After months of anticipation and media hype, Damien Hirst’s new blockbuster exhibition has finally opened in Venice – and it is undoubtedly the hottest ‘must-see’ attraction in town. Renowned as one of the world’s most controversial and polarising artists, Hirst has been working on this exhibition for years; it is his first major show in almost a decade, and as we discovered when we visited this weekend, it has certainly been worth the wait.
The colossal exhibition is spread across 54,000 sq ft of gallery space at not one but two museums; Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal, and the city’s old customs house at the Punta della Dogana – just a short walk from our exceptional Orio apartment in Dorsoduro.
Titled “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”, the show is based around the premise that the works on display are ancient artefacts that were “discovered” in 2008 in a shipwreck off the coast of East Africa. According to the exhibition’s introductory film, the ship and its priceless cargo were originally owned by a wealthy collector named Cif Amotan II, who lived around 2000 years ago. While transporting the treasures as an offering to a faraway sun-temple, the ship foundered and sunk, leaving the collection submerged at the bottom of the Indian Ocean for two millennia – before being salvaged at Hirst’s personal expense and brought together for this historic show.
Upon entering the exhibition, it gradually becomes apparent that the underlying narrative is in fact entirely fictional; Cif Amotan is an anagram for “I am fiction” and the ship’s name, the Apistos, translates as “the Unbelievable”. At every turn, Hirst confounds our expectations and suspends belief; alongside monumental statues of mythological animals and classical figures such as Mercury and Achilles, we encounter a pharaoh that looks suspiciously like the musician Pharrell Williams, a gilded bust that resembles Kate Moss, and even a barnacle-covered Mickey Mouse. On closer inspection, we find marble painted to resemble leather and malachite carved to look like skin; the gargantuan headless demon standing 18 metres tall in the atrium of Palazzo Grassi appears to be cast in bronze, yet in fact is made from resin. The technical virtuosity of these works is astounding, as is the use of precious metals and stones thought the show; Hirst employed 250 specialist craftsmen in five countries to help realise the sculptures, many of which are lavishly encrusted with real emeralds, rubies, pearls and other glittering gems. It’s no wonder that the project has been revealed to have cost more than £50 million.
Throughout the exhibition Hirst weaves a never-ending web of historical references and cultural appropriations, raising myriad questions such as the value of art, its meaning and worth – as well as other issues such as the blurred line in today’s ‘post-truth’ society between facts and lies, fantasy and reality. Prepare to be unsettled, confounded, amused and amazed; above all, be sure to book your tickets soon, as this spectacular show is undoubtedly one of the unmissable highlights of this year’s international cultural calendar.