Unbelievable part 2: Some context

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable
Damien Hirst
Punta Della Dogana | Palazzo Grassi
9 April – 3 December 2017
Viewed 14 June 2017

In its entirety, Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was a work of contradictions. Situated somewhere not fully discernible between truth and mythology and the museum and extravaganza, it embodied and performed Jacques Derrida’s mal d’archive. It presented a collection of sculptures, videos and photography so huge that it could not be contained within the walls of two of Venice’s most substantial arts venues, the Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi owned by the French multi-billionaire Franรงois Pinault. From the tiniest gold nugget to an 18-meter tall resin ‘enlargement’ of a 2000-year-old bronze sculpture (of whose existence we are assured only by images of its discovery) and everything imaginable in between, it is quite a challenge to convey and process the magnitude of the show. In teasing out specific issues and works, though, some of its mysteries can be unlocked.

I explored the exhibition with my friend Jenn Thorburn who was teaching in Venice at the time. We spent the whole of a rainy, sticky Wednesday on the sites. Jenn’s company and input made a world of difference; she’s a linguist, and she knows and remembers more about ancient Greek and Roman mythology than I do, as well as some relevant aspects of contemporary popular culture that would otherwise have passed me by. All of that combined with my knowledge of film culture and art made our detective work thoroughly enjoyable.

The exhibition comprised a vast array of ancient coral-encrusted sculptures recovered, the accompanying text claimed, from the bottom of the Indian Ocean and presented alongside contemporary replications and thematically relevant additions. The collection ‘discovered’ in 2008 apparently lends truth to the nearly 2000-year-old myth of their existence and transportation on the fated ship the Apistos, meaning ‘Unbelievable’. The presentation of the artefacts went to great lengths to convince visitors of the fact of their existence and age before introducing more and more evidence – should visitors have noticed and chosen to view it as such – that the same artefacts are part of an elaborate fiction, a new ancient mythology.

While the exhibition’s truth claims emerged in its text, the featured documentaries and the underwater photographs showing the excavation team discovering and surfacing the artefacts, so too did the warning signs that all was not as it seemed. Initial clues came no sooner than the opening text upon entry to site 1, Dogana. Operating vaguely like a holding pen, the first room off the ticketing area had a monitor in the upper left corner (if facing the entrance to room 1) showing what was presented as documentary footage of the artefacts being recovered from the ocean and explanations from members of the recovery team. To the right of this was the open door space through which the back of the Calendar Stone – itself another clue – could be seen as the crowds milled past. Over this threshold were the words in block capitals: SOMEWHERE BETWEEN LIES AND TRUTH LIES THE TRUTH. This provocative wordplay on various levels indicates the slipperiness of notions of truth. If the first truth is subjective truth or belief, then it is objective truth that resides between deliberate untruth and believed truth. Conversely, it may be that subjective truth exists between lies and objective truth. Perhaps the truth lies. There may be a lie-truth spectrum, and this may differ for the teller and receiver. Whatever we take this statement to mean, it most certainly indicated that language and perception played significant roles in the show, as did perceptions of time. 

Entrance to Room 1 in Punta Della Dogana
The Calender Stone framed under this statement in the open doorway (if positioned to the left) is significant in already presenting a predicament. The guide text for this artefact states (p. 6):
‘While Mesoamerican and Aztec calendars are clearly indicative of a highly complex cosmological worldview, their full meaning continues to evade us. This example is similar in scale to the famous Aztec calendar stone, the Piedra del Sol, housed in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. It is thought that such discs would have been used to predict significant events, including that of the impending apocalypse. Calendar stones may also have served to impose a rigorous schedule of ceremonies on a populace. It was this role as a control mechanism that interested William Burroughs, whose 1961 ‘cut-up’ novel, The Soft Machine, told of a man who travelled back to the Mayan era in the body of a Mexican boy. Burroughs employed space and time travel motifs in the rearranged fragments of text to suggest the constructed nature of reality. The presence of objects of presumed pre-Hispanic, South and Central American origin within a Roman-era wreckage is currently unexplained.’
On an initial cursory reading there is already evidence here of the wide-ranging references in the exhibition texts attributed to Amie Corry and the ways the works in the show meander from ancient to contemporary and history to fiction. The statements are broadly about calendar stones and, other than comparing it to a named artefact, don't directly make claims about the exhibited stone covered in coral and barnacles. It appears to have been recovered from the ocean floor. It appears similar to other such artefacts. There is no speculation as to why it was with the Apistos's dispersed cargo, but a conspicuous lack of explanation is asserted while pointing out the strangeness of its displacement in time as well as space (the Piedra del Sol is dated to the early 1500s). This is an authoritatively toned text that does not claim to have all the answers, and yet it flexes its knowledge of cognate works of fiction to fill in gaps and establish themes, including hinting at rather than explicitly suggesting time travel. Is this the power of subliminal suggestion in action?

Before diving into the exhibition, though (the puns are going to keep coming, so just settle in), I wanted to further soak up the atmosphere of anticipation in the entrance room displaying vital paratexts. Like the establishing act of a play or film, this one room in Dogana (there was no equivalent in Grassi which was site 2, although you could visit them in either order) provided all the information you needed to proceed. The video established a sense of verisimilitude by dint of its conventional documentary style complete with action shots of careful recovery operations intercut with talking heads interviews with archaeologists and divers. The threshold text, provided only in English, established an enigma. Then along the side wall to the left was the guide text in English, French and Italian, the same as what appears on the opening page of the guide booklet.

It is in this text that we learn the story of the freed slave Cif Amotan II who amassed the sculptures and coins and attempted to transport them on the Apistos, which met a storm and sank under the weight of the cargo. Before this, though, in the epigraph is an excerpt from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, specifically the part of Ariel’s song in which the shapeshifting sprite singing under a shroud of invisibility convinces Ferdinand that his father, Alonso the King of Naples, has died in the shipwreck he survived and that his bones are already turning to coral. In performances, the play’s audience knows this is not true and that it was Ariel under Prospero’s command who staged the shipwreck and the deaths. That Prospero is also a collector draws further parallels between the Shakespearean character and Hirst’s collector/trickster persona.

Given that Treasures was supposedly another collector’s collection, it is notable that the show was curated by Elena Geuna, the former director of Sotheby’s who in 2012–13 also curated the Freedom Not Genius exhibition of Hirst’s extensive Murderme collection of works by other artists. In the Treasures lore, many of the works were reclaimed by other collectors in the guise of underwater archaeologists whose efforts, according to the Netflix film about the show, were funded and supported by Hirst and his company, Science, and then re-presented by him in the exhibition alongside replicas and relevantly themed accompanying original works. This connection with the elite art and antiquities market represented in Geuna as curator and Hirst as collector begs deeper probing, as does the film.

As for the works themselves, many depict figures frozen in mid-action, which allowed spectators the time and opportunity to study the still images loaded with paused movement. This pensiveness and the lack of barriers around the sculptures further permitted viewers to search for and detect clues that give cause to ‘unbelieve’ what may have initially been accepted as truth. The Calendar Stone in Dogana room 1 provided an initial glimpse of this, while its room mates go further. The five-metre tall bronze sculpture The Diver and the photograph of it (The Diver with Divers) on the ocean bed at first seemed plausible, but her body shape, visible labia – just about unheard of in ancient and classical art – and the clarity of the photograph raised alarm bells, all on which there’s much more to come.


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