Martin O’Brien, performance artist, on the Greenland shark.

Martin is the Whitechapel Gallery Writer in Residence 2023

GB Tell me why you chose this.

MOB When you asked me to choose an object of beauty the first thing I thought of was a shark. The shark is a thing that’s haunted me and I’ve been obsessed with as a child. It’s there in my performances too. This figure of the shark has always been there in my mind. So which shark? I think initially it was going to be the blue shark. It’s sleek, it’s small, it’s smooth, it moves quickly but very elegantly. It’s stunning. But the Greenland shark has been the shark I’ve been obsessed with for a long time. And in terms of beauty it’s not traditionally beautiful and it’s also filled with the abject. It’s almost a dinosaur as a creature and it’s so incredible in the way it manages to survive and exist that it had to be my object of beauty. I think it’s probably the most captivating thing living on the earth right now.

GB Is part of its beauty that it can live for hundreds of years.

MOB Yes, it’s almost unfathomable for us how this creature can just go on and on. That speaks so deeply to me, especially when I’m thinking about illness and death in my art. It seems to have a never-ending life and that’s so captivating. It’s a thing that stories are made of.

GB And it’s also so mysterious. Is that a part of the beauty? They live so deep down in the ocean and they don’t seem to do very much.

MOB That’s true, The mystery of the Greenland shark is maybe the most beautiful thing about it. We know very little about the Greenland shark. There’s very little interaction between humans and Greenland sharks because they live so deep and they’re the only shark that can survive in Arctic waters all year round. They migrate to find the coldest parts of the waters. All sharks are cold-blooded but the Greenland shark has the ability to survive in the most awful conditions and that feels like part of its beauty, its mystery, its intrigue. It’s incredibly slow. It moves along the seabed sniffing for a corpse to eat. Sometimes it eats seals when they’re sleeping. It’s not fast enough to catch them when they’re awake. 

GB It’s just so chill.

MOB Yes and there’s something terrifying about that. It’s like something from a horror film. It just keeps coming. It’s like a zombie shark. 

GB Talk to me about zombies because you call yourself a zombie too.

MOB I started calling myself a zombie after I outlived the life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis which was thirty years old. I’m now 35. I got into my thirties and said I’m now in my zombie years. It was tongue-in-cheek and playful but the idea is that death and life are both existing in a body at the same time. It seemed like a useful, interesting, camp way of thinking about illness and death without victimhood. It became a more joyful and playful way of thinking about illness and dying.

GB Do you think the Greenland shark has any awareness of death?

MOB It must be able to tell the difference between the living and the death. Rotting flesh must taste different. I sit and wonder about these creatures and their idea of death approaching. This shark’s lifespan is so long. Maybe it doesn’t understand it’s going to die. It just goes on and on as it if it is death.

GB It seems from your work that you don’t believe in an afterlife?

MOB Yes, that’s true. It makes death more scary and life more beautiful and celebratory, that we grab it and use it while we can. For the Whitechapel work, I’m thinking a lot about immortality, what it’s like to have a life that never ends, with the idea of being immortal as a corporeal being or as a ghost or some other undead thing. I’m trying to imagine what that might be like and the Greenland shark feels like the closest thing I can get to an immortal creature. The idea of an immortal life is a beautiful thing. As Freddie Mercury sang, “Who wants to live forever? I do.”

GB Do you think that we need some sense of purpose as humans and that the Greenland shark doesn’t have that? It just chills.

MOB Yes. I feel like religions are there to give purpose and a promise of an ongoing life or some reward for the struggles of life. The Greenland shark is the opposite of us in a way. It has no ambitions. It moves so slowly, it thrives in incredibly difficult circumstances and it just continues going. I love that as a metaphor for life. It just continues going at its own speed. It lives in the moment. Most of them have parasites feeding on their eyeballs so they’re blind for most of their life. What must it be to just keep going forward in this darkness?

GB I read that they don’t sleep. They have times when they are more or less active but they never fall asleep.

MOB So they feel every minute of a 500 year life span, just moving forward and eating and breathing, conscious the whole time.

GB Do you think that having faced mortality, that makes you want to make the best of every moment? Or are there days when you want to be more like a Greenland shark and just get through the day?

MOB I do think there’s a pressure in the back of my mind of having to do something. But I do try to learn from the Greenland shark and sometimes just exist. I think, particularly more recently, I’ve been able to take that on a bit, say, ‘Come on Martin it’s a Greenland shark day today so just slow down, exist, stumble around in your dark house.’ It’s a beautiful lesson to learn, that sometimes just existing is enough, that life goes on. One of my catchphrases with my collaborator Sheree Rose is ‘keep breathing.’ As long as we’re breathing, everything’s ok.

GB It’s interesting that you chose to make performance art which is transitory. Do you feel like you want to leave a legacy?

MOB That’s something I’ve been battling a bit in more recent years. I suppose I was drawn to performance. Most of my performances are durational and last for hours with an audience coming in or out with no real value to the performance in a classic sense. These are long, ongoing, laboured processes. It feels like I have a short life span and yet I’m doing ridiculously long performances of ten hours or even 24 hours. But then the fact that they vanish is part of it. There are physical objects that remain but they’re not the work. More recently I’ve been collaborating with film-makers, doing performances for the camera. So there will be something that outlasts me.

GB I suppose there’s also your mentoring work and even the effect your work has on people and the way they think about life.

MOB That’s true. The mentoring and teaching has been really important to me. I have former students who are out there making some incredible work and that feels really nice. It’s nice element of my practice, helping them develop. Maybe together we become a Greenland shark.

GB Do you think if we had a definitive answer to whether or not there is life after death it would change the way we live our lives?

MOB Oh yes. Definitely. And depending on what that afterlife was would affect how we live. Would we be preparing for what comes next? That’s part of the practice in some religions, preparing for the afterlife. Maybe it would take away some pressure on us to leave things behind or do things we think we need to do, if we were somehow immortal, that we could keep on going. It might take away fear but we would lose romantic mystery.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

MOB The reason I chose the Greenland shark rather than the classically beautiful blue shark is that beauty for me is not just an aesthetic category. It holds in it some mystery, some intrigue, some disgust even. The Greenland shark holds all those thing – mystery, desire but also a little bit of disgust and shock. It’s not about something being pretty. Beauty should hold so many different things at once.

GB And is beauty something you’d like people to find in your work?

MOB. Yes, I think my work is beauty. It’s beautiful in that it makes images that are sometimes repugnant, difficult, maybe shocking, but it’s created and curated in order to find the beauty and the mystery in the abject.

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