img.0 Installation view of "Demon with bowl" in the atrium of Palazzo Grassi. Image © designboom.
It all begins with ‘once upon a time…’ — curator Elena Geuna’s opening statement on Damien Hirst’s wildly elaborate exhibition in Venice. with such a fantastical and intriguing preface as this, it’s no wonder ‘treasures of the wreck of the unbelievable’ is being called Hirst’s most ambitious and complex project to date.
More than 10 years in the making, the exhibition revolves around 190 works of art that occupy over 5,000 square meters of museum space across Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. This is the first time that art collector François Pinault has designated both of his sites to only one artist. The showcase unfolds around the story of a fictional ship wreck from ancient times, and unearths the discovery of its curious cargo — an underwater fantasy filled with precious objects and artefacts.
img.1 "Demon with bowl" (exhibition enlargement). Photo by Prudence Cuming. Image © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017.
Hirst posits that the collection of cargo was the apparent fortune of a freed slave from Antioch (north-west turkey) named Aulus Calidius Amotan aka Cif Amotan II, whose ship ( the Apistos – from koine Greek translates as ‘unbelievable’) sunk on its journey to Asit Mayor — a temple dedicated to the sun. The tale of the unfortunate wreck that laid for some two thousand years in the Indian ocean, and its precious treasures lost at sea was spread across the world, when almost a decade after the site was discovered in 2008 excavations began. Bloated with excess wealth, the treasures he was able to collect are commissions, copies, fakes, purchases and plunders.
‘Inauthentic’ elements elaborated on the true nature of the event. ‘It is said that during the Renaissance, with the idea of giving visual expression to what could have only been imagined, descriptions of the sculptures became sources of inspiration for many drawings, preparatory studies and works by other artists,’ describes curator Elena Geuna. A number of the sculptures are exhibited prior to undergoing restoration, heavily encrusted in corals and other marine life, at times rendering their forms virtually unrecognizable: enormous sea creatures, nude figures and female busts.
img.2 Disembodied "Head of demon" with Saurian features, characterized by monstrous gaping jaws and bulbous eyes. Image © designboom.
In the main atrium of Palazzo Grassi stands one of the most dramatic ‘discoveries’ from the underwater exploration — ‘Demon with bowl’. Towering more than 18 meters above enthralled viewers, this monumental figure is a copy of a smaller bronze recovered from the wreckage. The sculpture has been carefully assembled in slices from the headless figure’s feet up — one segment at a time. Palazzo Grassi has documented the installation of the ‘demon’ in a time-lapse video (realized by Tanto Production). The film records the painstaking process of building-up and meticulously fitting the larger-than-life sized statue within the vast but narrow atrium space.
img.3 The "Demon with bowl" sculpture towers more than 18 meters high above viewers. Image © designboom.
img.4 "Demon with bowl". Image © designboom.
img.5 A view from the second floor of Palazzo Grassi – the headless figure is encrusted with underwater coral and subaquatic specimens. Image © designboom.
The first time Damien Hirst spoke to me about his grand project, his ‘treasures’, was almost ten years ago,’ recalls François Pinault, president of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. ‘He was then at the height of his fame, recognized and adulated. He had achieved all the goals he had set himself when he was a young man, destitute and poor. But he was still dreaming of new horizons. By all accounts, he wished to put his creative powers to the test again. A few years later, during a visit to his studio, he showed me the first works he had created as part of this great project. The effect was spectacular, dazzling and baffling. And that was only the beginning.’
img.6 "Hydra and Kali". Image © designboom.
While the exhibition has proved controversial — polarizing art critics with its unprecedented complexity and scale — it might just be its elaborate extravagance that makes the show so ‘unbelievable’. ‘By its excess, by its ambition, and finally by its audacity, ‘treasures’ makes a complete break with all that [Hirst] has achieved so far,’ Pinault continues. The works do not fit into any conventional aesthetic category or canonical structure. they emanate a sense of an almost mythological power, plunging the beholder into a state of mind that oscillates constantly between bewilderment and enthusiasm.’
img.7 "Andromeda and the sea monster". Image © designboom.
img.8 "Andromeda and the sea monster", seen from behind, covered in fossilized crustaceans. Image © designboom.
But it is in the seemingly excavated, pop-culture characters where Hirst’s signature themes become most evident. Visitors find a coral-encrusted sculpture of Mickey Mouse, teeming with colorful underwater specimens; Pharrell Williams re-imagined as a pharaoh marble bust; and a Rihanna-look-alike rendered in red marble.
img.9 Detail of Mickey carried by diver. Underwater photography by Christoph Gerigk.
img.10 Installation view of Mickey, covered in colorful coral. Image © designboom.
img.11 "Remnants of Apollo". The wrinkled mouse serves to identify this vast sculptural fragment as part of the apollonian effigy. Slightly awkward is the later addition of the god’s stone ear to the spine of the rodent. Image © designboom.
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