Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at Palazzo Grassi/Punta della Dogana
April 9 to December 3, 2017
The Pinault Collection
Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, Venice
“Yes” is hard to find. At times it requires one clamber up a ladder and look through a magnifying glass at a teeny-tiny printed word; as in Yoko Ono’s Ceiling Painting (Yes Painting) (1966). In Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable Damien Hirst fabricates an elaborate and absurd mythology that leads us back two hazy millennia, to the bottom of the sea and up to the top again, in order to find Yes: an ultimately exalted demesne of the human spirit populated by unicorns, lions, bears, Mickey, Goofy, attractive naked people, the entire history of art, plus colossal demons and other fearsome horrors for good measure. Hirst’s quest has two parts: as he picks and chooses his mythological and archeological all-star team he underscores again and again that all of this is found and his for the taking. This is explicit in the narrative of the expedition to find the works, as well as the accreted coral, barnacles and shells which have “grown” over the works, signifying their ultimate decontextualization from the world of human culture. The artist is collector and adventurer, but not necessarily the creator, more the fabricator-in-chief. Hirst has always embraced the found object as source of inspiration, and he has always been willing to go out on a limb to push the boundaries of what found means, from the mortal remains of sharks, butterflies, cows sheep and pigs, to the pills in your medicine cabinet and realms to which they can take you. In this massive Venetian undertaking, the artist pillages art history via pages ripped from H.W. Hanson.
Frank Zappa recorded an album called “Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar” (1981) in which he restrained his juvenile sense of humor that was expressed through his lyrics, and simply played his instrument—to great effect. The seriousness of Hirst’s enterprise in “The Unbelievable” is tripped up by similarly nerdy, teen-age boy silliness. Mostly this involves inserting himself into the exhibition, as in The Collector with a Friend, a full-size replica of the iconic Blaine Gibson piece “Partners” (1993) depicting Walt Disney holding hands with Mickey Mouse, in this case Hirst standing in for Walt. The other weak point is a previously unprovenanced “genre” of sculpture, purportedly Greek, which offers extremely accurate representations of mostly naked women: The Diver is a particularly porny depiction of a headless woman’s body. Hirst expends so much mileage convincing the viewer that he can play with the concept of aesthetic and historic styles, at least via costume and context, that these astylistic examples, clearly generated using body casting techniques or seeming to, lack the foreignness that comes with the idiosyncrasies of mannerism. It is this historical and national diversity that is the basis of the whole project. The initial videos of scuba divers retrieving the sculptures, followed by the galleries of coins, ingots, jewels and amphorae go a long way in reinforcing the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Aten a faux-Egyptian sculpture in red marble using Rihanna as inspiration falls within the parameters of almost being Egyptian, and The Warrior and the Bear depicting a scimitar-wielding gamin in a bikini bottom astride a giant bear is so absurd as to constitute a new hybrid style of Anime-crossed-with-Dungeons-and-Dragons. Unfortunately, most of the other hyper-realistic pieces depicting solely human subjects without monsters or costumes are unconvincing.
Can a fatalistically cheery outlook on the history of human creativity be wrenched from an ultimately reductionist Duchamp-ian approach to that creativity? Hirst is counting on the fundamental sentimentality that exists at the root of most human mythology and spirituality to make possible his broad generalized anthropological connections. He is largely successful. He equates the Gods of Hinduism, Ancient Egypt and the Aztecs with Walt Disney, contemporary celebrities Rihanna and Yolandi Visser, and fantasy novel/sci-fi imagery. It may be insulting, but one gets the impression that while Hirst’s avoidance of Judeo-Islamic-Christian imagery might be aesthetic colonialism, it’s more likely bred of the opposite: he finds those familiar traditions far too played-out and boring in terms of visual culture. Western culture’s contribution is Disney and porn, not Jesus and Mary, and through the eyes of his collector/slave alter ego Cif Amotan II, he has assembled what he thinks are all the meaningful characters, tropes, situations and motives from the history of world art and culture.
Depending on where you start your voyage on Hirst’s magic swirling ship, and I would recommend the Palazzo Grassi followed by the Punta Della Dogana, you begin with a sixty-foot tall headless demon and end in a tower ringed by unicorn skulls. The inclusion of curios as well as sculptures introduces another of Hirst’s favorite themes, the question of what constitutes a work of art. By pushing the momento mori/still-life to its absolute maximum in his works utilizing animal corpses in the past, Hirst forced a literal definition of the genre, removing all pretense and metaphor. In The Unbelievable, his frame is the museum itself, and his inclusion of reproduced natural objects such as Nautilus and giant clam shells, mineral specimens, gorgon heads and mammoths skulls in this very wide purview confers a legitimacy on all the objects, real or imagined. It is a wonderful make-believe narrative of art similar to what one finds in other singular presentations of esoteric collections like Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.