We all know that Damien Hirst has been up to something. In tantalising press releases over recent months ‘clues’ have been dropped and now, in the week leading up to the opening of the 57th Venice Biennale, we get to see what he has been creating in the 10 years since his last major exhibition.
In summary the answer is an awful lot. Hirst has produced around 200 works, all in multiple editions and many monstrous in scale, which fill both the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, two museums run by François Pinault, the Parisian billionaire and owner of Christie’s.
By doing a deal with Pinault, Hirst has once again ruffled feathers and by-passed the art establishment. The Biennale is of course a carefully planned show with over a hundred artists selected to exhibit for 2017 in both main exhibition spaces under the theme Viva Arte Viva, with more in the permanent National Pavilions.
With previews of the Biennale starting next week Hirst and Pinault have stolen the first headlines of this years event and it is inevitable, with such a large off-site exhibition taking place, that some focus is drawn from the main act. Hirst of course is fully aware of the impact and sure to be delighted with the attention.
We enter the first part of the exhibition in the Punta della Dogana. It is here that we are presented with the ‘facts’ by deadly serious curators, and it turns out that Hirst is not the artist after all. Apparently he is simply the millionaire benefactor who came to the aid of archaeologists who had found a hoard of sunken treasure back in 2008. Haha.
A ship called the Apistos (Greek for unbelievable) that sank about 2,000 years ago was re-discovered on the seabed off east Africa. It had been carrying a priceless cargo of treasure that belonged to the vastly wealthy collector, Cif Amotan II. Undiscovered for centuries on the sea bed they suffered all sorts of sea-change whilst collecting multiple encrustations. The story is supported by curated collections in glazed cabinets (recognise these from anywhere?) as well as film and photographs of the works being discovered and recovered to idyllic marine backdrops.
Having suspended our disbelief we enter this elaborately constructed fantasy – a fairytale that is of course so monstrous and bizarre that there was never any question that we were being deceived – the whole rather more akin to a theatrical set piece. Francesco Bonami, a previous Hirst and Biennale curator has stated as much: “It goes beyond good or bad …. Many will call it bad taste or kitsch, but it’s more than all of that. It’s Hollywood.”
Indeed the show – for that is what it literally is – begins with a giant Aztec sun stone that could be a prop from any B movie before we continue through the airy rooms of the Punta della Dogana to find a smorgasbord of historical styles, civilizations and materials. There are classical Roman statues, Greek Medusa heads and Egyptian Goddesses. We leap from China to South America to India, from malachite to marble and lapis lazuli to jade. Each is available in its original ‘Coral’ state, restored or as tidy museum reproduction.
There is as usual plenty of humour. The Egyptian goddess is Kate Moss, a decaying sword has Sea World emblazoned along the blade and Mickey Mouse is encased in coral. There is even ‘The Collector’ – a barnacled likeness of Damien Hirst himself.
Palazzo Grassi, the fictional residence of a mega-rich collector, hosts the second part of the exhibition and as befitting his status the works on show are more ornate, bejewelled and with materials that are more extravagant.
It also holds the most impressive piece in the show: a massive bronze statue of a headless man that fills the interior courtyard. Encrusted with growths and Based on William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea he has a claws, a scaly back holds a begging bowl. Forty feet high this is Hirst at his most ambitious, demanding attention. If this wasn’t so obviously a Hirst exhibition, it could almost be Jeff Koons and surely his kitsch influence runs through.
Ultimately the whole experience is overwhelming that it is hard know quite what to make of it all. It is bright, extravagant and larger than life. The craftsmanship, materials and finish are often astounding. The size, scale and breadth of imagination often breathtaking.
It is undoubtedly a spectacle but has it got a heart? It’s actually hard to say, but does it matter? What we do know is that it is worth seeing on a number of levels. As a witty and wondrous theatrical spectacle it is hard to beat. There is amazing craftsmanship that one can only stand back and admire. It can also perhaps be viewed as a meditation on the nature of collecting or even the purpose of museums.
This is Hirst as irreverent showman and disruptive outsider and whatever you think of the ‘show’ the art world would be a duller place without him.
For more information visit palazzograssi.it
Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, Venice, from 9th April until 3rd December
To purchase a copy of Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable visit here