Damien Hirst sold a lie, and he sold it very well.
In the weeks leading up to his grand exhibition that now occupies all of the Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi in Venice, he gave out very little information: just a series of teasers on social media—Instagram footage of divers resurrecting unknown objects from the ocean—and a silly title, “Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable.” On the day of the show’s preview, curator Elena Guena narrated the fairytale of Cif Amotan II, the first-century Antioch freed-slave-turned-art-collector whose ship, the Apistos (Greek for “unbelievable”), had sunk into the Indian Ocean 2,000 years ago along with his colossal wealth of art and artifacts. In 2008, the story goes, his wreckage was discovered. These were his treasures, which Hirst himself had painstakingly lifted from the bottom of the ocean to put on display here.
It was an exquisitely crafted lie, complete with a lengthy pocket guide explaining the origins and history of the works in the show. “This example is similar in scale to the famous Aztec calendar stone,” it says of Calendar Stone (2013), the first piece you’ll encounter. The enormous turquoise slab of patinated bronze beautifully (though unconvincingly) sprouts rosy barnacles and a whole spectrum of vibrantly colored marine wildlife. The voluptuous curves of the adjacent sculpture The Diver (2013) is given the same deep-sea treatment and comes with a light box image of a modern-day scuba diver dragging her across the ocean floor.
Brimming with outrageous extravagance, the ensuing galleries in the sprawling Punta Della Dogana unfold as a portrait of a rock-star collector with a voracious appetite and a penchant for precious metals and stones. The Amotan of Hirst’s legend owned a bust of the Gorgon Medusa for every season in every color: malachite, bronze, gold, and crystal. A golden scorpion is encrusted with rubies and emeralds, with a pearl daintily hanging from the tip of its stinger. An indiscriminate collector, he seems to have had no established notions of taste. The collection is like an amalgamation of everything that ever happened in history of the world. Figures of worship from Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, and Mesopotamian lore abound and intermingle.
Hirst goes to extraordinary lengths to keep his lie alive, except where he doesn’t. The illusion wavers, with overt winks, jolly hahas in the form of anachronisms: one 18-foot-tall barnacled and deteriorating bronze tableau puts the Hindu goddess Kali, armed with a sword in each of six hands, in an unlikely and very flamboyant confrontation with the Hydra of Greek myth. More overt still is the inclusion of more contemporary icons, including Mickey Mouse, that hairless mouse that scientists produced in the 1990s with a human ear growing out of its back, and that girl from Die Antwoord, unmistakable with her signature baby bangs, here reimagined as the bronze Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi (2015).
It’s a recent trend for much younger artists to pick pedantic historical references and remix them with high doses of pop culture and irony. But what shows through here is still the Hirst we know, the artist preoccupied with pseudo-scientific inquiries, jewel-encrusted relics, seriality, repetition, and the careful preservation of the dead. Instead of drugs, he offers glass cabinets full of treasures: scimitars and spoons crusted over with orange rusts and gorgeous cerulean oxides—row after row of beautiful fabrications, in both senses of the word.
A quick hop down the Grand Canal, the door to the Palazzo Grassi frames two columns that in turn frame two legs, gargantuan appendages attached to a headless body that stretches upward to the ceiling of the three-story atrium. (The accompanying gargantuan demonic head lies on the floor elsewhere in the foyer.) Childishly awestruck, you realize that Hirst’s secrecy was a gift—entering without any idea of what to expect leads to constant, dumbfounding surprises. By the same token, once you’re in on the joke, it grows stale very quickly. In order to fill both behemoth institutions, Hirst resorted to tedious repetition, cycling the same formal references through some kind of copy-paste mechanism. A single subject is, in many cases, available in a patinated, barnacle-covered version fresh from the murky depths, a “restored version” in a polished metal, and a “museum copy” in gleaming Cararra marble that claims to show the work in its “complete, undamaged states.” But then there’s the inexplicable reuse of the same set of head and shoulders in Sphinx, Head of Sphinx, and the Tadukheba bust in their myriad iterations. As if we wouldn’t notice.
Above the doorway entering the Punta Della Dogana, there’s a text that reads, “Somewhere between lies and truth lies the truth,” the first of many quasi-intellectual allegories and allusions. Amotan is not only the perfect kind of figure to inspire (or purportedly inspire) an exhibition of unhindered opulence, but a clear poster boy for hubris, greed, indiscriminately poor taste, and capriciousness in the art world. (In the semi-fictional catalog, former Louvre director Henri Loyrette muses on these as traits of a Gemini, which also happens to be Hirst’s star sign.) Speaking of poster boys, Hirst himself makes an appearance as a bronze, potbelly-up, in Bust of the Collector (2016), shrouded in branches of coral. The aha-moment he’s positing is that since the 2008 auction that wrecked the market for his work, he never went away, he was simply preparing for his grand resurrection in Venice, a gem waiting to be pulled up from the depths.
Loyrette’s text also pays special attention to the deteriorating golden shell of The Shield of Achilles (2010), which according to legend (a real one), the god Hephaestus constructed over a period of nine years, undisturbed, in his forge at the bottom of the ocean. The shield itself is the first known example of an ekphrasis, in which the vivid account of a work of art can outshine the art itself. In this case, the wall text accompanying the shield explains that this is because the shield itself does not exist, that Achilles himself was a work of fiction. In the spirit of the patron god of metallurgy, Hirst has fabricated a set of gaudy wonders, as well as a fiction complete with provenance and a redemptive narrative. Myths, of course, have a way of superseding the splendors of the material world. It is certainly true in the case of Hirst. As an artist who’s already exhausted the possibilities of reality, his natural next step was to invent his own legend.