A decade in the making, Damien Hirst’s monumental series of sculptures in his exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable has opened in the city synonymous with water under the curation of Elena Geuna. Hirst, who hasn’t shown in Italy since his 2004 retrospective at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, has taken over the 5000 square metres of the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, owned by French art collector and Christie’s owner Francois Pinault, marking the first time a single artist has dominated both spaces.
The show only opening on 9 April, and is already receiving mixed reviews. Critics have paid close attention to Hirst’s re-emergence with 189 works in an aptly titled show that is all about “a fantasy on a ship that went down,” Hirst stated publicly. The premise is that the items on display were “discovered” on an ancient sunken vessel off East Africa filled with treasures from cultures spanning Aztec to Ancient Egyptian, with a few pop culture icons thrown in for good measure (Kate Moss, Yo-landi and Mickey Mouse). Complete with manufactured “archival footage” of the artefacts being salvaged, Hirst has put on a vast, impressive show that aims to play historian and anthropologist as it blurs the lines between reality and fiction.
Some sculptures stand as tall as 18 metres (a headless torso entitled Demon with a Bowl), while other works depicting bears or mythical creatures like the sphinx are encrusted with aquatic flora and fauna. Despite believable assertions that sculptures were submerged under water for a month prior to display, a discerning eye (and mind) will note that the natural decay that reveals authenticity, particularly in relation to the coral, is missing – the objects remain pristine and vibrant. Much of the work on display offers this visual play, as another example, classical figures typically produced in marble are painted to look like leather.
With half the public responding that Hirst has gone a step too far in his extravagant imaginations, bordering on self-indulgence despite immaculately manufactured objects, the other half is lauding Hirst for an artistic reinvention that sees his practice focused on death, decay and hubris take on a new immersive scale, albeit, with lowered prices.