Love him or think he’s a hack, there is no denying that Young British Artist Damien Hirst knows how to command attention. Having laid low over much of the past decade, Hirst has not been twiddling his thumbs. Instead, he’s been planning what is probably the most expansive – and expensive – solo artist exhibition ever: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.
A fictional story sets the tone for this exhibition. In 2008, divers off the coast of East Africa discovered the wreck of a treasure ship called Apistos (meaning Unbelievable in Greek). Researchers determined that the ship had sunk 2,000 years ago, taking with it a trove of artefacts assembled by Cif Amotan II, a freed slave from northern Turkey. The pieces, from representations of Asian goddesses to Baz Luhrmann-style anachronistic depictions of Optimus Prime and Rihanna, were collected, restored and curated into the exhibition, running in Venice through 3 December, 2017.
The scale and imagination displayed is quite astonishing. It takes a powerful backer to pull off a show like this. And in Francois Pinault, Hirst has found that deep-pocketed backer. Which is why Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable takes place in billionaire Pinault’s two Venetian galleries – Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. The image that most will leave the exhibition with is the massive 18m headless demon statue that occupies the courtyard of Palazzo Grassi. With its references to the Colossus of Rhodes and William Blake, the statue appears encrusted with fan coral – in keeping with the show’s narrative that these relics spent two millennia at the bottom of the ocean.
Smaller exhibits show equal amounts of creativity. Old World cultures are referenced, sometimes in odd ways such as the twin statues of Hindu goddess Kali facing off against the Hydra of Greek mythology. Damien Hirst himself appears in it, as a statue of one of the collectors, covered – as is the rest of the collection – in coral, anemones and sea slugs. So if you love the exhibition, or if you loathe it, you can go right up to this bronze-cast Hirst and express those sentiments. Just don’t expect him to respond.