Unbelievable

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable – Damien Hirst’s decade-in-the-making Venetian extravaganza – is as unbelievable as his title implies. I have never seen a bigger show in my life. The artist has filled not one but two museums with hundreds of objects in marble, gold and bronze, crystal, jade and malachite – heroes, gods and leviathans all supposedly lost in a legendary shipwreck 2,000 years ago and now raised from the Indian Ocean at Hirst’s personal expense. It is by turns marvellous and beautiful, prodigious, comic and monstrous.

The question of belief is in the air even before you enter the Punta della Dogana. Outside the former customs house is a lifesize statue of a man on a rearing horse, both constricted by a monumental snake. The man’s face is a terrified rictus, the horse strenuously anatomical in its every standing vein – this is the classical Laocoön statue crossed with the sculptures of Leonardo and Messerschmidt. It is both jaw-dropping and hyperbolic, with overtones of computer-generated movies. People touch it to see if the twinkling white substance is real, which it is: Carrara marble, in fact. And yet it looks fake.

Inside, in perfect Discovery Channel pastiche, the tale is told of a freed slave named Cif Amotan II (solve that anagram), who accumulated an immense fortune which he spent on the sunken treasures divers are now dredging up on the screen before you. This is quite obviously hokum. One glimpse of the synthetic blue coral, or the Versace bling of the golden head gingerly dislodged from the sea floor, should give the game away, even before you see the amazing “hoard”. But then again, these are in a true sense buried treasures: buried and then rediscovered for the sake of this footage. The joke is already more subtle than many of the objects; this is art for a post-truth world.

Here is a sword-wielding woman mounted on a gigantic bronze bear, and a cartwheel-sized calendar stone made by the Aztecs (an anachronism which has baffled historians, according to the museum-toned captions). Here are hieratic stone warriors and rusting scimitars, brine-damaged sphinxes and a magnificent carving of three-headed Cerberus. Golden discs and silver tablets glow in spotlit vitrines, their inscriptions – and even the language in which they are written – mysterious.

Hirst has imagined the fabled shield of Achilles, lost for millennia, and invented a whole sequence of ancient currencies. There are strange new abstract forms, their meaning unknown yet somehow latent in these enticing coinages. One wunderkammer contains enigmatic bronze oblongs conflating hints of oxen and Celtic crosses; another holds the tragically hunched figure of a beast of burden, as if Hirst was defying his more conservative critics by becoming an old-fashioned sculptor.

 

Sometimes the object may be familiar – a pharaonic bust, say, only marginally adapted – and sometimes utterly implausible, like the horned skull of a unicorn. Each is exquisitely made, and intended to inspire the awe and wonder (and shock) of ancient civilisations. There is a strong sense of Hirst’s exhilaration as a child in the British Museum; and possibly as a father too. Look closely and you see that one long-lost sword is stamped “SeaWorld” and several small figures, overgrown with coral, turn out to be toy Transformers.

It gradually becomes apparent that this is not just a spectacular combination of storytelling, visual invention and slow-building humour, but a meditation on belief and truth. Some visitors were clearly persuaded by all this fake antiquity, the day I was there, and then enjoyed the revelation of having been gulled. And this despite innumerable clues: the pharaoh looks suspiciously like Pharrell Williams; the Medusa’s head is a 3D reprise of Caravaggio’s masterpiece; “Made in China” is imprinted, albeit on the back, of one statue.

This art about what we think art might be is based on a lifetime’s looking. Dürer’s celebrated Praying Hands, here carved in jade, become a Chinese worshipful greeting. His rhinoceros, conflated with hints of Shakespeare and the Elephant Man, aptly makes the figure of Proteus. There is something of Daumier’s donkey, from the Don Quixote paintings, about that poor beast of burden. Time is circular. All cultures generate others; art doesn’t just arrive straight out of the desert.

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