There were four distinct stages to my visit to Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, the exhibition of new works from Damien Hirst that has recently opened in Venice:
- Jesus Christ, that’s big
- This must have cost a fortune
- For fuck’s sake…
Given that this show marks the first new body of work of note from the artist everyone loves to hate, there’s been a rather high degree of anticipation for Wreck, the rather pointed short-hand I am now going to use for this show. Certainly, there are those rubbing their hands with glee at the opportunity to write him off, and then there are others desperate for him to find the groove he was in back in the day, and to bring a sense of revolution and mayhem back to the art world.
But here’s the thing: I liked Damien Hirst’s work back in the Nineties. The YBAs were hugely influential to me and my generation. Their work was exciting and relevant. But this – Wreck – isn’t relevant by about thirty years. Damien Hirst has not moved on. He’s got a hell of a lot more money so everything is bigger, bigger, BIGGER. But this is a bemusing collection of work that thinks it’s clever and cohesive, yet shows all the signs of an interesting idea being ridden way, way too hard.
So, what is Wreck? Well, it is a fantasy. A yarn Damien has spun of a former enslaved person (Damien uses the word ‘slave’ which is an indication of how out-of-touch this whole exhibition is) in the Roman Empire who, after gaining his freedom, amassed a vast fortune which he used to acquire a lavish collection of artefacts from across the Ancient world. These treasures were put on one ship, the Apistos (which translates from the Koine Greek as ‘Unbelievable’) but this ship foundered and its cargo was lost. The tale passed into history, before it eventually became myth and legend.
Or so the story goes.
Then in 2008 – about the time Lehmans was collapsing and Damien was earning £100mn in a one-night auction record – the wreckage of this ship was found and a project to bring its treasures to the surface was started.
This exhibition is of those treasures.
And the show certainly starts off with a statement. The atrium of the beautiful Palazzo Grassi has been overwhelmed with a gargantuan eighteen metre bronze statue of a decapitated man. His muscles are pumped and defined, his physique Michelangelo-esque. And he towers over all who enter, overtaking the space much like a tree would do if it were left untouched. Growing ever taller and obliterating any natural light into the room.
It’s magnificent. Yet, as you gasp at the wonder at the sight, you catch a glimpse of the man’s foot. Only it isn’t a foot; more a claw. And you realise this is no man, but a demon. And his head, cleaved clean from his neck, is lying to the side. But when you approach the head… Well, how can I put this… The head is rubbish. Deliberately so. Tongue lolling from its mouth, eyes rolling in its head. It’s a simplistic, naïve gargoyle-esque sculpture that is completely out of keeping with the body it has been beheaded from.
And that’s your first inkling that Damien Hirst is playing a joke. But it’s a joke only he is likely to find funny.
So, you shake that off, thinking that might just be a one-off aberrance, and instead start wandering the galleries.
Wondrous artefacts dipped in gold and malachite sculptures share space with rolls of video footage of the treasures being brought to the surface from this supposed shipwreck. Jade buddhas fill galleries as walls are covered with undeniably impressive underwater photography from the expedition. The effort that has gone into this project is immense – no wonder it apparently took Damien and his (extremely large) team the best part of a decade to bring this idea to life.
And it definitely did cost a fortune.
Damien is already on record as saying this vast exhibition cost him at least $50 million. That’s a grotesque sum of money. Of course, the man is already the richest artist in history so it’s not likely to put him on the streets, but how divorced do you have to be from reality to think spending that amount of money on an art project is a good idea? What world is Damien now living in?
Lucky for him that cost is no hindrance but as the ‘eh?’ factor kicks in, this really feels like an obscene amount of money to waste on a project that brings nothing new to the table.
For as much as Damien leads you down the path of a fantasy, that bubble is punctured pretty quickly as he subverts our perspectives. For damaged Nefertiti busts and silver Sphinxes soon give way to that old chestnut, ‘shock value.’ Because why would you keep the fantasy alive with shimmering Shivas and a Bacchus, when you can replace them with Mickey Mouse, Transformers, and even Baloo the Bear? Room after room is filled with this stuff. Disney characters, barnacled gimp masks, even the man himself carved as bronze bust, covered with colourful coral.
And so, your shoulders slump as it all goes a bit Jeff Koons and you wonder whether Damien Hirst ever actually left the Nineties.
I’ve a feeling the guy thinks this is hilarious, but what the hell does a barnacled Optimus Prime have to say about society today? It doesn’t. it doesn’t say anything. Attacks on consumerism and greed have been done in art. We’ve done that, we’ve seen that. None of this is topical. The world has moved on; Damien hasn’t. If he thinks that this subject matter is relevant to a world of refugees and foodbanks, well, that’s a comment more on the circles Damien Hirst keeps these days.
This exhibition is out of time and woefully misjudged, both in terms of subject matter and style. As you stare at giant clam shells (which are, like, such an unsubtle representation of a vagina) and naïve sculptures of bare-breasted nubile women chained to rocks, all you do is eye roll. I appreciate Damien made his name by getting all up in people’s faces but, come on. We’re all so over that now. Has the man truly got nothing to say? Is his desperately juvenile expression of masculinity so pervasive that he still gets a good laugh and a good kick from this objectification?
So, what is the point of this show? Well, it is supposedly an examination of our greed. Our lust for the dollar. It is, apparently, holding up the mirror to the ambition, avarice and grotesque accumulation of wealth in our own world today. Only if it is holding up the mirror, perhaps Damien hasn’t seen his own reflection cause, my god, this show lacks self-awareness.
Damien Hirst is the richest artist in history, and he has used his wealth to accumulate a vast art collection, known as Murderme, which is the source for the shows at his recently-built Newport Street Gallery. Which he also built from his own fortune, a fortune he amassed that’s a (three hundred) million miles away from his working-class background. Does he realise he may have, inadvertently, not created a show about us, but about himself?
But, fundamentally, his vast investment in this project yields little artistic insight or revolution. This is a collection of works that have no timeless quality, examine nothing about the human condition or our world today, and offer up nothing that is truly provocative.
Will this affect the Damien Hirst brand? Probably not. When these pieces come to the market, no doubt the dark arts of the auction will save him. And I suspect, though some of his artworks may not have held their value, there will be enough interest here from the oligarchs he’s mocking to recoup his outlay. What you get, though, is the sense of an artist still giving the world the middle finger whilst that world is burning.
Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, Venice, to December 3, 2017
All installation images by me.
If, for kicks, you’d love to see more from the exhibition, have a look at my album on my Facebook Page.