seven years since its abandonment. For less than a minute, towards the end of a half hour video, LukieMC and his friends are shown entering a cluttered shed containing a large, murky vitrine in which, yes, a large shark is clearly visible. The explorers briefly comment on the smell and how bizarre the shark’s presence is, before panning across to some abandoned arcade machines. From there, the footage continues to document their exploration of the rest of the park. A proliferation of videos were posted by other YouTubers in the days immediately after that first clip went viral. They all follow the same pattern: some feigned enthusiasm about the park, a brief shot of the shark, and a description of the smell.
Another notable pattern I saw in the sudden influx of videos of the park was evidence of a rapid onset of vandalism. In LukieMC’s first clip, it’s possible to see, if you’re paying attention, that someone has pried the roof off Rosie’s vitrine. In the videos from other YouTubers that immediately follow, a television has been thrown into the tank, and a delicate network of cracks has appeared in the glass where someone has gone at it with a hammer or some other blunt object. Once again in the public eye, Rosie begins the process of vanishing. In hindsight, it’s obvious why people keep this sort of stuff to themselves. To varying degrees everyone has a killjoy dickhead somewhere inside them, but some of us are better at holding them in than others. When knowledge of something ruinable propagates at the speed of thought, I guess it’s inevitable that someone’s going to give in to that impulse.
Ultimately it wasn’t an ownership dispute that killed Wildlife Wonderland. In 2006, Jones and Cohen had a falling out and Cohen continued to run the park with the help of two additional investors. Business dwindled somewhat as the M420 highway between Melbourne and Philip Island was converted to a dual carriageway and no immediate turn-off was built to the park. Without a convenient exit, those driving towards the popular tourist island would inevitably bypass Wildlife Wonderland, while those returning from a day of sightseeing weren’t as likely to stop. Cohen tells me that the park was already in decline when he sold it on to a third party in 2011, whereupon it rapidly fell into neglect.
However the neglect occurred, in 2012, the park was closed by the Department of Sustainability and the Environment on animal welfare grounds. Despite repeated warnings, Wildlife Wonderland had been operating in its death throes without a license to display wildlife. The park’s 130 live animals were transferred to nearby parks, the venue’s operators were evicted, and the park itself was shuttered. It boggles the mind that no-one collected the shark.
The original shark mounted within "The Physical Impossibility of Death in The Mind of Someone Living" deteriorated so badly between 1992 and 2004 that when Charles Saatchi sold it on to hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen, a component of purchase cost was the installation of a new, competently preserved shark. In an appropriately breathless account of this process The New York Times, writer Carol Vogel wrote in 2006 that “so toxic was the air that the property could only be reached through security gates and no-one, not even the artist themselves, was allowed near the shark without protective gear.” Well, yeah. Formaldehyde seems like pretty toxic stuff, potentially too much even for the superior constitution of a world renown conceptual ubermesch like Hirst.
Watching the videos of hoodie-clad YouTubers complaining about the smell emanating from Rosie’s damaged tank, I became grateful that I was just one of millions of people that had witnessed the shark from the safe distance of their computer screen. Forewarned and forearmed, my car-owning friend and I bought painfully expensive gas-vapour respirators, packed snacks, and went to see what promised to sit somewhere between a once in a lifetime experience and, at the very least, something you don’t see every day.
It behooves me, I guess, in a four thousand word article about the viewable presence of a curious object, to describe the experience of viewing said object. But try as I might, there’s isn’t much I can tell you about Rosie that is as interesting as *thinking* about the possibility of seeing her. The videos I’d seen, and aggregate news articles written from beyond touching distance, may lead you to believe that the journey to Rosie is an arduous trek over broken glass and jagged crapola. Not true. Her shed is the first thing you see from the side of the road, and she’s all of a two-minute walk from the property gate.
Pull up a roller door and there she is, in her huge dark tank, surrounded by seven years’ worth of clutter. Arcade machines, stacked chairs, cafe receipts, and a VHS copy of "se7en". With the top removed, the formaldehyde in Rosie’s tank is getting murkier by the day and without a powerful torch, it’s hard to make out her presence at all. But she is there.
Roll down the shed door and let your eyes adjust to the dark and her shape begins to emerge from the fluid, as she’s silhouetted by light entering the room through a hole in the roof in one corner. She’s large and strange and pairs well to the sound of wind rustling the shed roof overhead. The fluid in her tank catches the light and she stands out from the surrounding clutter. A sign on the wall reads “mysterious shark.” I’ll pay that.
Pull up the door again and all the crap around Rosie snaps back into focus and the magic of the experience vanishes. I wonder if that’s what it was like seeing her with a busload of tourists?
I’d love to tell you about the smell, but I have a family history of cancer so I spent my time around the Rosie wearing my expensive respirator. You can’t smell anything in one of those. That’s a curious sensation in itself. Like watching real life through a television; lacking one of the senses that tells you something is actually happening and you’re not just looking at a picture of it.
Driving away from the park, I got really into telling my friend about the last time I’d gone urban exploring some fifteen years prior. I’d stumbled upon an empty room in an abandoned government building that was full of gay porn and Phil Collins tapes and reeked to high heaven of ass, wet carpet, and lube. Absent the tedious details of the rest of the building, and framed by the suggestions of scent and colour and a particular kind of context, the story felt transcendent. More vivid, by far, than what actual miniscule contact it had presented with the sublime.
Hirst’s shark is presented in an empty white room and there’s no other cues in that space but the presence of the shark. What I’m saying I guess is that framing and space are important.
I’ve spoken to a few people that visited Wildlife Wonderland in the 2000s, and none of them remember a shark. That’s a truly surprising common thread among their recollections. They do, however, remember the Giant Earthworm. (The park features a large cast earthworm that visitors can walk through and, presumably, experience the life of a microbe).
When I spoke to Jones about his own recollections of Rosie, he said that seeing her in person was ultimately underwhelming; that after an initial period of curiosity, the shark rapidly became just another object. He spoke, instead, at length about the joy of handling the park’s other animals. He said he’d only have to tap his leg and the on-site koalas would climb into his arms of their own volition.
I remember some years back, I went to see a preserved colossal squid in Wellington, New Zealand. The idea of that was so thrilling that there was no way the actual carcass would live up to expectations. At the time, I remembered the vivid colouring of squids I had caught as a child, and how alive they had been when I’d hauled them out of the water. I couldn’t help but envisage some huge extrapolation of that. In person, the remains of the squid amounted to collapsed white flesh in a translucent soup. Smaller, experientially, than live animals I’d touched with my hands rather than my eyes.
I can’t deny that I had the same experience with Rosie, viewing her for the first time surrounded by boring old shit catching the same amount of light. It’s hard to feel awe in the presence of so much visual noise. Even with the door down and the lights out, watching the mysterious shark emerge from the gloom, she was smaller in the flesh than she had been in my mind. I guess most things are.
But her size changes in recollection. I don’t have space in my mind for all the inessential crapola around her, and the knowledge that she’ll vanish soon as some fuckwit succeeds in punching a hole in her tank overlays other thoughts onto her body. She becomes simultaneously large and fleeting. It’s curious to think of her changing in this way; moving back and forth between being an object and an idea.
As an object, I can see why she’d be discarded. In that context, she’s less than the sum of her parts. (Besides, Cohen tells me, having not been gutted, her insides are now so brittle that she’s too delicate to move). In the course of researching this story, I visited the Melbourne Museum’s own preserved giant squid and felt the same boredom return that I’d experienced in Wellington. Whatever impact the large alien body in front of me might have had was crowded out by the density of facts from adjacent videos and displays and the sound family groups. There was no space to mentally transfigure the rotting flesh into something bigger and more alive amidst all that bullshit.
But I’ve also experienced first-hand how big Rosie can be when she exists only in the imagination. The most curious thing is that right this second, she’s both – somewhere between a viewable, touchable thing and what will remain when that entity is gone. In a way, her ongoing destruction makes her larger. As both of those things at once, Rosie is a carrier for multiple, intriguing ideas about the nature of expectation, the transmission of knowledge, and the lure of ruining things for everyone. (And maybe also, with the lights out, about the nature of death). Moreover, thinking about how she came to be where she is – who pickles and discards a Great White? - I can’t help but recall Damien Hirst's churlish reply to arguments about the apparent simplicity of conceptual art. Challenged with the idea that anyone could piss away a pile of cash by putting a shark in a tank, he famously replied “but you didn’t, did you?”
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- February 2019
Update: The short version of this story received a fair amount of attention when it was published on Vice, and Rosie has subsequently been "rescued," in so far as the shark's body has been bought for re-preservation and display at another site.
My interest in the story was primarily in Rosie as a vanishing object, so I don't have anything meaningful to add about subsequent developments (as yet). A regularly updated facebook group tracking the shark's status can be found here.
- March 2019