Join artist & teacher Rob Hunter on a deep dive through Damien Hirst’s Venetian spectacular ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ via Duchamp, The Matrix, Goofy & Louis Vuitton…
A trip to see as much of the old country’s art thinly disguised as a holiday, meant the much anticipated shipwreck show could be explored. Little did I know that the experience would mean having to re-evaluate much of what I had already seen.
Like many international exhibits you had to want to see it in order to see it because getting there was more than a tube stop, budget flight or stroll over a millennia bridge.
The lengthy queue for the necessary canal boat meant it felt like everyone was headed for the same place. In the end they weren’t but it felt like it at the time.
First stop Palazzo Grassi. ‘The Fate of a Banished Man’ protruded from the venue’s waterfront and was an impressive emblem in its own right but not a true indication of the colossus waiting around the corner.
‘Demon with Bowl’, an 18 metre high headless figure was simply irresistible, its muscular drama reinforced by its tapered pose. The childlike sense of awe the closest I’d felt since seeing Clash of the Titans for the first time. It also served as a totem for the exhibition’s recurring motifs- realism, resplendent texture and Hirst’s raison d’etre, the mechanics of spectacle.
The Fate Of A Banished Man – Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. © Rob Hunter
A cursory glance at the show’s complementary handout was useful in that it delivered to us with no art speak. The annotated diagrams were convincing and felt like those in museums. However, there were a number of neat re-writings of history by the exhibition’s in-house commentator Amie Corry. She shoehorns the context of works into factual accounts of other antiquities that allegedly exist in other museums around the world.
These were enticing but opened up further conceits which were both cheeky and absurd (if you chose to do your own homework, presumably online). When delivered so eloquently there came a point where the preference was to run with the illusion rather than contest it. A bit like the decision made by Cypher (the Judas-type character) in the Matrix who betrayed his moral compass and chose the pleasure of artifice by declaring “ignorance is bliss”.
The concentric, repetitive nature of the gallery’s riad structure meant that this gigantic sculpture in the centre court always felt within touching distance. A constant reminder of one of the show’s main propositions: the unavoidable magnetism of objects and their capacity to dictate our sense of value despite scale or material.
Hirst also seemed to be poking his finger at how we experience work through the conditions set by the institutions and conglomerates of the international art game; but still celebrating the fun to be had at man-handling an audience’s reaction from room to room. I lost count of the ooohs and aaahs expelled by viewers.
Among the highlights was the self portrait ‘Bust of the Collector’ in which he announces himself as a powerbroker amongst the elite. One of a succession of patrons who have engineered the history of art in their own image. But who’s personality were we to elicit from this verdant bronze? Like Gavin Turk’s Sid Vicious Elvis selfie (1993) just think Hirst as Picasso as Constantine the Great.
Bust of the Collector – Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. © Rob Hunter
If we were to draw a Venn diagram of the qualities shared by these bedfellows of bonanza art, Hirst would comfortably sit in the intersection between visual impact and immediacy of interpretation. These guys use a pungent graphic language that commits us to hypothesise as soon as we set eyes on it. Yet there was something else happening here that couldn’t be wrapped up neatly à la the gift shop.
Damien Hirst – Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable Catalogue
Features 200 color plates and essays over 322 pages. 32.9 x 4.4 x 27.2 cm
Works displayed are editions made in any combination of bronze, marble, crystal, gold or resin meaning the original may or may not always exist. The inferred absence of the original further underlines our fetish for it. Replicated forms good-to-go and available in the colour and size of your choice.
Was he trying to do a Duchamp? His famous urinal grew in legendary status after its initial disappearance, largely due to the artist corroborating a story around it using supplementary texts and the photograph by Alfred Stieglitz.
Fountain – Marcel Duchamp 1917 – photographed by Alfred Stieglitz
Deemed a seminal work from which all subsequent conceptual art pivots, Fountain’s silhouette has been likened to that of a Madonna and Child. An immaculate conception devoid of the need for hard evidence.
Hirst has intimated before that entire shows of his should be seen as fabrications by an alter ego painter, chemist or surgeon, existing one click away from more honest works. On this level Treasures from the Wreck operates as a grand stage production of himself as his own alias. Like he’s being himself but on purpose.
Further on the decision to position the playful bronze ‘Goofy’ straight after the melodrama of ‘Andromeda and the Sea Monster‘ proved a timely one. Just when you thought all of the t’s had been crossed in terms of exhausting references to mythological characters, we were jolted further into the realm of pastiche and time slips.
Goofy – Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. © Rob Hunter
Goofy (coincidentally my favourite Disney character) embellished in limpets from head to tail, looked rather splendid. It really was a self-aware joke that bordered on cheese, acting as a precursor to the spoofs of the same theme presented in the adjoining room. A conjured personality revealed only through its own shape and inferred mishap.
Imagine being so goofy as to get yourself covered in shells and (worse) plonked on a plinth for good measure.
If part of personality is forged by our expectations of how others behave and how we behave as a consequence, then Goofy was a succinct cartoon, a personality as predictable as he is secure in his own form.
The small and intimate piece ‘Praying Hands’ (after Albrecht Durer’s original drawing) worked nicely as a pause before moving onto the other venue. Perhaps the artist was signing off with his own whimsical prayer- hoping we praise his latest offering? More profoundly, it functioned as an economic sketch of the need for salvation now, then and forever.
The second chapter of the show takes place at the Punta Della Dogana, arrived at via a myriad of narrow lanes and bridges. You’ve got to hand it to Hirst for this choice of location just next to the imposing church of Santa Maria della Salute.
It couldn’t have been a bigger clue to the subject matter at which the artist was indirectly taking aim. Inside, the venue was reminiscent of the inverted bowels of an ancient ship clad with timber buttresses setting the tone.
The work felt at home in both venues, not unlike the experience had at Dali’s own narcissistic museum in Figueres. Speaking of which, here was another of the big boys the artist aligns himself with. In an unapologetic reference to the Catalan’s series of golden miniatures, Hirst himself presents countless pieces in the ductile element.
Sun Disc – Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. © Rob Hunter
The geometric simplicity of ‘Sun Disc’s’ outer rim was echoed in the facial symmetry of its inner relief. It wouldn’t look out of place in a Pagan ritual but I suspected it was a personal tribute to the owner of the face used to cast the central relief. Either way, it’s photogenic quality was undeniable.
These mythological trophies and trinkets sat effortlessly in the space between Dali’s floodlit vaults and the quasi-religious set props of Spielberg’s Raiders for example.
So this is perhaps where the once enfant terrible of the art world finds himself these days. Vying for our attention amidst his own back catalogue and a melting pot of cultures. He is clearly playing to type. You get the impression he’s saying: “if you thought I was a showman with an open cheque book before, wait ’til you getta loada this.” Avida Dollars indeed.
The pseudo documentary films presented in the mini cinema rooms of Palazzo Grassi drew us further into another of Hirst’s dictums: is reason the legitimate understudy of truth?
The film presented at the second venue reveals the logistical truth in the making of the atmospheric lightbox imagery as well as the earlier films but this in turn triggered another set of assumptions. What if this too were staged, or, why should we believe this on any level whatsoever? Can we trust doubt even? Crikey, time for lunch.
Whilst swiping through pics during one of those international sandwiches, the planets momentarily aligned and Hirst’s embellished pup (listening Jeff) transformed into a piece of sculptural poetry, an eloquent time capsule projecting a vision of where our daft century of misfits might find themselves in posterity. If I could afford it I’d buy it and look at it every day. But I can’t so I won’t (if you discount it being my phone’s new screensaver).
The fact that these pieces were in Venice, itself hovering above a watery underworld, added weight to the show’s dreamlike credentials.
The cinematography of ‘Mickey Carried By Diver’ transported me to a surreal place, where we were as likely to bump into Vic and Bob cavorting as performance artists as we were Charlton Heston’s displaced astronaut on the run from apes and returning home to find a post-Apocalyptic sculpture.
Mickey Carried by Diver – Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. © Rob Hunter
I tried to imagine how it might have felt seeing these captivating objects for the first time with clean, unadulterated eyes. As if one of the neighbouring church-goers had inadvertently popped into the show next door because of their curiosity rather than Hirst’s notoriety.
The raw spectacle of witnessing an enormous grizzly bear straddled by a crazed sword-wielding warrior goddess would surely burn itself onto most retinas, no? Although it could be argued that regular visitors to basilicas get to see their fair share of outlandish iconography at the best of times.
The Warrior and the Bear – Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. © Rob Hunter
Hirst’s signature styles of dots, butterflies or vitrines have been usurped by a figurative realism appropriated from Minoan, Aztec, Greek and Roman art.
In a way, these surrogate figures were there to prop-up a closer examination of texture. Many of the works ‘recovered’ from the wreck had a residue of organic crust clinging to them, suggestive of a thin but stubborn layer of biological life. The intricacy of the hand-painted surfaces meant they were monumental landscapes in their own right. But like his dead butterflies, they were alive only through their appearance.
Sculpture – Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. © Pinault Collection
By repeating the same qualities from piece to piece there was a danger the viewer might switch off. However, because a consistent colour palette is used throughout, it conjured an interesting dilemma about nature, creativity and design. His business savvy means that the colour scheme will probably become recognisable as his own, acting as a subtle trademark, if that is possible. Colour as commodity. Just not as blatant as the spot paintings.
During a visit to the Uffizi museum in Florence the epiphany I suspected was in the post, arrived. Countless rooms of religious works, serving up similar parables from a drop down menu of players, poses and presumptions. The volume of tourist traffic did its best to reinforce the significance of these biblical depictions by paying the entrance fee and merely looking at them. Overkill to the nth degree, met square on by an audience’s relentless appetite for more. In retrospect, this made Hirst’s epic show of 189 works look bizarrely like small potatoes.
There was a nice moment when a priest glided around in the quiet manner of contemplation one would expect. However, he too needed to check the info panels next to each work to confirm what was being looked at. A purveyor of truth topping up on dogma and specialist vocabulary. I saw him in the gift shop later buying a Leonardo print. Which was nice.
A block away Louis Vuitton’s windows were pushing designer bags printed with reproductions of old master paintings and rubber stamped by Jeff Koons. Enough said.
It would seem people in general need to be told what they should be looking at. Each story framed, re-told and supported by an unwavering desire to buy into it, even if only momentarily.
This then was Hirst’s momento mori to Christianity, a story painted in gold and one which the Roman civilisation originally lampooned but were then told to adopt as their own. He has dodged using any direct references. Instead, by insinuating the statuesque nature of biblical figures that litter cultural hotspots like Vatican-land, he brings them into sharper focus albeit at one remove. This technique is not dissimilar to that employed by sci-fi filmmakers who decorate their stories with alien life forms as a way of getting the audience to examine themselves.
However, on a more ominous note, the pitch of this pantheon did little to suggest that anything has changed since the economic dynamics of the Hellenistic age, which was more than a tad worrying.
Drawing – Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. © Pinault Collection
On departure and as Venice flattened out in the distance I reflected on the recent encounter and returned to the assumption I had made waiting on the initial boat ride in; despite the works appearing melodramatic they still felt like the real deal. I have read that some view this exhibit as a write-off rather than an authentic wreck and that Hirst has drawn out an idea to the point of exhaustion.
Furthermore, that the hand of the artist is nowhere to be seen (again) other than in the room dedicated to beautiful Raphaelite drawings, produced in graphite and signed, incidentally, with another of his anagrams ‘In this dream’.
Damien Hirst – One Hundred Drawings
100 full page colour images using silverpoint, lapis lazuli pigment and gold leaf. 212 pages. 38.7 x 2.8 x 31.2 cm
So what is more remarkable? The shipwreck legend being true or the exquisite carving skills of those commissioned to produce works like Two Large Urns in Carrara marble? Indeed, what will be made of these in a thousand years?
Two Large Urns – Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. © Rob Hunter
A bit like the upturned glasses in one of his cabinets of the early 90s, I chose to adopt an optimistic outlook. The artist’s relentless outpouring ought to be celebrated even if his tongue is firmly in his big fat Greek myth cheek. This show is an allegory of its times, projecting forward and reminiscing back on its own kitsch influences. An era, however brief, in which the expressive brevity of emojis compete with consummate column inches. If the architect in the Matrix were to create a virtual omnibus of the last two millennia it would probably look like this.
In fact, it wasn’t the volume of objects that was the spectacle but rather the sheer magnitude of visual stimuli relayed through the artist’s own wee head. And his recognition of the viewer having the potential to digest it all too. Good on him.
In my eyes, and on that day at least, Hirst infused parody with sarcasm, history with self-righteousness and managed somehow to serve up pure beguiling gold.
Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ is showing at Palazzo Grassi & Punta Della Dogana, Venice until December 3rd, 2017.
Exhibition prints will be added to our Damien Hirst page if they become available.