The severed head of a huge bronze figure lies on the marble floor of a Venetian palace. Its body, 18 metres tall, crawling with worms and entangled in seaweed, strides through a nearby atrium. This is “Demon with Bowl”, and it is the centrepiece of a new exhibition from Damien Hirst, a British artist, which takes viewers on a journey through two palaces housing nearly 200 works (all of which are, discreetly, for sale). Made by teams of studio assistants and craftsmen across Europe, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” is the product of almost nine years’ work. At well over £50m, its budget is Hollywood in scale – and so is the story it is based on.
Cif Amotan II, a slave-turned-billionaire who lived during the first and second centuries AD, spends his wealth collecting the treasures of the world. He decides to install them in a temple to the sun, and has the works loaded on a massive ship, the Apistos, or “Unbelievable”. But the ship is lost at sea, and the precious cargo lies at the bottom of the ocean, until – more than 2,000 years later – Hirst and his team discover it somewhere off the coast of east Africa.
This hoard is now on show at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana, which François Pinault, a luxury-goods billionaire and art collector, transformed into galleries several years ago. There are gods and pharaohs and mythical creatures made of silver and gold and studded with gemstones. Scholarly labels identify the provenance and function of each object: “The Greeks believed that Cyclopes had roamed their land…this convincing replica [of a mammoth skull]…would have been displayed as a reliquary.” Stills and video clips record the excavation and extraction of the treasures. You get the sense that you are at a museum, not a gallery. But then you start to notice barnacle-encrusted faces of cartoon characters and modern celebrities peeping out at you, from Kate Moss to Pharrell Williams – even Hirst himself.
The last time Hirst cooked up anything on this scale, it divided the critics. Over two days in 2008, as Lehman Brothers collapsed, Sotheby’s auctioned more than 200 works from his exhibition, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, for a total of £111.5m ($200.7m). Most of the proceeds went directly to Hirst, who had consigned his work straight to auction, bypassing his dealers. The late Australian art critic Robert Hughes described the pieces in the sale – reworkings of his spin and spot paintings and butterflies on enamel panels – as “bling”; others regarded the affair as a canny comment on the roles played by money and the market in the art world.
“Treasures” is also preoccupied with the tension between kitsch and good taste and the question of how we value art and understand it. As ever, Hirst doesn’t supply any answers. “What we believe is up to us,” says the curator, Elena Guena. “But I think [Hirst is] saying it’s the myth that makes the work of art.” It just happens to be a myth invented by Hirst himself.
“Bust of the Collector”
A bit like Alfred Hitchcock, who was known for making cameo appearances in his own films, Hirst pops up twice in the exhibition, both times in character as Amotan. In this bust, he is covered in corals and fleshy seaworms. Hirst has spent the last several decades amassing his own treasures: his collection of over 3,000 works includes artists such as Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Richard Prince and Jeff Koons, as well as Aztec skulls, natural-history specimens and X-rays bought on eBay. But it is clear from this exhibition that Hirst doesn’t take his role as art collector too seriously. Here, he seems not only to celebrate the way art can make those who buy it immortal, but also to laugh at the hubris of the collector – in Hirst’s fable, Amotan is never seen again after his ship sinks.
“Skull of a Cyclops” and “Skull of a Cyclops Examined by a Diver”
According to the exhibition, all the works that are covered in coral were recovered from the ocean. If you were minded to ask for evidence, well, just look at the image to the right, which shows a diver retrieving the mammoth bronze skull on the plinth. Of course, bronzes that have truly been in seawater for centuries – like the Riace bronzes, ancient Greek sculptures found off the coast of southern Italy in the 1970s – are far rougher in texture, and any coral attached to the sculpture would die on removal from water. Hirst is fascinated by the question of what is real and what is fake, and whether such a question really matters in our understanding of art.
Cabinets reappear throughout this show, as they do throughout Hirst’s career. In 1988, while still at Goldsmiths university, he made a medicine cabinet out of MDF which, in its clean construction, recalled the work of American minimalists such as Donald Judd. In 1999, he made a stainless-steel medicine cabinet, which he filled with painted pills. They satisfy Hirst’s urge to arrange items in patterns (most apparent in his spot paintings). And by evoking the museum, the cabinets housing Amotan’s treasures add a pseudo-scientific authenticity to this fable.
Three versions of “Grecian Nudes”
A label notes that these idealised figures, described as “Grecian nudes”, “were subjected to a targeted act of vandalism prior to the shipwreck, uniformly removing the heads and arms”. The conceit is that the sculpture on the left is the “coralised” original from the shipwreck; the one in the middle is the restored “museum” version; and the one on the right a high-quality replica – a nod to the Romans, who frequently copied Greek sculptures and showed the works together. It’s a mischievous point to make: copies made by the Romans would today be regarded as antiquities worth very large sums of money. You can almost hear Hirst wondering aloud: is there that much to distinguish old fakes from new ones?
“The Warrior and the Bear”
Jeff Koons, an American artist, is one of Hirst’s heroes. You can see why in this exhibition. From his gilded sculpture of Michael Jackson clutching his monkey, Bubbles, to giant polyethylene kittens in knitted socks, Koons has never been afraid to mine the outer reaches of good taste. “Treasures” occupies similar territory. Take this piece: the bear is reminiscent of “Puppy” (1992), Koons’s massive flower-covered sculpture, while the warrior goddess, with her tiny waist and bullet-hard breasts, wouldn’t look out of place in a fantasy video game. Is it all too much? Well, yes – but still, you have to admire Hirst for his chutzpah.
Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, Venice, until December 3rd