Damien Hirst is no stranger to controversy. The bad boy of British art is renowned for whipping up a storm and dividing critics… and that’s exactly what he’s done with his latest show at the Venice Biennale.
Treasure from the Wreck of The Unbelievable is an epic event staged across two huge galleries in Venice. “Bonkers but brilliant” or “bombastic excess” are just two of the critics’ reactions to his show.
Hirst is a lot like Marmite – one of those artists you love or hate. There isn’t a middle ground. Admirers claim this show is his best but detractors argue his career has sunk to the lower depths. I went along to discover whether it’s a hit or miss.
I’ve been fascinated by Hirst’s art for years so I was always going to be less harsh than his biggest critics This huge show is monumental and epic in scale, taking the visitor on an immersive visual journey which is compelling and fascinating.
Never mind Hirst’s earlier works – cows preserved in formaldehyde, coloured dots, real butterflies and the infamous shark in a tank. This is bold, new territory in which Hirst pillages the ancient art world like a thieving Magpie. Plagiarism? Not really.
What’s clever about this show is that Hirst dips into art history whilst adding his own original flashes of brilliance. This is Hirst as showman, ringmaster and magician. He pillages everything from high art to popular culture but with an original twist.
I’d recommend starting your journey at the Punta della Dogana where Hirst sets out his stall with a giant-sized sculpture of a hero on a horse slaying a serpent outside the gallery. It’s pure pastiche with a kitsch feel.
This is showmanship writ large – completely over-the-top and an indication of things to come.
Once inside the gallery, expect a thrilling rollercoaster ride although some visitors may decide they want to get off early before it gets all too much to stomach.
Imagine a cross between a trip to the British Museum and a Jules Verne journey ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ with pop culture thrown in for good measure.
The official story we’re sold goes something like this:
“In 2008, a vast wreckage site was discovered off the coast of East Africa. The finding lent credence to the legend of Cit Amotan II, a freed slave from Antioch (Turkey) who lived between the mid-first and early centuries CE. Amotan accumulated an immense fortune on the acquisition of his freedom… he proceeded to build a lavish collection of artefacts derived from the lengths and breadths of the ancient world”.
From the very start, it’s obvious that the whole thing is a hoax. But there’s a very convincing ‘Planet Earth’ style video of deep-sea divers discovering treasures from the wreck of the ancient Byzantine ship called Apistos (which translates as The Unbelievable”) under the Indian Ocean.
The film footage looks like a documentary but it’s a fake, a pure piece of fiction. Like fake news, it looks almost believable, but it’s a complete reconstruction of a scene that never happened. In reality, it was filmed in a tank with actors – and looks a lot like James Cameron’s movie, The Abyss.
We’re told that many of the treasures are being exhibited prior to undergoing restoration. They are presented heavily encrusted in fake coral and other marine life.
But are we fooled? The big clue is – of course – the name of the sunken ship featured in the show – The Unbelievable. In reality, everything about this show is ‘unbelievable’.
Blink and some folk might take the clever trickery at face value… but there are plenty of clues that everything is not as it seems, despite the ‘authentic’ captions with back stories about the exhibits. The whole thing is curated like an authentic show at the British Museum or Washington Smithsonian.
Whether you think the show is vulgar or magnificent, you can’t deny the sheer size and ambition of the 190 art works on display.
The sculptures are jaw dropping, having been meticulously created by Hirst and his team over a period of nearly 10 years, with fantastic attention to detail.
There’s everything from ancient heroes, sphinxes and sea monsters to mermaids, lion women and gorgons. Throw in a few mythical characters like Proteus, Cerberus and the Cyclops – and Damien Hirst’s ancient mash-up of characters is complete.
Hirst’s eye for detail is superb and it’s easy to spend ages ogling the individual sections of the giant-sized works.
Fake or fortune?
But is anyone duped by this cunning artistic magic trick?
Hirst provides a few clues along the way including one seismic jolt towards the end of the show when visitors come face to face with a work called ‘The Collector and Friend’.
On closer inspection, you’ll notice that it depicts a barnacle encrusted art collector (possibly Hirst himself?) with none other than Mickey Mouse as his side-kick. It’s hard not to laugh out loud!
But Hirst doesn’t stop there… he has also created a blow-up photograph of a diver rescuing Mickey from the wreckage of the sunken treasure ship.
Perhaps he’s teasing us about what our own civilisation will leave as our legacy to future generations in 400 years time… or may be he wants us to be in on the joke after all.
I can imagine Hirst telling friend and fellow artist Jeff Koons, the master of contemporary kitsch, about his hoax – and the two of them laughing over a glass of vino. Meanwhile, Walt Disney is probably turning in his grave – or guffawing that his iconic creation is being celebrated by one of the world’s most famous artists.
There’s no doubt that Hirst also poses interesting questions about the nature of art collection and curation… with a poke in the ribs to the elite of the stuffy art world.
It seems somehow appropriate that the show is being premiered in Venice, a city which was once home to one of modern art’s greatest collectors, Peggy Guggenheim. She brought American Abstract Expressionism to Europe in her groundbreaking shows.
Here, Hirst is transporting his own version of Pop Art to one of the world’s greatest cities, renowned for its classical and Renaissance art.
Everyone knows that Damien Hirst is obsessed with collecting things and presenting objects, from his carefully arranged cabinets of pharmaceutical bottles to cupboards full of shells and gemstones.
Here, he assembles collections of gold nuggets (some of colossal size), ancient ingots, weapons, daggers and jugs – to name a few.
We’re led to believe that these have been rescued from the sea bed and wreckage of ‘The Unbelievable’. Hirst uses real materials for many of the pieces which is pretty mind-blowing. I mean, how much gold did Hirst invest in to make these art works?
Perhaps he bought half the gold reserve that Gordon Brown sold off during the economic crisis in the 2000s? Given Hirst’s penchant for using expensive materials like diamonds, I wouldn’t be surprised.
There’s a particularly weird section of the show when Hirst gets all surreal and retro with a homage to his favourite artists – Dali, Duchamp and Max Ernst.
Is Hirst trying to make a point that he belongs to the same lineage of these artistic greats or is it just another big joke? Perhaps, it is simply a post-modern ‘mash-up’ with Hirst as the ultimate uber DJ, mixing visual toons?
Whatever his intentions, this is undeniably a dazzling show which provokes laughter, exhilaration, shock and – for some people – outrage.
Then the exhibition gets priapic with classical sculptures of sex scenes – involving ancient mythic characters. There’s a warning of graphic content. It’s all reminiscent of the controversy caused by Jeff Koons’ ‘pornographic’ sculptures of La Cicciolina.
Those shocked by large male genitalia may want to bypass this part of the show! Other people with broader minds and a predilection for soft porn images will lap it up.
Explore the galleries
Take a look at the weird and wonderful creations of Damien Hirst at the Punta della Dogana before moving on to the second half of this huge art show.
Go upstairs at the Damien Hirst exhibition to explore a range of works which draw on ancient art, classicism, surrealism and Pop Art for their inspiration… with an added flash of Hirst’s own brilliance.
Mad for art – Palazzo Grassi
If you think that the Punta Della Dogana show is weird, then you ain’t seem nothing yet… because the second half of the exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi is even more audacious and outrageous.
You know exactly what you’re going to get when you arrive and catch your first glimpse of Hirst’s huge sculpture on the Grand Canal – The Fate of a Banished Man (Rearing). It’s the matching half of the statue outside the first show at Punta Della Dogana.
It’s gross and bombastic for sure, but then that’s the point… but if you think this is the height of Hirst’s ambitions, then you’d be wrong… there’s much more to come inside the gallery.
It’s impossible to miss Hirst’s Demon with Bowl. I’m not sure how they fitted this 50 foot high statue through the doors – but hats off to the removal men who got it inside the atrium. It dominates the show, wherever you are in the building.
The gallery guide tells us that this is a monumental bronze, a copy of a smaller piece recovered from the wreckage. Characterised by its “monstrous gaping jaws and bulbous eyes”, it’s hard not to divert your gaze to one part of its anatomy… to put it bluntly… its huge penis!
Ancient Mesopotamian demons were complex primeval creatures according to Hirst and the bowl was supposedly used for collecting human blood. I’m not sure if I like the piece but you can’t deny that it makes a colossal impact.
Elsewhere, there are heads of demons, lions, dragons, unicorns, sea monsters, cyclops and even Walt Disney’s Goofy, to name check a few of the ‘treasures’.
To inject a note of realism, there’s a model of the ancient ship to prove that the Unbelievable would have been able to carry this massive cargo.
I’m pretty sure that my boat building friends would argue that this is exactly why the ship sank under the weight of all this gold, silver, marble and granite.
If you haven’t lost the will to live or been overcome by exhaustion, there are more goodies on the top floors of the palace including Hirst’s line drawings and light boxes of the diving mission.
Particularly weird are the statues of the dual-sexed god, Hermaphroditus with his/her female and male parts. You could argue that this taps into the current transgender debate – or perhaps Hirst is simply showing us that the idea of ‘a third sex’ is nothing new.
A bright blue installation featuring the story of Andromeda and the sea monster has caused massive controversy, but why not make your own mind up about its merits.
The rooms are endless with jewellery, clam shells, eccentric flints, animal figurines, coinage – everything that is supposed to make up a civilised and cultured society.
But as ever, nothing should be taken at face value. What does it all mean… this massive accumulation of stuff, this huge collection of ‘ancient art’?
It’s impossible to answer in one sentence. It’s something to argue about in a Venetian bar after you exit through the gift shop at the end of your visit.
As I reached the end, a wave of exhaustion came over me. I felt like shouting ‘enough’ but then I realised that I’d witnessed something quite remarkable.
Art News magazine described it as the worst show of contemporary art they’d seen in a decade. The Times called it “a wreck” of a show.
But the Guardian gave it five stars and praised the genius of Damien Hirst. To be honest, only you can decide what to make of this sprawling but sensational exhibition.
When Hirst creates a big exhibition, it’s more like a Las Vegas show – full of entertainment, sensation, controversy and thrills. It’s bold, brash and bombastic.
His Grand Canal sculpture would have Canaletto and Canova turning in their graves… and it provoked mixed reactions from passengers on passing boats, from “horrendous” to “amazing”.
Treasures of the Wreck Unbelievable proves Damien Hirst still has the power to shock and thrill us… this show is well worth the rollercoaster ride.
Visit the Palzzo Grassi galleries
Tammy’s Gallery Tips – Treasures from the Wreck of The Unbelievable – Venice
Treasures from the Wreck of The Unbelievable runs from 12 March to 3 December 2017 at the Venice Biennale.
Allow a full day to complete both shows, but take a break over lunch and chill, otherwise you’ll end up with visual art overload.
I’d recommend starting at the Punta della Dogana near the Salute vaporetto stop – before heading over to the Palazzo Grassi overlooking the Grand Canal.
Tickets are priced at 18 and 15 Euros which is a good deal considering how big this exhibition is – and how many millions it must have taken to assemble it.
It’s open daily between 10:00 and 19:00 except on Tuesdays with last admission at 18:00.
Take a camera as you’re allowed to snap away throughout the exhibition. I love Damien Hirst for allowing photography in his shows – he’s no doubt aware of his lasting legacy and the power of social media!