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Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at the Venice Biennial 2017

Damien Hirst, Hydra and Kali Discovered by Four Divers.

Photographed by Christoph Gerigk ©Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.


By Nancy Nesvet

Venice, Italy – Damien Hirst’s “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” installation, on view at Palazzo Grassi and Villa Doghana, Venice’s Customs House, is one of the Venice Biennial 2017’s most wildly popular exhibits. Following 10 years of work and thousands of euros of investors’ money, Hirst presents a fictional rescue of artifacts from the ship, Apistos (Kona Greek for Unbelievable).

Hirst’s storyline: a freed slave, Cif Amoton II, the letters of whose name rearrange to read “I am fiction” lived during the late first and early second centuries A.D., amassed a fortune, then bought and loaded statues and reproductions of ancient art and crafts pieces onto a ship bound for the Temple of the Sun, which he built. Hirst’s story continues with the fictional sinking of the ship in the Indian Ocean 5,000 meters under the seabed off East Africa, and its videoed recovery, in 2008, of the ship containing the artifacts, covered with coral, barnacles and other vestiges of 2,000 years under the sea.

One hundred artifacts, created by 250 craftsmen in five countries under Hirst’s direction, include a verdigris-tinted statue of a woman, supposedly an aspect of Katie Ishtar Yo Landi; resembling the South African singer Yo Landi. Born in Port Alfred, on the east coast of South Africa, she is known for her history of violence and from being a member of the South African singing group whose Afrikaans name, “Di Antwoord,” translates as “the answer.” Adding to her fiery background, her group’s producer calls himself God. Other works includes a forbidding, and frankly ugly statue of Hydra and Kali entwined, patinaed statues of Mickey Mouse holding Walt Disney’s hand; a gold and silver Quetzalcoatl, the great white God revered by the Aztecs; a Bronze Calendar Stone; a classic female form, Arachne, who Athena turned into a spider for weaving transgressions of the Gods; several copies of Medusa’s severed head encircled by the requisite snakes; Atlas topping a huge globe as the centerpiece at Villa Doghana and golden-headed copies of the heads of Atlantis survivors found off the Nigerian coast!; vessels and amphorae and more, all for sale.

From viewing this work, we might think Hirst condemns ancient civilizations, is making fun of ancient religions and plays the savior of ancient artifacts to no purpose but their sale to enrich himself, or that his “recovery” of art from ancient civilizations that produced ugly, horrific and violence-inducing heroes does nothing but enable Hirst and his admirers to feel superior. But wait. First, let’s remember that Kali is the destroyer and Ishtar the Mesopotamian the goddess of love, sex, war, combat and political power, who disappeared about 1 AD, when this ship allegedly sailed and Medusa was beheaded by Perseus, whose tears became coral, encrusting everything here. There are swords of various eras including one labeled “Sea World”; Mickey Mouse holding the hand of Walt Disney; an 18-meter tall jade Buddha; Andromeda with a sea monster and Hirst’s own torso reproduced in bronze covered with coral, all showing power structures, religious or cultural. Hirst has worked on this for 10 years, initiating the project in Summer, 2007, after the London bombings. This exhibition is about violence as the answer to terrorism. Hirst has shown, with humor and ingenuity, the dangers of power structures and figures and chronicled their ultimate demise, under the sea.

In a stage set of action figures once revered by almost every civilization around in 1-2 A.D., Hirst is non-discriminatory in his condemnation of power. He might believe that we must use hard-hitting violence against named and unnamed enemies, but the public’s reaction has been repulsion to these “heroes.”, Curator of the Venice Biennale 2017 Christine Macel’s diplomatic approach to nations coming together might better fight terrorism than Hirst’s employment of superheroes and heroines, cultural, religious or mythic. In the battle of hard-hitting power vs. diplomacy, who then wins? On Venice’s stage, my bet is on the side that preserves rather than destroys the world. Let’s remember that Hirst’s superheroes, Gods and frightening creatures went down with the ship.