Damien Hirst’s doubleheader in Venice is undoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade. It is devoid of ideas, aesthetically bland, and ultimately snooze-inducing—which, one has to concede, is a kind of achievement for a show with work that has taken ten years and untold millions of dollars to create.
This should have been a triumph. Hirst loves a grand occasion, and the prospect of taking over collector François Pinault’s palatial spaces in the Most Serene Republic, the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, would seem like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to let it rip. I was looking forward to an extravagant bit of Hirst nihilism, betting that the artist could at least deliver something so truly bad that it would be delightfully good. Instead, Hirst choked. It is bad show, and a depressing one.
As you may have heard (and as Janelle Zara explained in these pages in a more charitable review), there is a very involved story behind the exhibition: a freed 1st-century slave named Cif Amotan II amassed a fortune, built an incredible collection of art and artifacts, and then lost it all when the ship ferrying it—with the Greek name Apistos, or Unbelievable, hence the show’s name: “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”—to a private museum sank under the sea. Some works in the exhibition, Hirst claims, have been dredged up from the deep, and they are adorned with the barnacles, patination, and coral growth to prove it. Others are exhibition copies—enlargements or renderings of works that have been damaged in some way.
I will admit that I would have loved to have been present as Hirst spouted off the ideas for these works, ostensibly while reading a few books about mythology and religion, and with a large team of assistants and fabricators rushing to realize his dreams. “Two bronzes of the Hindu goddess Kali fighting a giant hydra—and make them huge! Throw coral on one, and make a smaller version in silver!” “A giant Aztec-style calendar stone!” “A bunch of unicorn skulls—bronze, silver, and gold!” “Mickey Mouse covered in coral!” “Shiny clam shells in different sizes!” One shudders to think about the ideas that Hirst didn’t think were quite good enough to follow through.
The fabrication, of course, is largely top-notch, though the forms that Hirst has conceived are so lifeless that the technical excellence on display becomes painful to look at—they are emblems of wasted money, wasted time, and wasted expertise. And in the case of the pieces purportedly brought up from the deep, the coral and barnacles are not even especially realistic. They feel roughly of the quality one might find at a decent amusement park. And, sadly, there is no rollercoaster or ride for those who manage to make it through the show.
It may be hard to believe, given that Hirst has historically been as terrible at two-dimensional works as his compatriot Jeff Koons (whose recent sculptural work has been largely impressive), but the best works here are actually light boxes of photographs showing scuba divers pretending to rescue sculptures from the deep. Immaculately shot, they are the only vestiges of the mystery and glamor that Hirst no doubt hoped his project would evoke.
There are, to be fair, two wonderful sculptures: one a large blue resin piece that has Andromeda, chained to a rock covered with spiders, being attacked by a giant sea monster, and the other a nearly 60-foot-tall depiction of a headless demon, with a penis the size of a grown man’s torso, that nearly fills the entire Palazzo Grassi. In both cases, the Damien Hirst of old is on display, reveling in immaculate, big-budget tastelessness and cackling manically in the shadows. Everywhere else, though, across thousands of square feet and dozens of sculptures, he presents himself as an artist who is exhausted, long ago out of new ideas, and holding nothing but contempt for both his collectors and fans.