September 29, 2017

Guest Blogger Claudio Cravero on Damien Hirst in Venice: For the Love of Hubris

This is the second part of Claudio Cravero's reportage about Venice. In a first part he told us about Viva Arte Viva at the Venice Biennial. And now he tells us about his visit to the Damien Hirst exhibition. When I think of Damien Hirst, I think about the footage that I saw in 2013 when two of his works with dots got stolen from a London gallery. On the footage you can see the thief with a robber mask entering the gallery, then take the two works from the walls. This turns out to be a piece of cake - both gallery and works are seemingly not secured. The thief's car is conveniently parked in front of the gallery. But then the thief makes a mistake and tries to put the first work in the front of the car next to the driver’s seat. It doesn't fit. The thief opens the back door and stuffs both works on the back seats. Why not in the trunk? you might ask. The thief also didn’t bother to cover the works. Detective Sergeant from the London police stated: “The items would have been visible in the back of the car and we are appealing for any witnesses or anyone with information to please come forward.” If it wasn't a surrealist performance, was it maybe Damien Hirst himself trying to catch attention because  the prices of his works are sinking? Since that didn't work out so well, he's now back at conventional exhibiting. At least, that's my theory. Claudio Cravero visited the result. 

Making dreams come true is a sine-qua-non for artists like Damien Hirst. Although in his 50s, the Young British Artist is still full of a juvenile hormone. ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ is Hirst’s latest multimillionaire reverie displayed at both Fran├žois Pinault’s art venues in Venice. Until December 3, 2017

How many times have we been told to think big? A megalomaniacal attitude may sometimes lead to success. For Damien Hirst, however, thinking big is more than a good omen to his lavish projects.
This time, the artist bursts his vainglory becoming a first-class storyteller at Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, the two art centers owned by the tycoon Monsieur Pinault.
Much closer than any ‘once upon a time’ - because in Venice the storyline dates back to 2008 - Hirst’s adventure sheds light on the discovery of a vast wreckage site off the Coast of East Africa. The finding should confirm the legend of Cif Amotan II (a.k.a. Aulus Calidius Amotan), a freed slave from Antioch (North-west Turkey), who lived between mid-first and early-second centuries AD.
In the Roman Empire ex-slaves were afforded several opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. So was Amotan. It is said he accumulated an immense fortune through which he built an extravagant collection of artifacts deriving from any corner of the Ancient world. A large vessel was supposed to ship Amotan's treasure to a temple located overseas, but the craft accidentally foundered letting its traces to myth. Almost a decade after excavations began, the exhibition brings together the works recovered during this find. Hence Hirst's story begins. And Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is its the title, as well as its riddle.

In the atrium of Palazzo Grassi, standing at just over eighteen meters is the monumental figure of a demon. It consists of a resin-painted copy of a smaller bronze recovered from the wreckage. The creature, like primeval beings in Ancient Mesopotamia, shows elements of the human, animal and divine. It is said to be unraveling the mystery of a disembodied bronze head found in the Tigris Valley in 1932. Regardless of any historical interpretations of the sculpture, the demon fills the vacuum of the internal court of Palazzo Grassi.
On the gallery floors, several clusters of sculptures depicting deities and a triumph of pieces of jewelry are adamantly displayed according to a personal idea of cultural syncretism. Adopting traditional archival methods and museum exhibition tools (cases, grids and pedestals), the artist rewrites his wry history of the Ancient world. In this direction, objects from different eras are affiliated to one another, and their erudite labels are very much explanatory of this uncanny melting-pot.

While a certain feeling of dizziness pervades the exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, a seabed-like ambiance invites visitors to walk across Punta della Dogana along with human-scaled images of underwater archeologists. However, the setting echoes a recent museum experience, such as Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds at the British Museum in 2016. The exhibition staged the rediscovery of two cities submerged at the delta of the River Nile for over a thousand years. Similar to the London show, also in Hirst’s exhibition a good number of light-boxes and video screenings contribute to transforming the spaces into a film set. Whereas the former story is documented as real, the latter is purely fictional. Hirst’s storyline is interspersed with fake elements to the extent that even the masses of corals and seaweeds covering the statue have been reproduced with shimmering lapis lazuli and other precious materials. To get the riddle solved, a series of busts that represent Hirst’s homage to his colleagues come into play. Indeed, subtle references to Jeff Koons’ works, or even an explicit portrait of Walt Disney, are part of Hirst’s pricey game.
Hirst’s hubris is then limitless. Although For the love of God, his diamond-encrusted human skull, had already entered the history of the contemporary art market, his latest exhibition will unlikely set any record within the history of art. To date, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is to be remembered as one of the most expensive art whims ever come true.

Claudio Cravero

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