Unbelievable part 16: Reproduction

21 February 2020

From what I’ve worked through and identified in the last two posts in which I’ve discussed the coral and the collections in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, I’ve come to consider the distinctions between ‘ocean-dipped’ (that is, the works with coral and those photographed while submerged or being surfaced) and ‘dry’ work. Here, I want to look broadly at the relationships between the bronze ocean-dipped ‘originals’ and their glossy bronze (or made to look bronze) ‘reproductions’. There is still much to sift through with the many other materials, and that will come later as works made from, for example, marble, gold, silver, jade, malachite or granite were relatively untarnished apart from apparent marine life on select pieces. There are also works of which there was only one version in the show so it is unclear whether or not they ever got wet.

As I pointed out back in part 5, an anomalous reproduction with only its ocean-dipped ‘original’ visible in the Submerged Demon with Bowl light-box photograph, the slide-show of stills and the videos of the recovery operation that played in each venue (not listed in the guide), is Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement). The 18m-tall resin enlargement was painted to look like bronze and was installed in sections. It seems to have been destroyed after the exhibition while the bronze version that could not be installed because of its weight has found a home in a multimillion-dollar resort in Las Vegas along with The Warrior and the Bear, a work and accompanying text requiring attention. Painting resins to look like bronze and covering bronzes to look like moulded plastic, carved stone, or perhaps even natural coral, holds a question mark over the materials in use. It’s always useful to refer to the guide here; Calendar Stone is listed as bronze, for example, and as the first piece in the show it served as a reminder that Hirst’s sculptures are rarely made with what material they appear to be on the surface.

Comparison of underwater footage of Demon with Bowl and Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement) in Palazzo Grassi

As the comparative image above indicates, it’s important to point out the discrepancy between the minimal encrustation on the Demon with Bowl photographed on the ocean bed – itself a blown-up reproduction of William Blake’s miniature painting The Ghost of a Fleai nowhere to be seen in the show – and the enlargement; the coral shapes, while on similar patches, are different. For example, there appears to be no branching coral on the ‘discovered’ artefact, but quite a bit on the enlargement. No matter which venue you began with to see the full show, in both the first objects you were confronted with came with heavy peels of alarm bells for the artifice of Treasures as well as audaciously broadcasting from the outset what the team and money behind it were capable of.

The further contrast here is that the versions of Demon with Bowl flip what the other reproductions of bronzes do. Recovery footage indicates that Demon with Bowl is roughly the size of a tall adult human (bearing in mind the lack of head) while the reproduction is ten times that (and about 100 times the size of Blake’s ghost). The other reproductions of coral-encrusted, ocean-dipped bronzes, we are told by the guide, ‘imagine the works in their original, undamaged forms’ (p. 3) and are around the same size (the dimensions provided in the guidebook differ in account of the coral). For, instance, in the bronze Hydra and Kali reproduction Kali’s sword blades are full, in the black granite Proteus the left-hand side of the Old Man of the Sea is visible and presents an opportunity to regard the body of a person living with Proteus Syndrome, and Hermaphrodite was replicated in its ‘damaged’ form without coral in black granite and ‘imagined’ in full in bronze. It may also be worth noting that the many giant shells seen throughout the exhibition – which are not unlike the samples I saw at the Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia – are painted bronze.

Given what I’ve so far observed regarding coral, and considering that the shape of Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement) indicates that the coral encrustations are similarly part of the smaller bronze sculptures as well, it makes further sense if we consider the timely evidence (re-emerging publicly around 2010) that ancient Greco-Roman sculptures would have been brightly – even garishly – painted. This is a revelation that (even if I’m being too optimistic!) could make Hirst’s painted bronzes look a little less crass to some critics. The most vivid corals, I would say, can be found on some of the Disney characters (bleached-out Goofy being the exception), of which there were several grouped together in Palazzo Grassi immediately following Andromeda and the Sea Monster featuring the Jaws shark, all invoking the magic of Hollywoodland. The shark (and Proteus) more specifically evokes special effects used to create ‘movie magic’ while the bright primary colours on Mickey Mouse, Mogli and Baloo call to mind cartoon animation and the notion of painting into life. I also keep thinking of Hirst’s anatomical bronzes such as Hymn (1999–2005) and the later editions of the 10.5m-tall Virgin Mother (2005–6), themselves one way or another reproductions which were cast in bronze and thickly layered with vivid paints and plastic casings making them look like over-sized plastic models. This play on appearance and material worth exuded by such earlier works was pushed to extremes throughout Treasures.

Another difference between the ocean-finished ‘originals’ and their pristine ‘reproductions’ other than the coral and ‘damage’ is the discolouration in the bronzes. Bronze disease is an irreversible phenomenon that blights copper alloy metals when it comes into contact with salt water or humidity, and is why old and ancient bronzes can appear in various shades of green, may be covered with pock marks, and sections may have eroded or broken away. The Treasures works, particularly when bronze ‘reproductions’ were shown near their bronze ‘originals’, demonstrate the striking difference between new or well-preserved bronze and bronze that has been exposed to the salt water conditions that cause the chemical reaction. Although the reaction is treatable, it cannot be undone, and so affected artefacts will continue to change with time, making them almost ‘live’ in their ongoing transformation. Coral growths and encrustation, or even layers of paint, may have a protective, preservative effect, but that raises the ethical debate to be had about surfacing human artefacts for human purposes versus the consideration that the artefacts have become the substrate upon which vulnerable living beings which bear ecological necessity live. If the coral on the works is painted and there by design then there is a revisiting or, at a stretch, a reproduction of sorts of ancient-world sculptural processes. Like Hettie Judah, I am sure this is the case and the coral is part of the bronze sculptures, and made of agate as indicated in descriptions of the works made from other materials. It may well be the case that after years of being scorned for making works using animal carcasses, human skulls and live flies, with Treasures Hirst has drawn attention to but likely not participated in excavations that involve the disruption, bleaching and mortality of endangered coral.

Whether caused by being ocean-dipped for a month (according to CNN) or several years, or by being painted on the bronze,ii the ‘diseased’ look tells a good yarn in the Amotan/Apistos story, while also facilitating the exhibition’s similarity with antiquity-based museum exhibitions and arts fairs, particularly those consisting of artefacts gathered and appropriated from far-off cultures and civilisations such as those at the British Museum or Frieze Masters. They beg the question: how can we be sure of the validity of any of those artefacts? We know of fake antiquities made and sold to museums in the nineteenth century by Flint Jack, for example, and he can’t have been the only con artist in the world to have ever done this. Treasures presented a multi-faceted situation in which museum visitors must actively unbelieve and retract their trust in what are really just arbitrary measures of worth for the objects displayed in authoritative spaces of ‘high’ culture. 

i   The Demon’s separate head is also likely an enlarged reproduction of Blake’s drawing The Head of a Ghost of a Flea.
ii   In a YouTube video, a make-up artist has done a fascinating job of recreating on herself the look of Aspect of Katie Ishtar ¥o-landi which perhaps unwittingly demonstrates similar techniques that could be used by painters and finishers under the employ of Hirst.


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