Unbelievable part 18: Materials

6 March 2020

In a previous post, I played with a bit of a conspiracy theory that the coins in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable were from the aptly named and rather mysterious Prospero Collection. I’ve since found videos on YouTube in which exhibition visitors have filmed their walk-through of each venue and captured detail of many of the works and the collections, and these have allowed me to see some of the coins more closely. Many are embossed with animals or humanoid faces – one even looks something between those, a bit like the Wolf-man in the 1930s Universal horror pictures, or even the teen-wolf trope in 1950s ‘red scare’ B-movies. At least one other has a relief that the video-maker reckoned looks like Damien Hirst in profile, which would make sense given his appearance in the bust of The Collector and what I’ve learnt concerning enlargements and miniatures being created using pantographs.

As well as Greek and Latin, many of the coins are embossed with East Asian writing characters. I lack knowledge here, but to me some appear Korean, some Chinese and some Japanese. There are even what appear to be Ogham markings (ancient Celtic line writing) on a gold ingot. I must find a way to study these in more depth for the book project, as no doubt there are messages in the images and multi-lingual text.

Because no volume, weight or material listings were given for individual ingots and vessels, we must be aware that just as some objects in the show (and Hirst’s work more broadly) look like one material but are made of another, it is also the case that items which look solid may in fact be hollow. Comparisons between cast and carved versions of works like The Severed Head of Medusa are illustrative here; the gold head is missing a section across the cheek and neck as well as some of its serpent heads. That it looks as if the cheek section has broken away together with visible scratch marks along the face, it plays the part of a sunken treasure relic. But it also possesses the tell-tale sign of internal human neck anatomy severed beyond the flesh line that is so reminiscent of Hirst’s anatomical works.

As pointed out before, the other heads included one of cast bronze that was fragmented, aged and had a growth of coral, one carved in malachite, and another of sculpted crystal glass. All four will have undergone different processes necessitated by these materials. The bronze and gold versions will have been similar as they are both cast metal and were both ‘ocean-dipped’ (or at least the gold one definitely was), but they will have needed different moulds and finishing methods to attain the scratching on the gold and the greyish-green patina on the bronze. I wrote about such processes previously, and this goes hand-in-hand with thinking about the materials across the show more broadly.

In initially considering the materials in the Treasures works, my paranoia drove me to ask: How many lies has the show told to make me question what its pieces are even made of? Not that legalities can’t be broken, and let’s face it, Hirst is no stranger to settling out of court, but I do wonder if creative or outright mislabelling would be attempted, given the potential risks in the extraction, production and transportation of certain materials and the works made from them. For example, the malachite head was displayed in a glass case. In the promotional video for the show still viewable on Palazzo Grassi’s website, Hirst talks about the poisonous effects of malachite dust when it becomes airborne during carving. This is true, but when polished it is safe. Perhaps Hirst in his usual wry way is responding to criticisms over the years that his staff at Science and the artisan carvers he hires are at risk from toxic chemicals they must work with to create his pieces. In making a point of placing works made from certain materials behind glass and pointing this out in the video, he makes a performance out of health and safety awareness.

That aside, it is telling when looking through the information provided by the exhibition guidebook, and, where possible, to compare the information to visitors’ responses to specific works. During one of the walk-through videos linked above, the person recording repeatedly draws attention to the giant shells positioned throughout Palazzo Grassi, puzzling over whether they are ‘real’ or not. Eventually, curiosity leads to tampering and angry Italian is heard from an approaching invigilator. Having had an illicit feel, the video-maker is nevertheless none the wiser about the shells’ materiality and the question over their ‘realness’ persists. A brief look in the guide carried by the video-maker would provide the sought for information that they are painted bronze. If this is correct that the museum specimen shells are painted bronze, then it follows that the coral is too, but there lies a gap in the information as the coral is only highlighted in the general text on the guide’s opening page with no difference indicated between coral-covered works and their ‘museum copies’.

What emerges when you look closely enough is that the text and the works reveal as many truths as they conceal. Just as Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement) indicates with its coral adornments that the coral is likely part of all the other sculptures on which it appears, the gold Medusa shows that the gold and even the metal pieces more broadly are hollow and not solid. And just as many of the works are painted or coated to look like another material, the gold pieces are listed as consisting of gold and silver, suggesting they are gold-plated silver, with no listing of the gold’s purity. Let’s face it, even an outlandishly expensive project such as this will have some budget constraints. It certainly had weight constrictions given the precarity of Venice’s islands. Even excess must give in to practicalities.

While the bronzes, particularly the ocean-dipped, coral-encrusted ones, garner the most attention (or at least have done in my research so far), many other materials were involved in the show’s sculptures, and often with their own connections to ancient art and statuary. As well as those mentioned above, other materials include various marbles, white and grey agate, jade, black granite, lapis lazuli, limestone, resin, glass, rock crystal, and a range of precious and semi-precious stones and rare gemstones. I’ll get into more detail, no doubt, as I work through analysis of more individual pieces, but it’s worth outlining some general observations on some of the materials and their uses throughout the show.

The vivid blue of lapis lazuli is a big draw for me and I was fascinated to learn that it has been extracted from as long ago as the seventh millennium BCE – longer ago than some religions will accept the Earth has existed. It is a metamorphic rock often used as if it is a semi-precious stone, and usually for small items and details on larger pieces. The Wikipedia page about it shows a Fabergé egg made of fragments of lapis lazuli with the joins covered with gold motifs to give the impression of it being a single block. Could the marine adornments and white agate sea-worm fossils all over Neptune perform the same function?

The back view of Neptune, Palazzo Grassi, taken June 2017

This use of agate in the show has had me flummoxed. The works for which it is listed as a material also include red marble and blue granite busts and statues covered with what are made to appear to be fossilised sea-worms but really it looks as if someone has squeezed plaster or wall filler paste liberally and haphazardly over them from a tube and let it dry. According to the guide, these are made of white agate, which I find confusing given the usually banded colouring on what is a stone-like material. Also known as Greek agate and found mainly in Sicily (which had been part of the Greek empire), white agate is usually used for delicate embellishments on ornaments and jewellery and is often used to make beads and pebbles. As we’ve covered before, Hirst does have a tendency to make expensive materials look cheap and vice versa, so if it is white agate, then perhaps this is what it looks like in a rarely seen uncut, unpolished state.

While looking into agate I came across agatized coral, that is, fossilised corals that have pseudomorphed into agate and which seem to be common in Florida. Whether this has any direct relevance is unclear, but it has led me to consider that many of the natural materials used for these works are actually the fossilised remains of marine life, just from much further back in time than the two-thousand-years-ago setting of the Amotan-Apistos story at the heart of the Treasures lore. It’s interesting to think that what looks like coral is actually made of fabricated art materials, and what looks like fabricated art materials may actually be fossilised ancient coral.

With further relevance to misdirections concerning Hirst’s materials, black granite is actually a trade name for an igneous rock called gabbro, varieties of which are granitic but are not the same as granite. The works labelled as black granite, including Proteus and Hermaphrodite are often solid, carved ‘museum copies’ of cast metal (and coral-covered) pieces. In addition to the marbles, jade, agate and so on, these materials exude the long history of this planet and the life on it long before the Anthropocene. We must question when is too soon and when is long enough before the remains of dead creatures being used as art material is justifiable. We must also consider what is laid bare about who must extract and work with these materials, ancient and new. What if readings of this exhibition with such questions in mind have the potential to shake the very core of ethics in art?

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