The big buses that sulked together in groups around the Piazzale Roma were the first give-away. Even before the millions of tourists arriving at the Venice end of the long causeway from the mainland could cross the Ponte della Costituzione, there was a sense that the main event had been trumped by a sideshow, for the buses had been completely shrink-wrapped in the underwater turquoise and blue advertising for the two venue exhibition of Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.
For those who are interested enough, and who have the time and cash to indulge their interests, the Venice Biennale is the once-every-two-year ‘big gun’ of international art biennales: it was the first Biennale, and it includes international participation on a national (and competitive) basis. This year the European trifecta of simultaneous survey shows at Kassel (Documenta—every 5 five years) and Munster (Skulptur Projekte—every ten years) made the pilgrimage three times more appealing to the devotees.
In case of any lingering doubt about what and where the star attraction might be, all the vaporetti and punte and laneways and piazzas were similarly tagged by advertisements for the Hirst show. The advertising had been extended to the point that it was part of the city itself. Amidst the confection of Venice’s light-play and movement, and frothy rococo excesses, it looked convincing with its title’s inferred association with science and history and heritage. The inference suggested a gravitas of cultural realpolitik that could be capable of taking the audience above and beyond the petty nationalist responses that continue to provide the framework for considering (and adjudicating) the contemporary work of the official Biennale.
For those from Australia who could only make the trip later in the Biennale season there was an (often painfully aware) sense of getting there all too late; since the early days of the Vernissage, social media had been choked with evidence of who had been where, when and with whom. Lines of opinion had been already drawn, opinions settled, so much so that all that seemed left for the tardy was to fall in line with the review that best reflected their particular critical affiliation. Perhaps predictably, very few of those social-mediated images featured details from either of the two venues of Hirst’s exhibitions; it seemed that to do so would have been tantamount to acquiescing to a self-imposed credibility by-pass. But that kind of condescension can freeze debate and discussion to a dangerously critical-free ice age.
Nevertheless, the online papers were already yawing and pitching under the weight of a run of reviews of the Hirst show that, in each case, was argued through sensationalist responses that matched the excesses of the exhibition itself. Hirst is easy to hate. Not quite so easy to dismiss. Unless you are happy to make the decision that there are some things in life that just are not worth paying attention to. Entire populations have elected to respond this way to cultural and social shifts; only recently, what initially appeared to be social and cultural aberrations were responded to, at best, with the affectation of sustained condescension from so-called progressives and the left. On a national scale the outcomes of that kind of arch dismissal—together with the blind-siding that goes along with it—proved capable of granting entire populations the ruler they deserve. We all got the post-truth world.1
The flurry of breathless responses from the online press suggest that Hirst’s Venice extravaganza is the epitome of art for a post-truth world. Described as having been ‘ten years in the making’, the exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable has been billed the ‘spectacle of a lifetime’.2 Yet this is not the first time Hirst has taken on the incommensurable ethics of the art-world through spectacle. Even many of his fellow artists have relished in sneering at what many describe as the ambivalent nature of his attention to the art-world’s equivocations. In her book 33 artists in 3 acts, Sarah Thornton quotes Gabriel Orozco’s description of Hirst as ‘an impresario who gets into trouble because it is hard to believe in his numbers’, adding her own observation about Orozco’s opinion, ‘He thinks that artists lose credibility when they “bluff”’.3
Yet Hirst has taken pains to differentiate art from the ‘art-world’. Over the decades his repetition of statements like: ‘Art is about life and the art world is about money. You’ve got to keep the two things separate’, has become a mantra that runs alongside his sustained curiosity about the intersection of the sacred and the profane. In his ongoing dig-and-delve into the mechanisms of the international art world, Hirst has used the very processes of auction-house hysteria as both the subject—and the material—of his work (the sell-out Sotheby’s show of 2008). At other times he has focused on the extremes of immense wealth and death (For the Love of God (2007), a platinum skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds). There have been elaborate marketing ploys and the manufacture of hype and frenzy—Hirst has used exhibition after exhibition to stage questions that are central to unpicking how and where we create cultural value, and to raise questions about why we do it and whether it is ultimately of any value whatsoever.
The extent to which his work is critical of, or an extension of the framework and ethics of the international blue-chip art market, remains difficult to determine. And for antipodean onlookers in Venice, the depth of obfuscation runs several fathoms deeper. Among the first pages of Sarah Thornton’s topical book 33 Artists in 3 Acts, there is a global map that shades in the countries of origin of those artists she includes in her analysis. The outline of Australia stretches below like a virginal blank. A brief overview of names that include Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, Gabriel Orozco, Cindy Sherman, Elmgreen & Dragset, Francis Alÿs, Marina Abramović, Hirst and others, makes it immediately apparent that there is a stratosphere out there that Australian artists have not even so much as gotten a glimpse of. Thornton’s analysis argues that it is not all about money, although that does play a major theme. It is also about recognition—talk, discussion, debate, printed matter, online matter, critical currency—relevance.
So for an antipodean audience, the capacity of Hirst’s choice of the Venice Biennale as both site and material for his Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable might require an extra dose of imagination—all that wealth, all that capacity to harness resources, just do not seem possible. Any attempt to even begin to think about those aspects of the work have to start with understanding that The Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana are owned by a very close colleague and supporter of Hirst, French billionaire and art collector François Pinault. Pinault is also owner (or was owner) of a range of companies that include Converse shoes, Samsonite luggage and Christie’s auction house. There had been some legal questions about his dealings with Gucci somewhere along the line too. The magazine ArtReview’s 2006 list of the most powerful people in contemporary art ranked Hirst’s backer in first place. This conjoining of an enormously powerful man with an artist in Venice also seemed like a made-to-order ploy for the show. It is an approach that has been part of Venice’s history since the late 1200s, when it was the most prosperous city in Europe, and during the Renaissance painters like Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Tiepolo were employed by the Doges to produce overwhelming apparitions that reflected the awe inspiring power of the Venetian Republic.
The exhibition itself was as encrusted with media descriptions, facts, figures and hype as the one hundred and eighty nine sculptures were with fake barnacles. Reputedly costing over sixty-five million dollars to make, details of the asking price for each of the works—and who was buying them—ran like tendrils of gossip that raised the heat surrounding the event.4
Hirst declares the show is ‘about belief’. The exhibition sets out to test this in a number of ways. The parameters of this credibility extend all the way from the financial statistics to the storyline around which the show hinged. We are told it is one that started two thousand years ago when Epistos, a freed slave from Antioch, built the largest vessel of the time—the Unbelievable—to carry his accumulated treasure trove of the world’s finest collection of art works. There was, inevitably, a shipwreck somewhere along the way. Later, when the cargo of priceless artworks was discovered off the coast of Africa, Damien Hirst was approached to sponsor bringing the bounty up from the depths. Images of the underwater recovery of the booty, and a short ‘documentary’ video, present evidence of the salvage.
Often, when regular visitors from Australia to the Venice Biennale are asked why they continue to make the pilgrimage, responses include the phlegmatic rejoinder that, if the Biennale itself falls a bit short, ‘there’s always Venice’. Indeed, Venice’s spaces—their sense of history and cultural layering and promise of magic are difficult for any contemporary art to best. Hirst’s exhibition seemed bent on that very challenge—a bid to out-do the lavish excesses of the city itself.
When audaciousness gets to this scale, first responses can often be simple, even blunt. The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones was unpretentiously direct—’I have never seen a bigger show in my life’, he wrote.5 At first I had to agree. When I walked into the first of the two locations—the Palazzo Grassi—I was temporarily struck dumb with awe. I did not know how to respond. I attempted to steady my faltering critical inner-self by telling myself that I had spent time with big art stuff before—I had been to Abu Simbel; I had once sat in the caves on the heads of the Bamiyan Buddhas; I had seen the odd bits and pieces left from the Colossus of Nero. But next to Hirst’s Demon with a Bowl, for a moment they all seemed to have shrunk. Set in the four story atrium of the glass ceilinged Palazzo Grassi, in a city that had built itself from the plunder of the best-of-the-best from East and West, the sculpture seemed overwhelmingly immense.
Later on, when I had had time to cross-check my instincts against facts, I found their accuracy lacking—Nero’s Colossus is estimated to have stood at one hundred feet and the 5th Century Bamiyan Buddhas had been around one hundred and sixty-five feet tall. At sixty feet, Hirst’s sculpture (minus its head) was at least a bit closer in scale to the seated figure of Ramses II. But within the context of Venice, Hirst’s colossus took on its own particular scale; the laneways and waterways of Venice are crowded, space is at a premium, and the only way he was able to squeeze the massive sculpture into the four-level atrium was through building it up in slices.6
The broader context of the exhibition—the fact that it was scheduled to open alongside the opening of the international art event that purports to showcase the best-of-the-best of the contemporary world—made cultural comparisons inevitable. Questions about how the Biennale art stacked up next to the fake ‘old stuff’ floated to the surface. And for those initiated into art history, the ‘treasures’ had the kind of appeal that goes with the pleasure of recognising that the Emperor’s expensive designer clothes are in fact Gucci and Prada rip-offs.7
Within the immaculately prepared vitrines and plinths in the Punta della Dogana, the search for little clues of incongruity was like a kind of art-history version of Where's Wally. The references to cultural icons from the past were interspersed with enough pop-cultural references to remind the canny viewer about Hirst’s street-cred—busts of Die Antwoord’s Yolandi, of Pharrell Williams, of Kate Moss and Rihanna reincarnated backwards in time as heroes from a previous era. The entire bounty of ‘treasures’ was presented as an a-historical, de-contextualised inter-cultural experience that included references to all kinds of cultures from all kinds of times: Indonesian Garudas sat next to Benin heads, pop icons were intertwined with figures from Greek and Roman pantheons, various Egyptian Pharaonic reigns were collected together to create the overall feeling that—even right in the middle of an art event—history does not matter any more. Context and the details of place and time mean nothing, and ultimately, cultural production eventually just amounts to a whole lot of expensive ‘treasures’.
If the Demon with a Bowl in the Palazzo Grassi, the ‘big item’ in Hirst’s staging of a vast wunderkammer display based on an amalgam of myth and fact, initially appeared to be the main gag in the room, it also seemed oddly portentous. Just who was this bloodthirsty giant in his enormous twenty-first century incarnation? It just did not seem to quite fit in with the rest of the imagery.
When I asked anyone about the original image, I was told ‘William Blake’ as though it might have been obvious. But it was not obvious at all. Eventually I found out that the original image is a tiny (21.4cm × 16.2cm) miniature Blake had painted as a commission in 1819 for his close friend, an astronomer and watercolourist with a penchant for spiritist extravagance named John Varley. The Tate’s online collection describes the story behind the work:
John Varley … reported in his Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1882) that Blake once had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea and that ‘This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect’. While drawing the spirit it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’. In the painting it holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it. Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.’8
Hirst’s version of the giant ‘flea’ has lost his head—the bronze rendition of that head (the torso is an amalgam of synthetic products on an armature) lies beside the striding form in the vestibule. Why did Hirst choose to remove the head? Maybe it just did not physically fit into the Palazzo’s vestibule—if he had gone for the full figure, the muscular proportions of the torso in relation to the four floors of architecture would have been significantly reduced. And to what extent is the original figure important to Hirst? Within the context of the rest of the fake lost and rediscovered booty on display, it may seem to be not very important at all—the cultures and centuries are tumbled together like a junk-shop that makes museological categorisations appear to be so much artifice. And yet the ‘flea’ stands out in a number of ways—as well as being the biggest single figure in the two venue sprawl, it also throws up questions about why Hirst might have chosen such an arcane image as the literal centrepiece of the exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi.
Blake was deeply interested in religion and the supernatural during a time that the ‘masses’ in England were keen on spiritism and religion and all kinds of spooky stuff in general. Blake’s particular interpretation of spooky weirdness has carried its power across the centuries and across continents—the inspired insanity of his Nebuchadnezzar had been an influence on the series of the same name produced by Arthur Boyd. But that kind of imagery was a long way from Blake’s image of the ‘flea’, whose singular malevolence is in no way constricted by the diminutive scale of the work. There does not seem to have been a precedent for the image in terms of existing mythology; on the contrary, the look of the thing had come, according to Blake, as a vision. As detailed above, Blake ‘claimed that, while he was sketching the flea, it had explained to him that fleas were inhabited by the souls of bloodthirsty men. These bloodthirsty men were confined to the bodies of small insects, because if they were the size of horses, they would drink so much blood that most of the country would be depopulated’.9
Blake’s interest in the effects of scale, in the way the tiniest details of the world are portentous, is evident in his writing as well as his visual work. The often-quoted words from Blake’s poem titled Auguries of Innocence would probably be more familiar to audiences at the Biennale than his imagery, although it is likely that most younger visitors might think that the lines ‘To see a world in a grain of sand… Hold infinity in the palm of your hand…’10 had been penned by an advertising guru. Blake’s work often called out the dangers of hubris, bringing attention to the doom that follows pride and to the fact that it is often possible to discover ‘the devil in the detail’.
Was Hirst aware that his transformation of this tiny, almost incidental painting, into three dimensions at enormous scale would surely have struck terror into the heart of Blake, were he alive today? Blake was a man who got nervous thinking of the damage those bloodthirsty souls might wreak even if they were able to enter bodies the size of a horse. Expanded to inhabit a giant the size of Hirst’s Demon at Palazzo Grassi in 2017, this particular ‘soul of a bloodthirsty man’ would be capable of eradicating entire continents. Entire oceans. Entire civilisations.
An interview Hirst gave in 2012 suggests that the artist is fully aware of the impact of his choices. He said:
I always wanted to do big things when I was younger. I thought big is good … So when I came across the Blake painting, I thought: ‘What is it? It takes you in there. It’s dark, and it’s scary, and it has this huge scale.’ Then you think: ‘Where is the flea? What is the flea? Why is it the ghost of a flea?’ It was probably the most frightening image I’d ever seen. It seduces you; it asks so many questions, but doesn’t answer them. I really enjoyed thinking about it and looking at it. I went back and saw it a few times. Later, I looked at all Blake’s work, but it didn’t have the same power as that image. It has that David Lynch feel to it, hasn’t it?11
The apparition made manifest in a post-truth world searching for shreds of ‘belief’ makes Hirst’s sense of timing seem on-point. We can take heart, as Blake surely would, in the fact that Hirst has taken pains to remove the Demon’s head. For the twenty-first century has more than its share of other demons to deal with.
Imagine—just imagine—that Hirst is right. He says his show is about belief. What if we believed him when he says that ‘art is the most important currency in the world’? If that was true, surely his manifestation of the Demon, surrounded by all those treasure-troves of art from the past, would be powerful ju-ju. Imagine all those ‘souls of bloodthirsty men’ forged down together in one massive torso—all those presidents, all those wealthy industrialists, all those heads of multi-national companies, all those Doges and generals from the past? And then Hirst, the artist, lops the head off? Whew.
Damien Hirst, Hydra and Kali Discovered by Four Divers, 2016. Powder-coated aluminium, printed polyester and acrylic lightbox, 244.2 x 366.2 x 10cm. Photograph Christoph Gerigk. Images © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017.
Damien Hirst, Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement), 2014. Painted resin, 1822 x 789 x 1144cm. Photograph Prudence Cuming Associates. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/SIAE 2017.
1. Post-Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, many analysts have levelled blame on the complacency and condescension of the media, the left and progressives in failing to foster open, inclusive and broad minded debate about issues from all sides. See Jesse Andreozzi, ‘How Complacency Helped Elect Donald Trump’, Huffington Post, 15 November 2017. See www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse.../how-complacency-helped-elect_b_12931978.html; Thomas Frank, ‘Trump is Moving to the Whitehouse, and liberals put him there’, The Guardian, 9 November 2016. ‘The even larger problem is that there is a kind of chronic complacency that has been rotting American liberalism for years’, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/donald-trump-white-house-hillary-clinton-liberals; W.W., ‘The condescending left’, The Economist, 1 November 2010. See
David Goodhart, ‘The Outers’ message resonated with those who feel left behind’, Financial Times, 25 June 2016. See https://www.ft.com/content/14ee0dd6-39e8-11e6-a780-b48ed7b6126f; Nick Cohen, ‘How condescension benefits terrorism’, The Guardian, 25 November 2007. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/nov/25/comment.terrorism.
2. Laura Cumming, ‘Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable review – beautiful and monstrous’, The Guardian, 16 April 2017. See https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/apr/16/damien-hirst-treasures-from-the-wreck-of-the-unbelievable-review-venice
3. Sarah Thornton, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, Granta, London, 2014, p.332.
4. ‘The New York Times reported that prices for the new work range from $500,000 to upwards of $5 million. And everything on view is in an edition of three—one in each of three different “states”, or materials—plus two artist proofs (for a total of five). So, if each of the 189 works in the show sells for an average of $1 million apiece, the potential return is nearly $1 billion.’ Kenny Schachter, ‘Is this Show Worth a Billion Dollars? A Few Thoughts on Damien Hirst’s Venture in Venice’, ArtNet, 24 April 2017. See https://news.artnet.com/art-world/kenny-schachter-on-damien-in-venice-934115
5. Jonathan Jones, ‘Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable review – a titanic return’, The Guardian. See https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/apr/06/damien-hirst-treasures-from-the-wreck-of-the-unbelievable-review-titanic-return
6. There is a YouTube video recording the process. Damien Hirst, Timelapse – Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement), 12 April 2017. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zt0zjGQduYw
7. Miuccia Prada first collaborated with Damien Hirst at the Art/Fashion exhibition curated by Germano Celant and Ingrid Sischy in 1996 at Forte Belvedere, Florence and the following year at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York. See http://www.damienhirst.com/news/2013/prada
8. Gallery Label, Tate Britain, May 2011. See http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-the-ghost-of-a-flea-n05889
10. William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’. See https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/auguries-innocence
11. Quoted in The Guardian, Tuesday 17 April 2012, 10.57 BST. Extracted from an interview with Damien Hirst in Tate Etc. See https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/apr/17/damien-hirst-favourite-art-in-pictures
Professor Pat Hoffie is a Brisbane-based artist and writer.