WATCH YOUR BACK, MR HIRST

THE BROADER PICTURE
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The Independent Culture
NO, IT'S not rubber. This is not a scene from Jaws. Those are real teeth, belonging to a Great White Shark swimming in the sea off South Africa. Between its, er, jaws is a picture by the British artists Olly & Suzi, who specialise in getting frighteningly close to the endangered wild creatures they paint.

That has meant putting themselves within mauling distance of polar bears in Canada, wild dogs in Tanzania and tigers in Nepal. The artists, who work hand-over-hand (literally) while watching the wildlife, insist on some interaction with their subjects - by leaving the artwork out to be found and clawed, for example.

Working alongside a tagging programme by conservationists from the White Shark Research Institute, Olly & Suzi (both 29) spent just over a week diving at Dyer Island, five miles off the coast of Cape Town. They were underwater for an hour at a time, in a cage suspended over the side of a catamaran, while the sharks circled, attracted by the scent of "chum", a mixture of blood and sardines. These sharks were live and dangerous, not dead and safely suspended in formaldehyde like the work of Damien Hirst.

"It was unexpectedly scary," admits Olly. "The visibility was not that great at first, so you see this shape coming out of the gloom and suddenly there is the shark. It is hard to breathe when that happens, le t alone paint."

Many of the 32 sharks they saw were longer than five metres, and weighed more than two tons. They could swim at 30 knots, often heading straight for the cage then veering off at the last moment. Some liked to bite the bars, or even ram their snouts between them. "When you see a shark the size of the boat circling, you know that if they whack the cage with their tail they're gonna smash it."

In the circumstances, finding the right materials with which to paint underwater seems like the least of the artists' problems. They used thick, hand-made paper mounted on polystyrene boards, and non-toxic paint, graphite and oilsticks.

"The work was complicated by the constant surge and the extreme cold of these dangerous waters," says Olly. "And the stress." He came to respect the sharks as intelligent and selective feeders rather than the indiscriminate killers of legend (and Spielberg films).

"They are not man-eaters but man-biters. Biting is the shark's way of investigating something." Which was why one Great White took a mouthful of a painting they left floating in the sea. "When we hauled the board in, the corner where our signature had been was gone. An hour later we spotted the missing chunk, which the shark had spat out."

! 'Raw', an exhibition of Olly & Suzi's animal paintings, is at Blains Fine Art, W1, 20 April to 16 May.

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