Unbelievable part 1: Where I’m at Now

Back in 2017 when initially recovering from illness induced by severe stress and anxiety, I visited a friend who was teaching in Venice for a semester. We took the opportunity to spend a day at Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition. It sparked a curiosity and fascination with cultural production in me that had been dampened by some brutal experiences when trying to pave an academic career path. More than two years on and feeling no further progress in finding a new direction, I need to focus and take care of unfinished business before I allow myself to embark on any more new projects. For the past year I became distracted with the freelance hustle and I took on work for buttons that wasn’t necessarily as fulfilling or as stimulating as the voyage of discovery Treasures inspired me to go on. Instead, a lot of it dragged me back to topics from which I need a long break. This is me reprising that break.

The Fate of a Banished Man (Standing), Carrera marble, outside Punta Della Dogana 

This series of posts on Treasures intend to develop and give order to the many thousands of words of notes and partially written arguments accumulating in my Dropbox folder, various notebooks and many scraps of paper. I did some of this work in early 2019 when I wrote and submitted a chapter for an edited collection on Theatricality and the Arts. Such is the glacial slowness of academic publishing that in November I have still received no feedback. The chapter focuses on only some of the countless observations and arguments to be made on the exhibition and its wider implications. (I cheekily recorded a reading of the submitted draft for my podcast which can be found here.) Beyond that, I reckon there is enough material for a book-length project, and how do I know if there is a book in this or not if I don’t write it? Let’s see what order I can bring through these posts – constructive feedback and conversation are very welcome.

With any research project comes limitation and negotiations with untruths or mis-truths. I am writing from my experience of the work informed by my existing and new knowledge, the knowledge my gallery companion brought to my enjoyment of the show on the day, the comments of my partner who looked through my photographs with me and has listened to me speak at length about it, and what is printed in the comprehensive and not necessarily trustworthy exhibition guide. I have now had more than two years to mull over ideas, and spent an intensive period researching, fact-checking, sleuthing and writing up the over-9000-word academic chapter with a not-quite-academic-anymore brain.

My research as a PhD candidate and early career academic tended to concern niche films and artworks that reveal hidden histories and negated truths often emerging in contested post-conflict contexts that affect relatively few people (at least that has seemed to be the case in my life in England since 2014). We find ourselves at a time when seismic shifts in political and economic world powers are occurring in quick succession in the wake of democratic processes being skewed by voters’ beliefs in demonstrable lies. It is time to be bold, to expose lies and liars performing on grand scales for what they are. Understanding and engaging with the media and mediated narratives is imperative when the world’s most powerful individuals do not seem to (want to) grasp the difference between actual reality and reality television. We must train ourselves and others to unpick and debate the theatrics of life as much as we do with art. I see discussing Treasures as a way in to that because of the ways its lies reveal themselves; the more visitors observed and applied critical thinking when engaging with it, the more its artifice emerged. Some of the posts to come will demonstrate how.

Broadly speaking, the exhibition staged many lies presented as truths. It performed renewed mythological function in that many visitors – which I heard first-hand – didn’t think to question the validity of the exhibition’s truth claims. Social media platforms such as Twitter were set alight by angry posts from patrons upon realising they’d been duped. Their ire was projected outwards at the orchestrator of the hoax (a hoax that remained an exhibition of incredible things) while they never considered to confront themselves for simply believing.

On investigating the show’s intricacies, I found that there are truths in the form of old-new allegories relevant to pay attention to today. Just as ancient-world myths speak to human nature and moral quandaries, the old myths remixed and renewed in Treasures – such as the Greco-Roman Hydra with serpent heads from across the globe pitted against a westernised, Hollywoodised yet returned-to-form Hindu goddess Kali – draw attention to modern myths of ancient-world separatism and speak to women’s empowerment from within subjugation sadly still all too familiar. If viewed in such ways, the relevance of the exhibition showing in Europe in 2017 is akin to the prescience of the contemporaneous Handmaid’s Tale television adaptation – or should that be self-fulfilling prophecy? At least Treasures, as it seems to me, is a reflection of our past and present, a confrontation of the self at which, inverting Narcissus, we cannot help but be repulsed by what we see, and are blind to the fact that it is us.

My starting point to exploring these ideas and more was wading through the intricacies of the work. As a lifelong cinephile and having had a traditional (a mould requiring breakage) film studies education broadened by my interest in art of all kinds, it was the glut of film, art historical and popular cultural references clocking up throughout the show that got me exited. I want to know more, and I want to show how complex the tapestry is. It led me on my own odyssey of reading mostly Greek and Hindu mythologies, ancient world histories and about underwater archaeology. I had never studied the Classics or ancient history beyond internet searches before. My economic background and schooling were such that these areas were closed off to me. I was one of those first-generation working-class students who were expected to just know all the relevant references in Romantic poetry and Renaissance plays. I went from excelling at English and Irish literature at school because my teachers never assumed this and helped me find what I needed to know, to slogging hard at university and feeling out of my depth until I found my niches by the end of my degree, and perhaps some more understanding tutors.

As a child I wanted most of all to be a palaeontologist when I grew up. Ancient and pre-history fascinated me. The best I could hope for, though, was reading about them in fiction and poetry. Maybe that’s why I responded to Treasures so positively; it mixes myths and histories old and new across sculpture, photography, writing and film – all of my great loves in one place. Oh and Venice. I never thought I’d go there. I devoured so many books about its history when I returned and I fell so in love with it, warts and all, that I’ve vowed never to go back.

Like its host city, the Treasures exhibition was without restraint. It was the manifestation of an overactive imagination (at least we are led to believe it’s a singular imagination by the Hirst branding) with access to unlimited funds and resources. It begs the question of what kind of artist or professional could any of us become without economic, material, or any other kind of limitation? It staged and performed this ultimate possibility, presenting a blend of art, myth, real-world economics, anecdote, adaptation, indexical truth, evidence and suspension of disbelief. It enacted lies out of which deeper truths emerge depending on the viewer’s inclination to question, challenge and fact-check. It was Hirst’s Disneyland laced with reflexive Baudrillardian hyperrealism. Its re-performed, remixed, adapted myths defy any insistence for fidelity in storytelling while perhaps also cautioning viewers to employ their critical faculties when confronted with new myths also presented as truths.

Some of the observations I’ve made here may come across as abstract; I intend to address what I mean I as go in later posts. These posts are drafts towards (hopefully) a larger work-in-progress. They will come in no particular order, although I will outline more context in the next one. Topics to come include: access, mythologies, Venice, curation, economics, tourism, ethics, controversy, the Hirst brand, coral, photography, the Netflix film, analyses of works, art history, Shakespeare, authorship, underwater archaeology, ancient world history, film and popular culture, and whatever else comes up. I do hope you’ll join me as I set sail once again, this time not to sink under the weight of too much cargo.

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