Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, review: this spectacular failure could be the shipwreck of his career

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Damien Hirst's Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi
Damien Hirst's Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi Credit: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017

After months of speculation, rumour, and stage-managed hype, Damien Hirst’s latest extravaganza is finally opening in Venice – and, my goodness, it’s enormous.

With 190 works of art, displayed across 54,000 square feet of gallery space, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, as the exhibition is called, is arranged across two venues: Palazzo Grassi, on the Grand Canal, and the city’s old customs house, Punta della Dogana. Both are owned by billionaire French businessman François Pinault, a long-time collector of Hirst’s work.

At the heart of the show – which purports to offer a teasing, riddling, Borgesian experience, posing profound questions about truth and illusion, historical fact and myth, scepticism and faith – is an elaborate fable about an exorbitantly wealthy figure from antiquity called Amotan, who supposedly lived during the first and early second centuries AD.

According to this yarn, which visitors are invited to assimilate upon entering the exhibition, Amotan was a freed slave, from Antioch in north-west Turkey, who amassed an extraordinary fortune that he lavished upon an art collection of unprecedented quality and scope. Legend has it – so Hirst would have us believe – that Amotan loaded 100 of his finest treasures, weighing 460 tonnes, as offerings onto a colossal ship called the Apistos (Greek for “Unbelievable”), bound for a faraway, and long-lost, sun temple.

Damien Hirst's Hydra and Kali (two versions), Hydra and Kali Beneath the Waves (photography Christoph Gerigk). Credit: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017

Unfortunately, the Unbelievable foundered off the coast of south-east Africa, and Amotan’s hoard was consigned to the seabed of the Indian Ocean for two millennia – until 2008, when the site of the wreck was discovered. Since then, bankrolled by Hirst, underwater archaeologists have been salvaging Amotan’s forgotten treasures, now eroded and transformed, almost beyond recognition, by coral, barnacles, and other accretions of the sea.

Documentary photographs presented on lightboxes, dotted throughout both venues, offer tantalising glimpses of treasures languishing on the ocean floor. An introductory video shows footage of a working vessel, supporting a huge crane, apparently used to rescue Amotan’s artworks from their watery resting place.

Of course, it doesn’t take long to realise that this whole byzantine back story is nothing but a shaggy dog story. Yes, there are cabinets, like those in great museums, soberly cataloguing ranks of gleaming gold coins and jewellery, corroded drinking vessels, abraded weaponry. Pseudo-scholarly labels solemnly explain the wild myths dramatised by Amotan’s works of art. But we also find not-so-subtle clues that, despite the apparatus of connoisseurship, the entire show is a hoax, a tongue-in-cheek ruse.

A bronze Lion Woman, for instance, leading a fearsome maned beast, is naked apart from a pair of knickers; I’m no historian, but I don’t believe underwear like this was widely available in Asia Minor during the Roman Empire. Elsewhere, we encounter a massive, quasi-Aztec Calendar Stone, bizarrely cast in bronze, even though, following the wreck of Amotan’s great 60m-long wooden ship, it was a good millennium, at least, before the Aztecs dominated Mesoamerica.

Damien Hirst's Pair of Masks (left), Sphinx (right) Credit: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017

How, meanwhile, should we account for the anachronistic sculptures of Disney cartoon characters, including Goofy and Mickey Mouse? Or the bronze bust, upstairs at Palazzo Grassi, of a tubby Collector, scowling proudly like a puffed-up Roman senator, resembling Hirst?

When we come across the oxidised-green blade of an “ancient” sword stamped with the logo of Sea World, the penny, finally and unambiguously, drops: ah yes, we are cast adrift in a vast and watery theme park of Hirst’s imagination. The biggest clue, of course, is the title: the show is, literally, “unbelievable”. What did we expect?

The exhibition is unbelievable in another sense, too – and not in a good way. Let me be frank: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is a spectacular, bloated folly, an enormity that may prove the shipwreck of Hirst’s career.

The duff, hollow note is struck at the outset, on the quayside by Punta della Dogana, where a massive statue depicts a man on horseback assailed by a monstrous sea serpent. Fashioned from Carrara marble (a material famously favoured by Michelangelo), this is, I assume, intended as homage to the tragic ancient sculpture of Laocoön and his sons in the Vatican.

Don’t be fooled: in fact, it is an overblown, kitsch pastiche, characterised by lifeless surfaces, lurid emotions, and vile, excessive details, such as a couple of toadstools growing on the base. Ugh.

Damien Hirst's Skull of a Cyclops, Skull of a Cyclops Examined by a Diver (photography Christoph Gerigk) Credit: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017

Inside, we encounter three even larger sculptures, all cast in bronze: the “Aztec” Calendar Stone, a naked Diver covered with bulbous clumps of coral, like mutant versions of her ample breasts, and a screaming warrior-woman atop a monumental, rearing bear.

Like many works in the show, these all appear to sprout coral, like offputting, tumorous growths. Cursory inspection reveals that these spongy and spikey excrescences, patinated in pleasing but meretricious colours, originated not underwater but in a foundry. There’s a lot of craftsmanship on display, but not much art.

At first, I was willing to suspend my disbelief, and play along with the whole farrago: after all, there’s something so gloriously demented about The Warrior and the Bear, so exultantly absurd, that my jaw hit the polished-concrete floor. Its aesthetic channels Jeff Koons circa 1988 (indeed, references abound to Koons’s infamous Banality sculptures), but amped up and bejewelled, if such a thing is possible. I grinned, and thought: well, at least Hirst has been having a blast, over the past decade, preparing for this show.

Quickly, though, my willingness to play along palled. In gallery after gallery, we are presented with object after expensively produced object: severed Medusa heads in gold, silver, malachite, and crystal glass; painted-bronze imitations of giant clam shells; a red-marble bust of a sexy, Egyptian-style princess, embellished with agate and gold leaf; a jade Buddha; a blue bust of Neptune carved from lapis lazuli.

Damien Hirst's Five Grecian Nudes, Five Antique Torsos, Grecian Nude (three versions) Credit: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017

There are bronze bells and gold monkeys, curvy “Grecian” torsos like dismembered Barbie dolls, a unicorn’s “skull”, and a jewelled scorpion finished with pearls, rubies and sapphires.

Many of these trinkets, knick-knacks and baubles have been issued as multiples, replicated in different materials and on various scales, like products for the schlocky end of the art market.

After a while, they start to blur into one another, like interchangeable props: costly decor for Hirst’s reckless, sprawling production.

Ever since organising Freeze, the 1988 exhibition that launched the YBAs, Hirst has, arguably, shown more talent as an impresario than he has as an artist – operating in the manner of, say, a theatre or film director. This is what we find in Venice: every artwork is subservient to his overarching vision, concerning the spurious story of Amotan.

Yet, rather than seeming grand and epic, it all feels tawdry and low-rent, tinny and fake. This has a lot to do with the outmoded presiding visual style, best described as Eighties Po-Mo kitsch, and the many naked, quivering maidens, excitably menaced by monsters. Water, water everywhere – nor, sadly, any drop to drink: Treasures is Hirst’s Waterworld; in other words, a flop.

Damien Hirst's Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement) Credit: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017

In one memorably awful, sub-Picasso moment, a black-granite Minotaur rapes an Athenian “virgin”. Homer, this isn’t, but, rather, adolescent fantasy: Hirst’s version, if you like, of the cheap thrills of Game of Thrones.

The atrium of Palazzo Grassi, meanwhile, is dominated by an 18m-high bronze Demon, a latter-day Colossus of Rhodes in the pose of Blake’s Ghost of a Flea (at least there’s a half-decent joke about scale). The mind boggles at the cost of casting something so enormous – especially when the result is the sculptural equivalent of a wasteland, with expansive, monotonous surfaces, so featureless and flat.

Incredibly, The Minotaur and Demon with Bowl aren’t the most egregious sculptures. A horrific bronze called Metamorphosis grafts a fly’s head onto a buxom woman’s body, sheathed in classical drapery. But the nadir is Andromeda and the Sea Monster, displayed on the piano nobile of Palazzo Grassi. In this overweening bronze monstrosity, finished in blue, a gigantic shark rears up like a phallus, ready to ravage the mythological princess, chained to her rock. Given the notoriety of Hirst’s pickled tiger shark, perhaps we should understand this marine predator as a self-portrait. Whatever: it’s terrible.

By the end, I felt battered by the exhibition’s relentlessness, but also – and this is worse – bored. Henry Moore’s daughter, Mary, said recently that Hirst had set back sculpture by a hundred years. On this evidence, I agree. The obsession with narrative and storytelling, at the expense of any real feeling for the object; the insistence on immature make-believe: it’s all unbelievably retrograde.

Oops: artist Damien Hirst Credit: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Indeed, a couple of pieces, presenting funerary effigies of the same comely young woman lying upon a tomb, look like straight-up pastiches of sentimental 19th-century statuary. Contemporary art doesn’t look like this anymore.

As for the vast, splurging, blinged-up expense of the entire enterprise: it feels wasteful and inappropriate in an era of instability and inequality. It’s hard not to connect the figure of Amotan, “bloated with excess wealth”, as the exhibition guide puts it, with Hirst, who is also a collector – a comparison that he jokily invites.

In fairness, there are flashes of wit, moments of technical virtuosity, and an imaginative vision that, on paper, seems alluring. As a populist fairground spectacle, the show is unmissable.

Ultimately, though, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable offers scale in lieu of ambition, and kitsch masquerading as high art. Perhaps, when the exhibition closes in December, Amotan’s “treasures” should be returned, discreetly, to the bottom of the sea.

From Sun [April 9] until Dec 3. Details: palazzograssi.it