Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable
Palazzo Grassi, Venice
This exhibition is now infamous, with critics from here to Timbuktu giving their (usually not complimentary) opinion. Art News have credited it with being one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade. Impressive.
Starting with the good, Hirst has created this exhibition (10 years and £50 million+ in the making) based on an elaborate myth of a freed slave from Antioch turned wealthy collector, Cif Amotan II (an anagram of ‘I am fiction’) who amassed a vast collection of art and antiquities and loaded all 170 of them onto a ship called Apistos (aka. the Unbelievable) only to have them all sink to the depths of the Indian Ocean on it’s way to asit mayor, a temple dedicated to the sun.
Hirst and his team (of actors) ‘rescue’ the hoard from their watery grave centuries later, and present them here complete with barnacles and bits of coral still attached. Beautiful photographs of this rescue are shot by Christoph Gerigk and displayed in lightboxes on the walls of the exhibition, their blue glow illuminating the bricks and concrete. Fantasy and real life are conflated at every turn.
Based upon this, I was very ready to enjoy this exhibition, and was sneering at the high brow critics; I love a bit of kitsch. Kitsch it is, and there are TWO WHOLE BUILDINGS of the stuff, filling both the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, which are owned by wealthy collector Francois Pinault ,in presumably an attempt to produce enough material to sell in order to claw back the extravagent personal monetary investment of Hirst’s, and 10 years of everybody’s time.
The buildings are filled with over 100 sculptures, hailing from every civilization you can think of. Greek, Chinese, Mayan, Egyption, even our own civilization is represented with Mickey Mouse and characters from the Jungle Book. Rihanna is Aten the solar god. Hirst himself makes an appearance as The Collector. Pharrell Williams is an Unknown Pharoh depicted in white Carrera marble, a material favoured by the Romans. One imagines Hirst as a Pharoh himself, directing his techincian slaves to create his fantasy underwater themepark. He really is The Collector. We should also talk about the elephant in the room. Oh no wait, that’s Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlgargement) (pictured above) and curiously similar to The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake.This one is impressive, if for no other reason than scale. Size matters, people!
It’s not just time that is confused, but also materials. And yes, Damien, we did notice that you’d produced the same sculpture five different times in gold, silver, malachite, bronze and marble. Most of the time, despite the obvious talents of the technicians, the sculptures look soul-less, computer generated and factory produced, and the repetition looks lazy. This is explained away in the background story; it turns out Cif comissioned some exhibition copies of his sculptures- a comment on authenticity and value in the art market, no doubt. The rooms of gold artefacts, however, are stunning. Cabinets such as the ones that used to hold pills, now hold ancient gold coins and jewellery. A controversial Ife head (Golden Heads, Female) looks defiantly out at us. Medusa’s severed head lies writhing in agony. Fittingly, in myth and legend, the blood of Medusa’s severed head was said to have created coral. A nice little kick of self-referentiality, that I’m sure fills Hirst with glee. I get a kick out of it too. Until I’m not, because by the end of the pastiche parade, I’m getting bored in a building full of ego and “look what I can do” without any deeper meaning or purpose. In this case, as always seems to be the case, the myth superceded the reality
It turns out, we the public can complain all we like – but sales are (supposedly) doing very well. A collector told me that he loved the show, and really wanted one of the drawings on vellum (at $200,000 a pop) but, alas, they were sold out! Incidentally, there were anagrams to be found here too, one drawing signed ‘In this Dream’….solved it yet?
Send them back to the bottom of the sea, I say.