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Damien Hirst's Return to the Art World is Perfectly Situated for Our Post-Truth Era

Damien Hirst,"Sinner," from Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, photograph by the author

Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable

April 9-December 3, 2017

Palazzo Grassi, Punta Della Dogana

Venice, Italy


First off, let's be clear: I am neither writing this review to assess whether Damien Hirst's latest offering is any good, nor do I have any desire to evaluate his artistic genius and skills. What I am interested in is to consider the place this blockbuster-ish exhibition occupies in contemporary culture, and the way in which what Hirst's assembled seems to have its roots planted in the essence of the times we live in: at once the matrix and reflection of the politics that define our post-truth age, and the condition in which knowledge is formed through new media-communication today.

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is a massive production—one that took ten years to craft and perfect. It is Hirst’s return to the art world, and as such, it is the kind of career milestone that only artists who have amassed a fortune through the sale of their work can afford: it is said to have cost more than £50 million to make. The staging is also exceptional and conceptually well-tied to the subject of the show: Venice is the perfect setting for a body of work that essentially revels in the poetics of relics, decadence, death, history, and fiction. 

Split over two prestigious sites owned by François Pinault, Palazzo Grassi, and Punta della Dogana, Hirst’s epic tale of a freed Turkish slave named Cif Amotan II begins 2000 years ago. According to the narrative, Amotan spent the immense fortune he accumulated collecting works of art ranging from ancient Egypt to India, Western Africa, Classical Greece, and Imperial Rome. However, everything was lost at sea as the ship named Apisto (meaning “the unbelievable/untrustworthy” in Greek) disappeared off the coast of East Africa. The artifacts and sculptures Hirst displays are meant to have been submerged at the bottom of the sea until 2008, when, as the National Geographic-style documentary accompanying the exhibition chronicles, they were recovered from a forgotten past. 

Damien Hirst, "Hydra and Kali," from Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, photograph by the author

In Hirst’s narration, the archaeological, the ethnographic, and the mythical appear indissolubly merged posing questions about our relationship to history, epistemology, truth, and identity. The grandiose objects comprising the unbelievable treasure are generally encrusted with (sculpted) barnacles and corals. Some recovered pieces seem to have gone through a process of restoration. Others are exhibited next to cleaned up replicas meant to show the pre-sinking state of the now unrecoverable original.

It becomes quickly obvious that an often-humorous institutional critique lies at the core of this project. As Hirst has done in the past, he freely borrows conventions of archaeology, numismatics, and national museum displays. Beyond the initial surprise induced by the sheer number, diversity, intricacy, and kitsch of many of the objects on display, it soon becomes clear that Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is a monumental postmodernist pastiche that shamelessly revels in appropriation for the purpose of challenging the very foundations of Western culture. 

In more than one way, Treasure’s conceptual backbone is essentially extracted and grafted (coincidentally or not?) from two original installations by other well-known British artists: The Chapman Family Collection (2002) by the Chapman Brothers, and The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (2011) by Grayson Perry. Both exhibitions enticed audiences through fictional narratives that challenged systems of belief, blurring the boundaries between the ethnographic and the mythical, and the real and the fake. Both exhibitions also saw the artists producing objects that deliberately reinvented historical and artistic parameters in order to critique institutional power, ultimately revealing the fragility of history, the pervasiveness of ideologies, and the inherent naturalization of colonialist approaches in cultural milieus that have characterized the modern history of the West. The Chapman Family Collection consisted of 34 carved and painted wood sculptures appropriating African aesthetics and incorporating—at times subtle and at times not—McDonalds’ logos along with some of the fast food chain’s iconic menu items. The accompanying handout dispensed at the first installation of the work at White Cube, in East London, fictitiously validated the originality of the collection weaving a semi-serious narrative that concealed the artworks’ real provenance. 

Damien Hirst, "Demon With Bawl," from Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, photograph by the author

Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman further blurred the boundaries between history and fiction by interspersing his own work with selected original pieces from the British Museum’s collection—the quintessential archive of colonialist collecting. The purpose of this unorthodox-ethnographic method was to highlight the now-lost connection between the spiritual and the tactile world that characterized artworks from the past. Perry thus used the past to critique our present. Tellingly, one of the most celebrated pieces in the show was a large tapestry titled Map of the Truths and Beliefs, while at its heart lay a metal tomb in the form of a ship dedicated to all anonymous craftsmen (of whose work the British Museum is filled). 

Both installations, given their ethnographic blueprint, inscribed colonialist critiques of some sort. The Chapmans’ sculptures wittingly acknowledged a specifically Western ability to appropriate, rebrand, and commodify non-Western aesthetics and cultures. As it happens in Hirst's work, Western capitalism is grafted, and thus naturalized, upon non-Western primitivism. In fact, much more than Perry's and the Chapmans’, Hirst’s context seems to deliberately highlight this specific ability through a reckless process of appropriation: in his work, Aztec and Nigerian inspired artifacts appear filtered by the capitalist machinery that automatically turns them into fashion garments and luxury objects. Is Hirst indiscriminately appropriating, or is he performing, and thus making visible, the relentless process of appropriation and totalization perpetrated by the West over the past few centuries? 

Damien Hirst, "Quetzalcoatl," from Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, photograph by the author

Most interesting in this context was the accusation raised by Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor, who contested Hirst’s inspiration drawn from an Ife Head looted by the Brits in 1939 and is today housed at the British Museum in London. Ehikhamenor’s response is clearly grounded in colonialist wounds that are far from healed. Yet no objection has been thus far raised by artists of other nationalities whose work has also been included in Hirst’s series of treasures. The ethics of appropriation are constantly being remodeled by unforgettable pasts and irreconcilable presents. More than ever before, unhealing wounds are reopened in specifically historical and local ways, as the Dana Shutz controversy shows.

In all three installations, the blurring of the boundaries between history and fiction, as well as those between capitalism and spirituality, operated as a critique of the validation process. Validation is especially intrinsic to historiographical institutions like museums, but the very idea of validation also lies at the foundations of national identity formation, ideas of heritage, tradition, and last but not least, normativity. If played-out right, this unsettling of the viewers’ certainty that what is being presented in the gallery space is genuinely true can trigger a healthy sense of ontological mobility. This type of skepticism is perhaps the last surviving strand of postmodernist mistrust for metanarratives recoiling onto itself: the production of a contradictory metanarrative that in its internal economies is implicitly undermined by certain elements, but simultaneously reaffirmed by others. 

Hirst’s recovery footage looks real and expensive. But the barnacled Transformers, bondage-mask heads, and Mickey Mouse effigies seriously upset chronologies as well as taste. As order crumbles, the possibility to peer past the ideological interface that still codes our understanding and writing of “history” becomes more and more tangible. Yet this proposition is one destined to remain frustrated since, as it is in the case of the Chapmans, Perry, and Hirst, the origin of these artifacts origins dissolve into the abyssal darkness of time’s passing. It is this consideration that casts meaning on the seemingly outlandish faux-documentaristic operation which portrays Hirst’s works emerging from the depths of the sea—a symbolic process of purification imbued with mythological references that disavow the artist's authorial role diffracting it into a myriad of presumed, unknown craftsmen. 

This performative gesture generates an authorial flickering in which Hirst is deliberately concealed, and yet implicitly embedded in what might ultimately be a tongue-in-cheek gesture of self-critique. This “flickering” could perhaps be the most honest characterization of the conceptual artist who generally—and more especially so in Hirst’s case—is much more closely aligned with the figure of the curator and the collector than that of the craftsman. It is in this sense Treasures, as a meditation on systems of belief and truth, is the art exhibition the post-truth world deserves.

Damien Hirst, "Remnants of Apollo," from Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, photograph by the author

Presumably unintentionally, given the gestation period of this project, the show’s conceptual framework has arguably been bolstered by the political events that have recently seen Brexit destabilize Europe and Trump’s election destabilize the world. Depending on one’s point of view, the fabrication of truths has been exposed in its pervasiveness and ambivalence like never before. Yet truth’s condition of existence has perhaps always been precarious. As Kellyanne Conway shows, “alternative facts” are, after all, a matter of perception and of repeating a version of events as if it had really taken place. Perhaps, during the last thirty years, digital technologies and the enhanced visibility they produce have tricked us into believing that truth is more readily accessible and stable than ever before. However, just like in Hirst’s exhibition, the relationship between information and curiosity is tainted with a Victorian naiveté—a gullibility we still ridicule in nineteenth-century audiences, but one that we, the successive image-savvy and communication expert-generations, seem to be equally vulnerable to.  

In Treasures, the staging of the ultimate celebration of false idols, truth shatters and is made to emerge from the sea as a relic of a past that never was, but that can be written and rewritten, constructed, and assembled through the very questionable validation of digital film and photography. Since history is now, finally, being written and rewritten from the points of view of those who did not win, where can truth be found? As a little speculation reveals, Cif Amotan II is an anagram of “I am fiction”. To some, Hirst’s work might by too easy, too tacky, too superficial, too concerned with the wallets of its clientele. But whether we like it or not, it also deeply incarnates the cultural essence of this particularly troubling moment in time. 

“Hold Your Belief Lightly” was embroidered in a tapestry included in Perry’s Unknown Craftsman show. Today, perhaps more than when first displayed, these words encapsulate the current ambivalence of the essence of truth. “Hold Your Belief Lightly” is simultaneously a credo for some and an admonishment for others—what does a word without truth actually look like? WM


Giovanni Aloi

 Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.

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