This is the tale of an artist who for ten years has been very secretly working away on a repertoire of works that will reinvent his creation.
This is the tale of Damien Hirst (born 1965), who is attempting a resurrection in Venice by way of a sprawling and imagination-defying exhibition that spans the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, the two venues belonging to the foundation of French businessman François Pinault.
It’s been an awfully long time since we’ve seen a contemporary art show displaying this degree of megalomania. It’s a show for which only superlatives will do.
Firstly due to the number of works on display, 189 in total, the majority bronzes, but equally works in marble, agate, gold, silver, limestone, tourmaline, rock crystal…
And secondly, because of their dimensions. The tallest is an 18-metre bronze of a kind of decapitated monster inspired by a painting by William Blake, which stands in the Palazzo Grassi atrium.
Don’t expect to discover Hirst unveiling a new style in this exhibition, which he’s called ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’.
There isn’t one. They are plenty and we could say no style is a style in the post-modern era.
At times the artist seems to take himself for Chirico in his surrealist period, at other times the Egyptologist Vivant Denon, sometimes a European Renaissance collector prince, sometimes a manga-inspired sculptor.
All this is part of a larger story that we’re supposed to fall for about a boat carrying a cargo of artworks from different periods of history, which supposedly sank off the coast of Africa at the beginning of our era.The show displays underwater videos of the collected artefacts.
But Hirst has always had more than a little touch of the provocateur about him, so in this encyclopaedic show on the history of mankind and art, he slips in allusions to Walt Disney’s Pluto, to a pharaoh who looks a lot like Pharrell Williams, and to a mythological character who seems to have leapt out of Paul McCarthy’s imagination.
Damien Hirst has come a long way. This person who used to be so cynical and liked quoting John Lennon who once said that ‘Avant Garde is the French for bullshit’ has been sitting on a huge secret for ten years, his own renaissance.
Elena Geuna, one of the guardians of the extended silence that has accompanied this adventure and curator of the show, spoke about its concept:
Damien Hirst is in fact totally reinventing himself. No work makes any allusion to what originally underwrote his stellar success, then his commercial rejection.
Hirst’s basic vocabulary has vanished: no butterflies, no syringes, no multi-coloured spots…
The all-new Damien Hirst is born and he plays with the entirety sweep of art history, as Martin Béthenod, the Pinault Foundation director explains.
Taken individually, some pieces have a kitsch aesthetic. Take his female superhero goddess, for example, who seems to have jumped out of a Japanese animé, and who straddles a bear, both of them in bronze, and adorned in hyperrealist multi-coloured corals across her entire body.
But this huge cabinet of curiosities stuffed with anachronisms is not lacking spirit, enthusiasm or brio, and certainly not courage. For Hirst has financed this megalomaniac show by himself before those two dealers, the White Cube and the Gagosian – he conveniently made up with the latter about a year ago – handle the sale of this new work from the decidedly Old British Artist.
The exhibition is far too complex and rich to be labelled mediocre.
But the work of art here is neither a specific goddess, nor one of the cabinets of curiosities, it’s the totality of this show in two parts which sees Damien Hirst reborn from the ashes of the repetitive and commercial artist.
Until 3 december.www.palazzograssi.it