Unbelievable part 8: The Collector
27 December 2019
The Netflix film Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (dir. Sam Hobkinson, 2017) details the first discovery in 2008 of artefacts connected to the exhibition of the same title, and the team of marine archaeologists becoming aware of it through an online video. Professor Andrew Lerner (pronounced ‘Lerna’ in an English accent?) of the Centre for Maritime Studies, Aberdeen (a plausible fiction) asserts that they ‘knew it was worth pursuing, but it was going to be hard to get funding through the usual channels’. The film cuts to a montage of news broadcasts about Damien Hirst’s best-known controversies. Claiming the commodification of his work had become unsustainable and that he was looking for a new ad/venture, he combined this with a lifelong fascination with stories – specifically, those told in old movies – about shipwrecks. It is established, then, through implication – little is directly said, mostly intimated in the gaps – that Hirst became the expedition’s benefactor, and so enabled the re-collection of Cif Amotan II’s cargo on the Apistos.
As reviewers and commentators such as Julia Halperin point out, ‘Cif Amotan II’ is an anagram for ‘I am a fiction’. The exhibition guidebook text claims Amotan was ‘a freed slave from Antioch (north-west Turkey) who lived between the mid-first and early-second centuries ce’ (p. 3). Antioch was an ancient Greek city founded in 300bce east of the Orontes River in what was then ancient Syria and today near Antakya, Turkey. Antioch was a western terminus for goods brought from Persia and Asia to the Mediterranean. It was annexed by Rome in 64bce, meaning that it was Roman when Amotan is said to have lived there. It became the third largest city of the empire after Rome and Alexandria, and was an early centre of Christianity.
The guidebook claims that ‘[e]x-slaves were afforded ample opportunities for socio-economic advancement in the Roman Empire through involvement in the financial affairs of their patrons and past masters’ (p. 3). I am yet to find any verification of this. In text that could equally describe working-class-boy-made-good, Hirst, the story goes that Amotan ‘accumulated an immense fortune on the acquisition of his freedom. Bloated with excess wealth, he proceeded to build a lavish collection of artefacts deriving from the lengths and breadths of the ancient world. The freedman’s one hundred fabled treasures – commissions, copies, fakes, purchases and plunder – were brought together on board a colossal ship, the Apistos (translates from Koine Greek as the "Unbelievable"), which was destined for a temple purpose-built for the collector. Yet the vessel foundered, consigning its hoard to the realm of myth and spawning myriad permutations of this story of ambition and avarice, splendour and hubris’ (p. 3).
In part 7, I mentioned Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery which was built to accommodate and display his own vast collection for public view – a sort of temple for contemporary and modern art-lovers. Many of the works he owns could easily be described by the list above, mainly copies and purchases with the language of adventure and destiny embellishing the mystery. Perhaps the exhibition’s myth of Amotan and his folly allegorises the west’s transition away from shared, interpretative polytheisms and democracy towards patriarchal monotheisms and despotism. His greed and the lengths to which he goes to build a temple for his hoard in the name of Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar (whose Greek and Roman equivalents are Aphrodite and Venus respectively) could have vexed another jealous god who took revenge – such is the likeness of the story to that of mythological mortals who in ancient legends anger vindictive gods, just as Hirst manages to regularly and newsworthily attract the ire of the media, critics, the general public and other artists and collectors.
A further parallel occurs with François Pinault, owner of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana which he bought and renovated also to exhibit his collections. With his son François-Henri Pinault running the business empire his father built, Pinault senior concentrates on his art collection, which is the world’s largest private collection (a bit like the megalodon to Hirst’s great white), and includes pieces by Hirst. As well as Venice, part of the collection is now housed in a dedicated space in Paris, namely in the Bourse de Commerce.
The Collector played a consistent role throughout the Treasures exhibition, although to whom exactly the title refers is vague. Amotan, Hirst and Pinault are all contenders, but they are not alone:
The explanatory text concerning Five Grecian Nudes on pages 10 and 11 of the guidebook points out the absurdity of the notion of the original by highlighting the seriality of producing multiple versions of figures to study the shape and form of bodies (with inflections here of Hirst’s many versions and renewals of works), and claims that ‘[a]n enlarged copy of the central figure [also pink marble] was commissioned by the collector and is displayed alongside both a contemporary bronze museum version and a torso as it was recovered from the seabed [also bronze]’ (p. 10).
In room 6 of Dogana the bronze sculpture The Collector with Friend depicted a suited figure obscured by coral waving and holding hands with the unmistakeable shape of Mickey Mouse. Reviewers such as Jacqui Davies identify the figure as film-maker Sergei Eisenstein, while I and others believe it to be Walt Disney. On comparative study of photographs, the colourful coral obscures too much of the head to be conclusive, adding to the general myths and uncertainties around the show. However, the stance of the figures looks just like those depicted in the copper statue Partners (Blaine Gibson, 1993) at Magic Kingdom Park in the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. The notion of Walt Disney as a collector needs some investigation; my initial thoughts go towards the collectability of characters, products and merchandise, and ideas around possessing characters and stories as commodities not so differently from art objects. Indeed, Disney has a Collectors Club which seems to exist solely to get fans to part with their money in return for Disney currency and other paraphernalia. In a work such as this, the collector becomes an object to be collected and possessed, indicating the cyclical nature of the process.
The Collector with Friend (Damien Hirst, 2017, in Punta della Dogana)
In room 12 of Grassi was Bust of the Collector, a bronze head, shoulders and torso likeness of Hirst. This came after room 11 with Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi, the goddess to whom Amotan was said to have wanted to dedicate his art temple, and which displays an uncanny resemblance to model Kate Moss. This is one of many examples indicating that with Treasures, Hirst is not only a collector of art and riches, but of bodies, figures, stories, characters and celebrities as well. The exhibition embodied and performed his collected stories around and interests in the dichotomies between science and religion, life and death.
The collections displayed in Treasures were not limited to artworks, but extended to weapons, coins, jewellery, vessels and armour. Room 6 of Dogana in which The Collector with Friend was situated alone had four substantial cases containing themed collections within the larger collection. Given the positioning, perhaps this intended a conflation between Amotan and Disney as legendary creator/collectors. Disney was of course as real as Hirst, but their brands and the ways they perform(ed) them bear similarities. There is something to be further excavated here about creating as well as gathering a collection.