Thursday, 22 June 2017

You better believe it!

In Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition, ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ visitors are invited to experience two museums worth of coral-clad sculpture, objects, photography and video that aims to push our understanding of how history and myths are formed, questioning the mortality of materials and their makers. We are told that the beasts, idols, artefacts and objects on show were once lost in a legendary shipwreck and have been raised from the Indian Ocean to be presented here at the Francois Pinault Foundation’s Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi galleries in Venice. Relics of a bygone civilisation they are presented as such, in vast glass vitrines or vast spaces; many still encrusted in the limpets, barnacles and coral accumulated from their time underwater.

‘Demon with a bowl’ (Exhibition Enlargement) Painted resin. 1822 x 789 x 1144 cm
On Monday 12th June 2017 armed with nothing but a camera and a pen I chose to wade into the depths and shallows of these art-infested waters...
‘Calendar Stone’ Bronze. 422.5 x 475.8 x 172.3 cm
Opening in the heart of the Biennale contemporary art calendar, the venue set over two museums along the Grand Canal has the makings for the perfect rock n’ roll style location for an artist whose calf slicing, diamond skull encrusting, butterfly pinning works about mortality have become amongst the most iconic, satirised, notorious, discussed and the most highly selling of any living artist in the contemporary art world. This new exhibition of work from the Bristol born artist, now in his 50s is his most ambitious to date and sees a sum 190 pieces in marble, gold and bronze, crystal, jade and malachite, at over a decade in the making and at a whopping cost reportedly of 50 million to make it is as an extravaganza to behold as it is ambitiously risky. But what else would one expect from the artist made famous as one of the YBAs for pickling a shark and calling it art!
‘Huehueteotl and Olmec Dragon’ Silver, Paint. 29.7 x 28 x 21 cm
In the Punta Della Dogana a replica of a Mayan Calendar welcomes visitors to the exhibition, its surface completely clad in the coral and underwater fauna of its supposed 2,000 years lost at sea. Behind it, a larger-than-life statue of a warrior atop a snarling bear on its hind legs, its surface also at first glance appearing to be covered in a living surface.  Smaller relics such as coins and assorted precious stones alongside photographs placed throughout the exhibition create a museum-like narrative that depicts the breadth of what was ‘discovered’ as well as the salvaging process of divers excavating these treasures. If you believe that any of it is real, from the impressive looking albeit actually fake coral, to the whole fabricated tale itself then you’ll believe anything! It soon becomes apparent that this is all a little too farfetched; the comic nature completely exposed when pop culture figures such as Mickey Mouse, Goofy, a transformer, Kate Moss as a sphinx appear and later a depiction of the artist himself. They are modern cultural references that begin to make the whole thing begin to feel like the satire of Banksy’s Dismaland. It does however raise the interesting question of whether these are remnants from a fabricated past or visions of a dystopian future?
‘The Warrior and the Bear’ Bronze. 713 x 260 x 203 cm
This is merely the tip of the iceberg in an exhibition that in its vast yarn-spinning complexity becomes more a lesson in 21st Century marketing and publicity. This isn’t a criticism; Hirst manipulates the power of the institution of the gallery as a place for authority and truth and turns it on its head. The result is that the ‘joke’ ends up more often than not to appear rather kitsch, befitting of the attention they receive in their crowd-pleasing photographable appeal alone. For these reasons early reviews for this exhibition were almost ravenous in criticising it but I feel that they were searching too hard for a depth that they sought when in fact what makes this show so appealing and so extraordinary is in its shallowness. Unabashed conviction in its commitment to the lie it is trying to tell is commendable as at times its relentlessness of puns and popular icons grows tedious. It is popular, maybe for the wrong reasons; though it is also fun and regardless of the jokes or whether it’s real or not it is still a spectacle to behold.
Artists have long been blurring the distinctions between truth and lies, fact and fiction, history and its documentation versus myth and its own immortality in their art. Whilst these are ideas that have been explored before, particularly in Hirst’s work, they have not been explored as lavishly previously by the artist as they have here. There is something Hollywood blockbuster-like or theme park sized extravagance to the ambition of the ‘lie’ that is being presented that sort of allows us to forgive it and immerse ourselves into the experience. Are we part of the joke or in on the joke I am still unsure? For me, the best work in the exhibition is the video documentation, regardless of the ‘lie’, the reality is that all of these monstrously-sized objects had actually been put out at sea and salvaged (albeit in a staged manner) but the filming of this process is mysteriously compelling, well shot and edited as a piece of film-making and becomes visually far more believable! As for the sculptures themselves, I think it would be good if much of this work was buried back at sea; not because I believe they are awful (some though truly are) but because I would like to have seen them with real algae and age to them rather than being fabricated. In 2,000 years or more they could become something that really could be discovered? I would love to know either way what the legacy of this work will be. 
‘Hydra and Kali’ Bronze. 539 x 612 x 244 cm
In this era of fake news this exhibition feels timelier than what critics give it credit for and the lasting impression it has had for me is that there is still much creativity involved in creating a story, those stories then sometimes becoming myths of the future. This exhibition is certainly very memorable! It is therefore highly appropriate that I end this tale with one of my own. Make of it what you will. Upon finishing seeing the show at the Palazzo Grassi, I descended the stairs and spotted at the feet of the gargantuan 18 metre resin statue ‘Demon with a Bowl’, the artist, Damien Hirst, himself! It was the ultimate irony and much to my surprise that no one else in the relatively busy exhibition had noticed that its creator was just walking amongst them as they so enthusiastically photographed and viewed his work, perhaps it was humbling? Myself, I could not resist the opportunity to say ‘hi’ and shake his hand. “I suppose you’re to blame for all this then?” I asked him. “I suppose I am,” he said.
That really is unbelievable!
Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ is on at Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana until 3rd December 2017.

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