Exhibition Review

Damien Hirst. Venice

VENICE IS A city that floats in time as well as place. In contrast to Rome, steeped in ancient remains, Venice lacks a classical origin – its Greco-Roman antiquities were imported rather than unearthed. Renaissance artists such as Titian created a fictional past for the city, imagining mythological scenes in the landscapes of the Veneto. It is apt, then, that Damien Hirst has made Venice the setting of Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (to 3rd December), his own grandiose act of mythmaking and artistic renaissance. Ten years in the making, it is a wildly ambitious feat – a wholesale canon of fake history.

To call Hirst’s Venice extravaganza an ‘exhibition’ in the conventional sense would be to deny its dizzying excess of scale and spectacle. Arrayed throughout the two vast buildings of the François Pinault Foundation – Palazzo Grassi and the converted customs house, the Punta dell Dogana, Venice – this outpouring of bronzes, marbles, coins, gold and silverware, and other faux-archaeological curiosities in myriad precious materials, from malachite to jade, has the scale and interminability of a great imperial museum (Fig.90), or perhaps an ancient triumphal procession of spoils.

Navigating the galleries and stairways, one has sense of a giant classical-Baroque fist smashing through contemporary tastes and pieties. This fist finds embodiment in the headless colossus which rises through the three-storey atrium of Palazzo Grassi. Titled Demon with bowl (exhibition enlargement) (cat. p.155; Fig.92), the bronze-painted giant appears mid-stride, bearing a massive bowl, while its other hand hangs in the slackened attitude of Michelangelo’s David. The body is monstrous in size and bulk, its penis bearing down like a missile ready to fire. In a surrealist twist, its scarred bronze surface is littered with sea anemones, coral and cucumbers.

These marine accretions point to the elaborate backstory accompanying Hirst’s canon of objects. The treasures in Venice are said to derive from the art collection of Cif Amotan II, a freed slave from Antioch who lived in the first century AD and amassed a dazzling hoard from across the ancient world. Amotan’s ‘commissions, copies, fakes, purchases and plunder’ were lost at sea, and in 2008 the vast wreckage site was discovered off east Africa. In each of the show’s capacious venues, Hirst purports to show the recovered artefacts alongside ‘modern’ reconstructions. The date of 2008 is telling. It not only marks the decade-long germination of this project, but also takes us back to Hirst’s last great act of hubris – his auction of 244 new works at Sotheby’s, just two weeks before the financial markets crashed.

The Venice project reveals Hirst’s hubris to be undimmed. Much of the work looks different from anything he has made in the past, but his old fascinations with death, belief, reproduction – and lucre – remain palpable. There is a brazen admission of the way in which art (perhaps all art) professes its unbelievability while simultaneously luring viewers into its perfidy – demanding that we suspend disbelief. If Hirst’s largest sculptures in bronze and marble appear to have emerged from 3D printers (which in a sense they have – rendered from digital models by a foundry), this is part of the point.

The tale of the shipwreck is knowingly, preposterously fanciful. In various works, sea encrustations appear to have been incorporated into ‘original’ sculptures, as if they were always part of the work: Hirst’s fiction folds in on itself. Reclining woman (2012; pp.66–67), for example, a nude carved from glittery white marble, is presented as an antique fragment (supposedly the lid of a sarcophagus) – her breast and a slither of shin are missing – and yet she is garlanded with marble sea sponges. Elsewhere the shipwreck story – always paper-thin – seems to unravel altogether, as in the pink marble Five grecian nudes (2012; pp.48–49), which look closer to identikit shop mannequins.

Hirst has, in this way, created a corpus of work that revels in unreality and spills repeatedly into kitsch, an affront to good taste and serious judgment. But there is something liberating in this – not just for Hirst but the viewer. Not to fall – however grudgingly – for the pure spectacularity of the event would be to lack a sense of what has so often made art so powerful (if not always good). Every criticism that has been levelled at the show – of vulgarity, fakeness and profligacy – is part of its force, its pounding raison d’être. Many of the works are individually unimpressive, but this hardly seems to matter: through their scale and breadth Hirst’s treasures achieve a cumulative effect that is swaggering, almost pugnacious.

This bullishness is checked, however, by a lurking self-mockery. There is an obvious irony in the story of the former slave, ‘bloated by excess wealth’, and this quality pervades – more or less subtly – the entire display. The bronze Bust of a collector (2016; p.195) depicts Hirst in the guise of an ancient potentate, coral creeping across his shoulder like ermine. Each half of the exhibition is prefaced outside by an oversize sculptural tableau in marble or bronze. Each is titled The fate of a banished man (2008; pp.30–31; and 2014; p.153) and shows a man on a horse, being strangled by a massive snake – a kind of high-octane version of Leighton’s Athlete wrestling with a python (Tate, London). Possibly it is another oblique reference to Hirst himself, excommunicated by the tastemakers of the art world – squeezed but not yet vanquished.

These elements of humour and self-parody become overt in Andromeda and the sea monster (2011; pp.184–85). This truck-sized diorama in bronze shows the mythological heroine chained to a rock, howling like one of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s agonised portrait-heads, while a great white shark rears up at her. The shark, a melodramatic echo of Hirst’s becalmed animals in formaldehyde, is engulfed in a side-battle with an octopus and dragon. The spectacle is close to a theme-park sensation in fibreglass, subdued only by the midnight-blue tincture of the bronze.

If this work seems ridiculous and sublime in the same moment, it is because Hirst’s entire project is an elaborate hybrid. Greco- Roman myths and motifs figure heavily: one of the most memorable pieces is a screaming head of Medusa, reminiscent of Caravaggio’s painting, carved from malachite (pp.198–99; Fig.93); and there is also a towering pyramidal group depicting Cronos devouring his children (2011; pp.134–35), a kind of Baroque horror show-cum-garden ornament. But there are also myriad allusions to Indian, Egyptian and Meso-American cultures, not to mention more recent imports (‘made in China’ is stamped on the back of one statue). The entire experience is akin to a sprawling Modernist poem, littered with quotations and lurching between registers.

Occasionally, kitsch subsumes the work, as for example in a giant Aztec ‘calendar stone’, which recalls a floral plantation on a roundabout. But in parallel to the works’ sensationalism (or pure silliness) there is repeatedly a subtext of sensuality, irrationality or violence. At times this explodes into view: The minotaur (2012; pp.140–41) depicts the mythological beast – a rippling bronze hulk in black granite – having sex with a screaming captive woman.

We might detect, in this strange combination of bombast and beauty, a will not to be taken seriously. And yet there does seem to be a serious intent at the heart of Hirst’s project – a belief in art’s capacity to be many things. He steers a path between the relentless levity of (say) Jeff Koons and the portentous seriousness of contemporary mythmakers such as Joseph Beuys. By constructing an entire mythological world, he both parodies and probes the fickle nature of mythology (as, for example, does Ovid in the Metamorphoses, where seriousness and pastiche are frequently hard to distentangle).

It has been suggested that Hirst is, at heart, a curator more than an artist – as witnessed by his organisation of the exhibition Freeze in 1988, or more recently his Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall. But Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable makes clear that these are not separable identities. He has created (or curated) his own museum and mythosphere – a labyrinthine edifice, simultaneously monumental and flimsy, documented in an encyclopaedic catalogue.1 Excluded from the categories of good taste and critical discourse, he has written his own grand narrative – a glorious frame in which his work can reside on its own terms.


1 Catalogue: Damien Hirst – Treasures From The Wreck of the Unbelievable. With contributions by Martin Bethenod, Elena Geuna, Franck Goddio, Henri Loyrette and Simon Schama. 322 pp. incl. over 200 col. ills. (Other Criteria, London, and Marsilio, Venice, 2017), £75. ISBN 978–1–906967–80–2.