Each fortnight, HeadStuff brings a unadulterated critique of the global art scene.
Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is exhibiting across two expansive Venetian museums, the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana. The pieces — the titular treasures — are the fruits of a diving expedition off the coast of Africa which Hirst funded. They range from bronze and gold and gilt, to marble and stones of different tones and textures, all depicting mythical beings and fabulous creatures. Some are tarnished or coral-encrusted, only recently retrieved from the seabed.
Hirst insists on a narrative of a sunken ship called the Apistos, along with its cargo of artworks, that was discovered nine years ago, as a backdrop. “Myth or fact,” Hirst says, “Whichever you chose to believe.” The exhibition marks the first chance for the public to see this hoard, courtesy of Hirst’s generous pocket. His willingness to entwine the worlds of money and art have always been at the forefront of his artistic praxis. It is not something he only exploits, in making himself one of the wealthiest living artists today, but something he critiques in the dialogue of his work.
[pullquote]“Someone said to me, ‘Would you like to be immortalised through your art?’,” Hirst recalls. “And you think, ‘Well, yeah, but I’d rather just be immortalised through me.’” [/pullquote]
Having risen to fame with the Young British Artists in the 80‘s and 90‘s, his start as a darling of advertising titan Charles Saatchi, is endemic of his career: artist and savvy businessman. He parlayed fame and notoriety enabling him to command huge prices for his work. The auction ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’ at Sotheby’s brought in roughly £198 million. What did Hirst do with his millions from his sold art? He bought art. He has always been a collector, from purchasing his college classmates work to his penchant for Picasso fakes on Ebay. Treasures is Hirst’s magnum opus, not just as an artist, but as an art collector. But don’t dismiss this exhibition as pacified Hirst- he is still as prodding as ever
He delights in idea of why we collect art, the economics of the art market, the sentimentality and idolisation of art through repute or age. Dotted amongst the salvaged ‘antiquities’ are Jeff Koons’ miniatures, Goofy and Mickey Mouse. Treasures reprises and broadens the theme of false idols and muses on the ironic fallibility of collectors as they try to immortalise themselves amongst the bronze and gold and gilt, the mythical beings and fabulous creatures. “Someone said to me, ‘Would you like to be immortalised through your art?’,” Hirst recalls. “And you think, ‘Well, yeah, but I’d rather just be immortalised through me.’”
I have been a fan of Hirst for a very long time. I remember being 13 in New York and going to the MET with my mother when he burst into my life with his obsessing over death. After looking at a very large canvas of two very big black dots, I walked up a curved staircase to see a big, livid tiger shark looking back at me. Its title, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, was a bit too on the nose and too open about its concepts. It didn’t really matter. The artwork’s title marked out how it would reach out and affect its observer, its ability to make human experience its canvas. However, the piece was immediate and visceral, and also fun. I remember scampering around the vitrine tank and the sudden shock as a once prone and sideways shark now faced its big open jaws at me. It was the first time I really understood the process of viewing an artwork and, until reflecting on this now, made me a believer in conceptual art as being a thing grounded in visceral human experience. Those initial revelations have made me follow his work ever since, even as he seemed to wile away his flair for vitalising abstractions with sub-Koonsian stunt art and an ill-begotten foray into Bacon-like paintings. This exhibition, however, looks the business.
[pullquote] The sense of scale has allowed Hirst to take the sort of angle that no other artist could take in the same way.[/pullquote]The big fear with this exhibition, as someone pressing their nose up to the glass and breathing, heavily, is whether this is another exercise in Hirst showing you how much money he can spend. There are many pieces of bronze painted to look like coral. There is a giant Aztec talisman at the beginning of the exhibition, which may well be made of bronze too. There are, in fact, several hundred statues made to not look like what they are made of. Much of this has been made by a group of artists under Hirst’s direction and employ, an enterprise that must be so startlingly complex and vast that it makes Warhol’s Factory look like a sewing circle in comparison. We are in an age where the pre-Renaissance School system has been reborn through post-modern simulacra theories, and I am not opposed to that but rather I am pessimistic over how Hirst’s immense wealth and ability to do anything has led him to not do much. Essentially, I don’t want this show to be a Hollywood sequel to his lavish pre-2008-financial-crash pieces, or worse (considering Hirst’s ever-heightening success), a Fast and the Furious-style 7th instalment in the franchise of DAMIEN HIRST, a small country’s GDP-worth of unnecessary spectacle.
Yet, I feel that this won’t be the case. As I look at the images of the sculptures – some recognisably mythic in their original conception, others notably drawn from pop culture, such as a barnacle-ridden Mickey Mouse – I see something interesting being done. The sense of scale has allowed Hirst to take the sort of angle that no other artist could take in the same way. This show seems to be a collection of artworks that shouldn’t be viewed in isolation or as part of a suite, but a grand gesture to examine the function of museums, our obsession with objects, old, new, mass-produced or authentic, within the norms of the gallery space that makes us view them. Hirst’s interest in common culture (not just popular, but mutely ubiquitous) has morphed into creating sculptures that play with associations like never before. One sculpture portrays the teal-ly bronze of a woman from the waist up, gold splotches going along the centre of her body up to her neck. It doesn’t look too far away from the ordinary relic of the British Museum, but then you notice the side shelves bearing chopsticks. Your mind wonders if there is some reference being made to nyotaimori or whether you’re simply stuck in the gutter. Maybe you ponder whether the statue is meant to look like yer one from Die Antwoord. Maybe you go on to something else or else wonder why the things you had thought of changed how you view an artwork that conceivably passes as a 2,000-year-old statue salvaged from a shipwreck.
Hirst has always liked to move people, whether through his emotive titles and images or making work that literally demanded a roving perspective. Two years ago, when he had opened his own gallery, Newport Street, to showcase his personal art collection, he admitted a growing interest in curation. I could never have guessed that this seemingly hobbying interest could become the vital launching pad for Hirst to enter a realm that imbues his wealth-driven capability for scale with the vigorous urgency of his breakout work. After all, the anarchic young artist who put a preserved shark in the middle of an art gallery couldn’t help but admire his older self for doing the same with a Colossus that could have rivalled Rhodes’.