Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, April 4 – December 3, 2017.
Palazzo Grassi, Punta della Dogana, Venice.

Irony is restless. So when our correspondent and heretic-historian travelled to Venice for a few days of biennial culture tourism, he could not resist, but discover alternative truths to what he believed.

If I were to walk up the street and ask random people if they can name a contemporary artist who is still alive, I am pretty sure that Damien Hirst would be one of the names they would mention. Hirst is known for his formaldehyde shark tank, diamond dotted skulls, dead butterfly paintings – all of which representative of his artistic megalomania. Unsurprisingly, that is precisely what the art world today likes and talks about. Controversy as the main focus and easily decipherable symbols as aesthetic stimulation. But this year Hirst chose to teach the art world something about how myths are created.

Damien Hirst portrays himself as artefact.

Damien Hirst portrays himself as an archaeologist, a scientist, a historian, a liar. He might be none of those things, but he might just as well be all of them. All these things are what history is made of, so why not play with it and create a new narrative. Uncountable ships have sunken in the ocean throughout history and numerous treasures might still be down there in the depths of the oceans. Damien Hirst is now creating a new myth: not about himself, but about history.

This myth is the story of a sunken ship from the 2nd century AD, owned by a free slave who amassed a great fortune and became a merchant and an art patron. The ship – the Unbelievable – contained a plethora of art pieces from all over the world and has been buried in the sea for centuries. It was accidentally found in 2008 by a team of divers and the recovered pieces from it are now exhibited in Venice.

Video still from the underwater fortune hunt.

The Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, two capacious art spaces in an otherwise compact Venice, host this exhibition and are filled with the ship´s recovered cargo that is a mishmash of the various myths our world is made of. All these objects are similar to artefacts found around the world, such as statues of various gods and goddesses, bowls, weapons, jewellery.

Two beautiful and convincing short films depicting the alleged discovery and recovery of the ship´s cargo and provide the background story to the exhibition.

Corals designed by Alexander McQueen.

These films were by far the most convincing and enchanting part of it, and I found myself being swept by the magic of underwater archaeological discovery of coral coated statues, wondering whether this ship really existed and this. Yet once I saw the sculptures presented in the exhibition, the aura of historical distance evaporated at once: they all look unreal, the corals made out of plastic, the patina of history is missing. Nonetheless, the descriptions mention precious materials such as silver and gold, bronze and glass, mixed with modern materials, such as aluminium, silicone, painted MDF, etc. A mix of the old and new, of truth and fabrication. Isn´t it just the same as the Photoshop on the magazines- making everything too perfect and therefore looking fake? We all know it is not real, and yet we want to believe in it.

The Indian Krishna becomes an Egyptian sphinx and Cleopatra has now a tattoo „rebelle fleur“, just like the modern icon, Kate moss. The female snake warrior looks a little bit like the Avatar figures designed in an animation studio and Damien Hirst in a self-portrait resembles Cesar. Mickey mouse made out of corals and golden cats and turtles evoke treasures from long before Christ. A portrait of our pop-culture as a derogative from all the stories that we have been told.

What does Damien Hirst try to tell us through his exhibition? Is it just another megalomaniac idea, representing Hirsts sculptures as a rewriting of history? Or is it a critique of the world we live in, full of objects, full of myths and lies? Plastic planet as the end of history?

Maybe the exhibition tells us more about Hirst as an artist than we might think. Perhaps it is all about himself and his own myth, that was created through the art market. He is just a player on the stage of the world, created by other players. We believe what we see. But we also believe what we don´t see. “Myth or fact, believe whatever you want to believe”, says the artist himself. Isn´t that one of the problems of modern society? What we see can be just as untrue as something we don’t see. Maybe Hirst understands more about these mechanisms than the visitors of his show, including Francois Pinault, one of the biggest art collectors worldwide, and the owner of the Palazzo Grassi, who apparently discovered his own show at the same time I did. I wonder what he thinks of it. However, he seems to be still a believer- whatever it is he believes in. Apparently he has known Hirst for thirty years, but he seems to know just as little as his visitors about Damien Hirsts unbelievable show.

Central sculpture in the entrance hall. No, the figure is not holding a smart phone in his hand. It’s a shell.

The society of the spectacle does not need truth and facts, it needs myths and amazement. Damien Hirst provides it. The Biennale visitor should therefore go and see Hirsts portrait of what our society is able to create and believe in. Maybe for once, Damien Hirst is not using the pure shock effect but actually understands the danger of myth and teaches us all a lesson in contemporary art. Perhaps it will help to make us all not true believers, but finally doubters.


Header-image: Only a few meters from the impressive Palazzo Grassi, I walked by the Andrea Tardini Gallery and what do I see? Baby Damien staged by Valter Adam Casotto. Apparently we share some thoughts about one of the most controversial artists in contemporary art…