Damien Hirst’s exhibition “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” is like a vast art theme park, a journey into a fantasy world in which myriad mythologies and cultures collide. Arranged across two Venetian museums belonging to the billionaire businessman and art collector François Pinault, the show centers on the story of a freed slave–turned–wealthy collector from Antioch called Cif Amotan II, whose ship—named the Apistos (Greek for “Unbelievable”)—foundered around two thousand years ago with his cargo of artworks, copies, and fakes from diverse civilizations. Hirst, whose own rags-to-millions tale echoes Amotan’s, embarked on the project in 2008, after learning about the ship’s “discovery,” so the story goes.
The show begins in the former customs house the Punta della Dogana, which is situated where two canals meet, the setting providing a fabulous watery backdrop for most of the displays. Here, one finds an array of monumental bronze sculptures—something resembling a giant Aztec calendar, a monk recalling Chinese Buddhist tradition, Greek mythological figures such as Cronos and the serpent monster Hydra, the latter paired with the Hindu goddess Kali—encrusted with barnacles and brightly colored coral. Photographs and film footage showing divers retrieving the objects from the seabed appear to validate the narrative.
The Punta della Dogana presentation also introduces another crucial element of the exhibition: a slew of “replicas,” some purportedly historical copies commissioned by Amotan and others new “reconstructions” produced by Hirst’s team. Room after room is filled with pharaonic busts, medusa heads, unicorn skulls, and sphinxes crafted from marble, lapis lazuli, and rock crystal, alongside vitrines containing weaponry, helmets, armor, coins, and pitchers that bear a patina suggestive of age. Kitschy and often grotesque, the various objects suggest props for some sort of “Game of Thrones”–meets–Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The sheer profusion of items on display prompts reflections on originality, value, greed, and, of course, as in all of Hirst’s work, death and entropy.
Midway through the first venue Hirst unravels the myth with a lurid coral-clad sculpture of himself holding hands with Mickey Mouse. It points up other curiosities and anachronisms on view, such as an “ancient” gold sun disc whose pattern derives from the BP logo, and a sculpture in which the 1990s laboratory mouse grown with a human-looking ear on its back is shown perched atop Apollo’s foot. One begins to realize that this no-expense-spared exhibition might be intended as an elaborate send-up—of museology, of collecting, of the authority of art history and archaeology. This line of inquiry is infinitely more interesting than the luxury art objects, despite their fine workmanship. Hirst, who since his early formaldehyde-preserved animal carcasses has emphasized the theatrical qualities of exhibition display, asks us to reappraise assumptions about fact and fiction, taste, and what distinguishes art from artifact—or junk.
At the other venue, the elegant Palazzo Grassi, the central courtyard barely contains a monstrous sixty-foot bronze-looking resin statue of a headless demon inspired by the figure in William Blake’s painting The Ghost of a Flea (1819–20). The surrounding rooms contain faux-antiqued sketches for works in the show, a model of Amotan’s ship laden with its trove, and numerous small-scale versions of larger sculptures in precious materials such as silver, gold, jade, and malachite likely to appeal to collectors.
Part of the fun of the exhibition is finding the jokes—the vulva adorning the back of a fly-headed, wasp-waisted female statue titled Metamorphosis; the stamp of Barbie-maker Mattel on the back of “Grecian” marble torsos with hour-glass figures; a coral-encrusted silver Transformer toy; a laugh-out-loud bronze bust of Hirst inspired by a portrait of King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger. One can play spot-the-celebrity too. Pharrell Williams crops up as a marble pharaoh, and Rihanna appears as a red marble Egyptian deity with a nipple stud and tattoos (accompanied by a deadpan label explaining how tattooing was an ancient practice among Nubian dancers and musicians).
In the current era of fake news, this show’s questioning of what is true and authentic feels timely. However, it is never really clear who or what Hirst’s target is—one minute he is king, the next court jester cocking a snook at authority—and his homage to celebrity and the relentlessly commercial quality of his objects undermine any real subversiveness. He has repeatedly averred his belief in the power of art over money, but with him the one is never present without lots of the other. While “Treasures” is a fascinating tour of Hirst’s cultural cosmos and demonstrates that he has not lost his touch as a showman, it never entirely transcends the impression of a slick gift shop for rich collectors, not least due to its link with Pinault, who also owns Christie’s auction house. In so thoroughly overloading the senses, the show hinders the imagination’s capacity to soar.
Tate Modern’s contribution to London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad is a five-month Damien Hirst retrospective (on view through Sept. 9). This carefully contrived blockbuster packs over 70 works into 14 rooms, from his first and crudest Spot Painting (1986) to the impossibly well-manufactured Judgement Day (2009), a lavishly monumental gold frame containing nearly 30,000 cut diamonds (actually cubic zirconia). Between creating these two works, Hirst went from student to superstar, famously establishing a vast workshop to produce items for his endlessly demanding collectors. Hirst started out as a painter, and he has returned to oil on canvas, concurrently offering his latest pictures at White Cube’s new bunker. Together the exhibitions reveal what a long, strange industry it’s been.
His London outing in 2008, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” a two-day Sotheby’s sale, was quintessential Hirst, from the catchy title to the thwarting of artworld protocol by selling directly through the auction house—and making obscene amounts of money. Such coups de théâtre reinforce Hirst’s position as a powerhouse.
Which makes the Tate Modern show so welcome. Besides bringing many of Hirst’s well-known works together, curator Ann Gallagher has performed an excellent edit of his career. The exhibition allows one to see that the iconic works emerged quite early on. The first few rooms present three major statements: the spot paintings, a rotting cow’s head covered in maggots and flies (A Thousand Years, 1990) and a shark in formaldehyde (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991). The significance of these cannot be overstated; they are themselves commanding works, and they also serve as cultural reference points.
The retrospective affirmed that, since this beginning, Hirst has gone on to rework and recycle these ideas and themes, producing ever more sleek and expensively made variations—his fabricated steel, polished chrome, shiny gold plate and diamonds reflecting an escalating game of market bluff. Works like Judgement Day cannot hide the harsh truth that his original, profoundly exciting creative output has become redundant, vacuous kitsch.
At White Cube, the 35 paintings, which Hirst began in 2010 and made without the usual assistants, emphasized his need for an editor. A series of crudely painted still lifes featuring parrots, flower blossoms, human skulls and shark jaws overlaid with spots, butterflies and networks of lines are sadly execrable. Perhaps Hirst found running a production line for shiny, sparkling tchotchkes boring. He appears to be dealing with midlife crisis by trying to be Francis Bacon (whom he is known to admire and collect), alluding to that artist’s metaphysical darkness and copying some of his compositional devices. On the evidence of the paintings here, he should figure out another strategy.
Photo: Damien Hirst: A Thousand Years, 1990, glass, steel, cow’s head, maggots, flies and mixed mediums; at Tate Modern. © DACS.