​Old-Fashioned Wonder: Damien Hirst And “The Wreck Of The Unbelievable”

If you’ve not yet seen images from British artist Damien Hirst’s colossal installation at the Palazzo Grassi, “The Wreck Of The Unbelievable”, timed to coincide with this year’s Venice Biennale, you may be surprised to see what he has been working on for the last several years. The show has divided the art press, with comparisons to the Titanic in size and luxury, as well as in the sense of a massive failure at sea. Yet the elements of storytelling, craftsmanship, and sheer spectacle in an historic and mythological vein which have gone into Hirst’s latest effort make it one of the few installations of contemporary art that I can recall which appears interesting enough to actually warrant seeing, should you happen to find yourself in Venice between now and the end of the year.

“The Wreck of the Unbelievable”, is a combination of sculpture, film, and other elements, which purports to tell the story of a shipwreck from long ago, in which the property of an art collector from the ancient world went down into the deep for centuries. The fact that some of these pieces represent elements from more recent popular culture, like Mickey Mouse, while others juxtapose figures from different mythologies, such as a Hindu deity fighting a monster from Ancient Greece, indicate otherwise. The combination of cultures, materials, and styles, all tied together by the fiction of their underwater discovery, allows the viewer to think about interesting combinations of times, periods, and myths from old and new civilizations.

The Art Newspaper, in giving an overview, characterized this installation fairly well in stating: “This is what art looks like when unbridled ambition meets apparently limitless financial resources.” The end result of this meeting is absolutely massive, and there is no more massive element than the 60-feet-tall headless “Demon With Bowl” statue that fills the atrium of the museum where the show is housed through December of this year. Reports are that a majority of the works have already been sold, meaning that Mr. Hirst, who invested a significant portion of his own money in the show, and his backers will have gambled and won.

One of those backers is François Pinault, who owns the palace where the show is currently installed. M. Pinault is a long-time collector and supporter of Hirst’s work; he also happens to be Salma Hayek’s father-in-law, for those of you who follow such things. As the owner of numerous high-profile companies, including Christie’s auction house and the Gucci fashion label, he has the wherewithal to help make this rather intimidating spectacle happen. At the same time, he has been able to draw in the support of his friends and peers at the real one percent end of the scale, many of whom are no doubt going to want some of these pieces for their own collections.

Perhaps it was not difficult to predict that Hirst, who has moved away from the dot paintings and dead animals in formaldehyde which originally made him (in)famous, had planning something big for the last few years – and I mean really, REALLY big. He has become increasingly interested in monumental sculpture, and regular readers will recall my surprise at his (perhaps unintentionally) pro-life installation in Doha, which consists of gigantic bronze sculptures of a child in the womb. I was struck at the time by his comments about the journey from conception to birth, something which he came to appreciate when he became a father.

While for logistical reasons I won’t be seeing this new show, the implications of both the Doha installation and this latest exhibition leave me a bit worried. This is now the second time in the last few years that I’ve found myself liking an artist who, when I was living in London back in the 1990’s, I could not stand. Now I find myself in the position of defending Hirst against the hypocrisy of the art press, who level the same sort of criticism at him that they refuse to level at twisted, untalented hacks such as Grayson Perry or Ai WeiWei.

I will never see the merit of putting a dead shark in a box, but I do see the merit in Hirst’s more recent work, because in its way it is surprisingly rather old-fashioned. My armchair take on this latest show is that Hirst is exploring mythology through spectacle, but in a way that a contemporary audience can understand and appreciate. In doing so, he is following a very traditional path, that was for many centuries a part of Western art history.

Whether you were a Medici throwing a banquet in 16th century Florence, or a Vanderbilt throwing a New Year’s Party in late 19th century Newport, when you wanted to put on a show, you wanted your guests to relish not only your wealth and taste, but also your appreciation of the past. Thus, artists and artisans working for tastemakers from the ancients up through comparatively recent times created images of gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters, from long-vanished civilizations to decorate palaces, entertain people on stage, and so forth. They imagined these figures in songs and in poetry, in cakes and desserts and in enthralling stories. Elaborate tableaux, with costumes, architecture, and so on, created by some of the most famous painters and sculptors in history, were put together for the entertainment and the education of the elite and their guests.

In a way, I see Hirst and Pinault doing something similar. In inviting guests into his palace, Pinault is providing the same opportunity for wonder that one of the Sforzas would have provided visitors in Milan wanting to see some new curiosity from the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci. By no means is Hirst, of course, a genius of the level of Leonardo. But given how interesting and engaging this show is, he has created something which, at least in some respects, an artist like Da Vinci would have recognized. And that’s good enough for me.

“Demon With Bowl” in the atrium of the Palazzo Grassi

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