Culture

Damien Hirst: Comeback king or washed up?

VENICE, Italy: Damien Hirst is back, and the art world doesn’t quite know what to make of the latest grandiose exhibition from the crown prince of contemporary art. “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” plunges visitors into a fantasy universe raised from the depths of the Indian Ocean that has been ten years in the making.

As ever with the 51-year-old Briton – famed for his stuffed sharks and the huge fortune he has amassed as the most commercially successful member of the Young British Artist movement of the 1990s – the show is nothing if not controversial.

Depending on which critic you listen to, the vast exhibition spread across the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana halls of Venice’s old customs house, the monumental new collection is either a spellbinding return to form, or a career-ending artistic shipwreck.

In the former camp is the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, who wrote that with the ensemble of more than 200 new pieces, “the arrogant, exciting, hilarious, mind-boggling imagination that made [Hirst] such a thrilling artist in the 1990s is audaciously and beautifully reborn.”

Others were equivocal. “A fantasy too far?” asked the Financial Times’ Jan Dalley, predicting that visitors would find Hirst’s watery fantasy “either fascinating and enriching or pointless and annoying.”

Some were damning. A self-described Hirst aficionado, The Times of London’s Rachel Campbell-Johnston wrote, “This show is, quite frankly, absurd. It should be dumped at the bottom of the sea.”

The two-site exhibition asks visitors to buy into a back story about Hirst being alerted to a shipwreck discovered off the east African coast in 2008 and organizing the recovery of the treasures it contained. It is these precious coral- and seaweed-encrusted artifacts, putatively from the hold of the “Apistos” (Unbelievable), which make up the exhibition.

The ship supposedly belonged to a former slave who amassed a fortune and spent it collecting artifacts across the ancient world – Egyptian sphinxes, Greek statues and jewel-studded sculptures including a massive 18-meter-tall monster, along with many other gems.

As visitors make their way through the series, they can watch videos of divers carrying out the supposed salvage operation.

There are many surprises along the way which will unsettle anyone who goes along with the shipwreck story.

From an Egyptian goddess who looks uncannily like Kate Moss to coral-encrusted fossils of Disney characters, it’s all about the real and the fake – or, as many reviewers saw it, Hirst’s take on the very contemporary issue of fake news.

“The visitor does not really know if the works she sees have spent 2,000 years at the bottom of the sea or if they are the work of the artist,” said Martin Bethenod, director of the two venues. Both galleries are owned by the Foundation Pinault, owned by French fashion tycoon Francois Pinault, a noted collector of Hirst’s work.

“There is this ambiguity which leaves space for dreams,” Bethenod told AFPTV. “There are different levels of interpretation that overlap, which give the project its richness and complexity.”

Hirst rose to fame as the leader of the YBA gang that dominated the British art scene in the 1990s.

He won the Turner Prize in 1995 and attracted a huge following that went well beyond the rarified confines of contemporary art.

His 2012 show at London’s Tate Modern attracted a record 463,000 visitors at the time to see works including a diamond-encrusted human skull called “For The Love Of God.”

He figures regularly on lists of Britain’s wealthiest people, thanks partly to a 2008 auction at Sotheby’s which saw him cut out the gallery middlemen to sell 223 new pieces for 111 million pounds ($138 million at current exchange rates).

That sale coincided with the start of the financial crisis that hit the contemporary art sector hard.

The value of Hirst’s work has since waned, which has led to much debate about whether collectors will show much enthusiasm for the artist’s latest collection.

All the pieces, some of which exist in three different forms, are to be sold after the exhibition ends.

The art world is already busy speculating how much money Hirst will have left after he has covered the huge costs of creating the works over the past decade and transporting them to Venice.

“Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” runs at Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana through Dec. 3. See www.palazzograssi.it/en.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 12, 2017, on page 16.

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