Two weeks ago I previewed artist Damien Hirst‘s new exhibit debuting in Venice at 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) Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable is now open to the public and comes with an “unbelievable” backstory…
The remains of a ship, sunk some 2,000 years ago off the coast of East Africa. The property of a remarkable collector —a freed slave, no less—named Cif Amotan II, the vessel was carrying a vast art collection containing artifacts from every civilization then known, transporting it to a museum island where they would be placed on show. The ship went down, and she and her marvels remained undisturbed until their rediscovery in 2008. Her salvaged cargo, the conceit has it, is the treasure we see before us.
But that idea falls apart under the weigh of the concept and also by the purposeful inclusion of items like a coral encrusted robot, Mickey Mouse and headless sculptures that look more like mannequins.
Nevertheless, each piece in the show offered in an edition of three:
• One made to look like it is a treasure just dredged from the deep (a “Coral,” in Hirst’s parlance)
• Another made to look like the salvaged relic restored for display by modern-day curators (a “Treasure”)
• And a third which is presented as a reproduction of the pseudo-historical object (a “Copy”).
(According to the New York Times, Hirst’s galleries have been offering the works with price tags ranging from $500,000 apiece to more than $5 million…)
Needless to say, because it’s Hirst, the knives were out and the reviews have been scathing but also rapturous, what you usually get. Love him or hate him. Artnet‘s review said,
“On one level, the cost of the thing and the effort of putting it together are all so much petty distraction—the showy money-related stuff that we all get so obsessed with around Hirst, and which we shake our heads at disapprovingly, but find impossible to ignore. He was ever the showman. But then again, questions of cost, value, ownership, control, and reputation are precisely the fast-shifting territory that “Treasures” is exploring.”
But New York magazine art critic, Jerry Saltz posting pics of the show on Facebook was not having the money talk,
“I think that the Hirst show will be a huge Popular success. In that sense the work is eminently successful. Few artists have this ability.
Without bringing money into the argument – because that’s always where I have to start de-friending cynics who reduce EVERYTHING to fucking money, wha wha wha – You try to produce a large show that will be able to capture the imagination of 10s of thousands of viewers.
I’ll pay you ten-bucks if you can do it.”
The Telegraph‘s reviewer, Alastair Sooke, was NOT impressed,
“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.
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.
Perhaps, when the exhibition closes in December, Amotan’s “treasures” should be returned, discreetly, to the bottom of the sea.”
But The Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones was utterly convinced…
“Is this going to be any more artistically rewarding than a trip to the Harry Potter studios to see the sorting hat? But Hirst’s wizardry proves to be the real thing.
It takes a kind of genius to push kitsch to the point where it becomes sublime. Hirst’s hero Koons has done something like it with his giant reflective balloon dogs. Here, the kitsch doesn’t so much grow on you as wrap you in its tentacles and drag you down into its underwater palace. After one implausible fake of an unknown pharaoh’s portrait, I was disgusted. After a roomful, followed by rooms full of everything from Roman dinnerware (purportedly) to a massive coral-covered statue of a multi-armed woman fighting a writhing many-headed Hydra, I was intoxicated.
It is not just a random mass of stuff, but a subtle meditation on the practice of collecting, on museums and why we go to them. Throughout the exhibition, sculptures in rollicking bad taste alternate with glass cases that evolve Hirst’s oldest, most quintessential idea – putting things in vitrines and cabinets – into a profound image of the act of collecting. These cabinets contain things of apparent antiquity and historical meaning, arranged – as they might be in a very beautiful museum – by a fastidious curator. What are the principles of arrangement? How have the treasures of the Unbelievable been classified? How do we classify and know anything at all, and what drives people to do it?”
Artist Ashley Bickerton, a long-time friend of Hirst’s was there.
“I think what some of the negative reviewers all seem to be missing is the humor of this show. It’s flat out Vaudevillian. I can’t say I loved everything in this massive sprawling and exhausting show, but pretty much loved every one of the coral encrusted works. I really think they rank up there with his best stuff.”
I haven’t seen the show myself, but conceptually I think it’s brilliant. I like Hirst and as a conceptual artist, I think there’s never been anyone like him. The art of the idea is just that –like Duchamp’s urinal (whose 100th anniversary display is today) and Warhol’s soup can, the object is not the thing. It’s an artist’s mind game created to make you think. This is nothing new, but somehow people inside and outside the art world still get hung up on it. But more that anything, they get hung up on Hirst’s success. In 2008, he made $200 million in his riskily orchestrated Sotheby‘s sale, he sells his own and other’s editions on his own website, he left Gagosian and came back, and he’s opened his own museum… among other superlatives.
But take a look for yourself and start trashing or praising or just say, “meh.” The richest artist in the world is always going to take some heat, but he afford it.
Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable runs from April 9 to December 3, 2017 at Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy.