Saddam Hussein in a shark tank: How far is too far when it comes to free expressions of art?

By Christina Mitchell

At first glance, this piece of art is horrific to many. The sculpture was made by David Cerny and was nominated in Europe for a Turner Prize award. When looking at this piece of deemed artwork of Saddam Hussein in a shark tank, you begin to try and understand the artists reasonings behind choosing such a controversial setting. As you try to process the image, you try to reason any kind of psychological symbolism the artist is trying to accomplish.

I too looked for the symbolism in this, and possibly the artist means to connect Saddam Hussein to that of a shark by his wrongdoings to others in his lifetime, for in the west, sharks symbolize terror and violence. In America, Hussein caused feelings of anger, hostility and fierceness, and a shark is the most powerful predator of the ocean and is fearless.

Sailors once tattooed sharks on their bodies to prove they were not afraid of death. Possibly, this artist meant for the embalming fluid to be as the symbolic reasoning for his own death and Islam’s religion of embracing the afterlife. But then I saw the philosophical belief behind it, and I was completely thrown off. “Impossibility of death in the minds of something living.” Whatever could David Cerny mean with this statement?

In Polynesia, sharks protect them from enemies, and possibly, this art piece protects and carries on the Islamic religious beliefs. As I took in the title’s meaning, I tried to associate it with this sculpture that Hussein and his beliefs cannot die as long as his followers still carry on his legacy and their beliefs. This could possibly be the psychological connection between the shark, embalming fluid and Hussein. Although we will never know what provoked the artist to create such work as this, we can only assume the message he was trying to create with it.

There will always be controversial art throughout our world. From appropriateness to nude, to racial colors and demonizing statues or messages, as long as art has racial, ethnic or religious factors, it will be disturbing to someone somewhere. With this sculpture, the artist chose to depict a deceased person with little clothing on and tie his hands, leaving most people with a negative feeling of disrespect to the deceased as if he is mocking Hussein. If this image is meant for a public mockery and humiliation of Hussein, no matter what he has done in his lifetime, I think it would be inappropriate to display.

Is this acceptable to showcase publicly? This depiction has caused a hype around the world because it is racy and, to the eye, seems inappropriate. Perhaps the artist David Cerny meant for us to take a chance to look beyond its cover, opening the book fully. But one has to ask regardless of the details and symbolic reasoning for creating such a piece as this one where should we draw the line on free expressions of art?