“In this dream” is the signature on an exquisite set of drawings on vellum in a room of the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, one location of a giant new double-site exhibition entitled Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.
Anagram geeks will get it straight away: this sumptuously ambitious show is, indeed, the dream, or fantasy, of Damien Hirst, contemporary art’s most notable showman. It fills the Punta Della Dogana, Venice’s seaward-facing historic customs house, and the Palazzo Grassi, ornate 18th-century home to great collections of the past – both now belonging to the billionaire businessman and art collector François Pinault.
From the start of his career, Hirst has been ringmaster of contemporary British art’s ever expanding circus, curator and spokesman and general headline-grabber, media-savvy in the Warhol tradition, generous to other artists, as well as an often brilliantly inventive creator. For the best part of a decade, however, his output as an artist has been eclipsed by that other persona: cultural businessman, gallery owner, collector, online salesman and more.
For much of that time, it now turns out, Hirst has been conjuring up this high-voltage extravaganza – a show that is not only enormous and fabulously elaborate, but also contains enough glitz and bling to put even his famous diamond skull in the shade.
To begin with, we’re invited to take part in a game. Or rather, a convoluted shaggy-dog story that plays with truth and lies, fantasy and fiction, as well as issues of originality and copying, that unwinds into a self-referencing web that – according to taste – you’ll find either fascinating and enriching, or pointless and annoying.
Here’s the story: in 2008, a wreck was discovered off the coast of east Africa. It was the remains of a sunken ship called the Apistos (the ‘Unbelievable’), which was laden with treasures from across the ancient world. The ship and its precious cargo belonged to the vastly wealthy Cif Amotan II, a collector who was transporting the artefacts to a specially built temple. Instead, they languished for centuries at the bottom of the ocean, suffering various kinds of sea-change, collecting multiple encrustations of coral, barnacles and shells and – it transpires – many layers of metaphorical and allusive significance too. It’s a story, we’re told, of “ambition, avarice, splendour and hubris”.
To back up the tale, the exhibition walls contain film and photographs of divers “discovering” the works we’re looking at, deep in a remarkably clean, blue, picturesque sea.
Whether or not you want to partake of the fantasy, we start at the Punta Della Dogana, in whose high rooms enormous, vibrantly coloured figures – of classical gods, allegorical figures and more – stand encrusted with corals blooming as large and lurid as chrysanthemums, covered too in various crabs and worms and deep sea creatures.
They are, in fact, bronzes, though overpainted to evoke all sorts of other surfaces – just the start of a theme of metamorphosis that runs throughout the show. We find marble painted to look like leather or polished to look like vinyl, jade carved to look like barnacles, malachite carved to look like skin, and everywhere bronze gilded or roughened or recoloured and refashioned.
The figures – mostly human forms, though a whole menagerie of animals real and mythological features too, including a gold unicorn’s head at the seaward prow of the Dogana building – echo every phase of cultures past, from Renaissance to Buddhist, classical to pre-Columbian: there is Mercury, there is also Mickey Mouse. If the narrative has a presiding deity, it would be Medusa, the blood from whose severed head, you will remember, was believed by the ancients to have turned into coral. Then here, you might say, into sculpture itself.
The head, with its strangely modern face and threatening garland of writhing snakes, appears in crystal, gilded bronze, marble and more: in one iteration, she is also a vampire. It exudes a sense of menace and unease that permeates much of the show. The corals adhere to bodies like vile growths, hideously disfiguring. The sea has caused limbs to break as if amputated – the exquisitely carved marble is usually part-smashed, the perfection of man-made idols ruined by time and nature.
In this, the show echoes a plethora of themes we know from Hirst’s previous work. Death and decay. The interplay of timeless precious metals and fragile human flesh. Time suspended, defied. Skulls, of course: a wonderful pair of the skulls the ancients believed to be of Cyclops (actually of mammoths).
This, like many other works, appears in three versions, playing in to the story: the bust-up relic recovered from the wreck, then a restored cleaner version, and finally the smooth ‘copy’ often made from ancient originals. You begin to realise that the fictional narrative in which we’re engaged – or not – is much like a video game, with pathways endlessly dividing into other story strands. We can follow whichever one we will; some remain unexplored: it doesn’t matter. The web of allusions stretches out of the buildings into the watery city, back in time, round the circle of itself.
On to the second site, the grand palazzo that is, both in real life and in the fiction of this show, the residence of a mega-rich collector. The pieces here echo, repeat and extend those in the Dogana, but the work becomes more exquisite, the materials even richer. There is a silver room. There is a half life-size Buddha made from a single piece of jade. A marble head has emerald eyes.
Cabinets, too, turn up here, continuing the fiction of the Wunderkammer in a crazed collector’s lair. Unlike the smaller Hirst cabinets we know, these are sober, freestanding museum vitrines, with orderly shelves of ancient implements, nuggets, coins, weird natural wonders – all, of course, specially created, and in astonishing detail.
There are also, thank goodness, jokes. Kate Moss’s face turns up on a winged Egyptian goddess. A forbidding marble statue of an Amazon turns out to have a pistol tattoo. A sort of poodle-like creature, so heavily encrusted in the coral shapes that it looks fluffy, is a ringer for a Jeff Koons dog. Objects salvaged from the ancient wreck turn out to include characters from The Jungle Book and Transformers; the figure of the ‘collector’, holding a coral-encrusted Mickey Mouse by the hand, has the recognisable features of Hirst himself.
But before all this, filling the entire central courtyard as one enters the Palazzo Grassi, is the biggest, most gobsmacking piece yet. Some 18m high, towering right up the four storeys of the building, is a mighty headless figure – recognisably William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea, with its talons instead of toes and its scaly back. It’s one of scores of allusions to other works of art here, ancient and modern.
Of all the giants in this show too, this is the one that most loudly screams: “Because I can!” At first sight, it made me recoil from its sheer braggadocio. But moving up and through the open loggias of the palazzo, where it becomes obvious that the show is curated with intense care and thought, the sight of this man-monster frozen in movement becomes more and more intriguing. He is really pretty good.
I can’t say that I warmed to the whole show in the same way. There is awe- inspiring craftsmanship on display here: some of the marble carving, done by a single quarry in Carrara, is superb. The attention to detail is almost obsessive. But there is also too much that is oversized, overcoloured or overemphasised. And just too lavish: there’s no real need for a statue’s eyes to be emeralds; it somehow calls the work into question. And while some of the delicate smaller works are genuinely beautiful, larger pieces can be crude, coarse, ugly even.
Overall, this almost insanely opulent and overarching vision, a quasi-random pile-up of treasures of the sort that once princely collectors would create (but can now be realised by a billionaire artist) put me in mind of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo. In that saga, the actual point of bringing the boat over the mountain, which itself has something vaguely to do with building an opera house in a jungle, is entirely lost in the doing of the thing.
Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable will run until 3 December 2017 at Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi in Venice. To find out more, visit palazzograssi.it
TEXT THE FINANCIAL TIMES LIMITED
PHOTOGRAPHY DAMIEN HIRST AND SCIENCE LTD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS/SIAE 2017