In Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Damien Hirst, in his signature way, has rediscovered not only his artistic groove but the splendour of civilisations past.
The treasures in question that star in Hirst’s latest work are said to come from the wreck of the Apistos (meaning ‘the Unbelievable’) of the freed slave Cif Amotan II, a semi-mythological character who traversed the ancient world hundreds of years before Christ in the pursuit of artefacts from a vast variety of peoples. This impressive premise is built on with aplomb by Hirst, whose exhibition dances with mystery throughout. It’s return to form after years in the proverbial wilderness.
Indeed, the rediscovery of this ship in 2008 seems akin to a plot from Indiana Jones, with the archaeologists uncovering a trove of sphinxes, obelisks, gold figurines, medusas and mickey mouse. This is in keeping with Hirst’s prodigious sense of humour that he infuses his exhibition with real and obviously fake artefacts, all consumed by the encroaching coral that has been their tomb at the bottom of the Indian Ocean for thousands of years.
Rich. Arrogant. Capricious. These are all words to epitomise what Hirst has fashioned. Located at Punta della Dogana at the mouth of the Grand Canal and the Palazzo Grassi, which ostensibly is home to a titanic battle between an obsidian Kali and the multi-headed hydra, Hirst has found himself rediscovering dizzy heights in a way nobody expected. Kitsch it is, and the precocious nature of the exhibit recall the early works of the artist who has suffered from a series of poorly received projects in recent times. Yet, the holding and arresting visual quality that the Turner Prize-winning artist has successfully and brilliantly conjured rises like an ancient serpent from the depths.
Entering the sumptuous Palazzo Grassi, the eye is immediately caught by a colossus. Based upon a smaller original found in the hull of the Unbelievable, Hirst has recreated this lost figure from antiquity in a splendour which would dominate the court of the pharaohs or indeed, Zeus himself. This 80-foot demon stands with a bowl is accompanied by the head of the demon himself. Indeed, the head is the stuff of nightmares. The lolling tongue and snarling mouth immediately impress upon the visitor the world which they are entering. Some say it is the Babylonian Daemon Pazuzu who drinks the blood of men. Others, as the handy guide explains, believe that the head of this demon, recovered thousands of miles from the site of the wreck is a curse waiting to be unleashed.
Located over 3 floors, and occupying 5,000 square meters of museum space the exhibition takes the viewer through a (false) world where the overarching narrative that Hirst is creating seeps into every pore of the exhibit. Moving on, in a separate antechamber located upon the first floor, the video which shows the ‘recovery’ of the various objects found in the rest of the exhibit is as unsettling and creepy as introductions can get. The music which swells behind every shift of sand is poignant reminder of Hirst’s ability to create and sustain an atmosphere within his work.
While it would be impossible to focus on each of the individual pieces, attention should be drawn to the ‘Skull of the Cyclops’. Based on the legend of the Cyclops Polyphemus from homer’s Odyssey, this recreation of a mammoth’s skull complete with accompanying debris from the seabed is a sumptuous delving into both myth and antiquity. The central and glaring eye socket of this beast of the depths is a tantalising reminder of the notion that the ancients believed these to be the skulls of the giants that fought against the gods. It is to Hirst’s credit that he blends myth and fiction – certainly it adds a palpable sense of verisimilitude to proceedings and the observer is drawn inexorably towards the heart of Hirst’s creation. This is aided by the Spartan environs of the Palazzo and the Punto, the exhibits often occupy a single space on an unadorned wall of plinth, this is a good visual effect that draws the eye of the beholder straight into the beauty that Hirst wants to imagine.
Importantly, the exhibit which most caught my attention was one that is so intimately life-like you can almost hear the hushed hissing of serpents. The head of Medusa, moulded from striking Malachite is the “Severed Head of Medusa,” which in varying shades of emerald and evergreen twists into mind’s eye long after moving on. Praise must also be heeded to the various sculptors with whom Hirst has worked. The level of detail on the faces of all the figures throughout the exhibition are tantamount to the death masks which have graced the likes of Oscar Wilde and Beethoven.
Ultimately, Damien Hirst is a storyteller. He is bold, vain and talented. The stories he conjures are a sensuous amalgamation of fact, fiction and everything in between; a space that exists somewhere near both myth and history, where all these terrific monsters dwell. This is a monumental return to form for this intoxicating artist who stills reminds us of the majesty of myth and our world and offers a stark warning: In the darkness of the ocean floor, there be dragons.
Words by James Hill