Damien Hirst stages comeback with monumental sunken ‘treasures’

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After a period of quiet, Damien Hirst has opened a new exhibition of his work in Venice

Comprising 189 works, the exhibition fills an unprecedented 5,000 square meters of space

Venice, Italy CNN  — 

Damien Hirst has been quiet for a few years now, and his star has dimmed – as have his prices. So at the age of 51, it seems it’s time for a little bit of reinvention for the British artist.

Hirst has never been short of self-belief. He has never done things by half. So the art world press was in Venice this week to find out what he’d do next.

The public relations people have been strenuously working to get us all there for several weeks now. One work, they told me, is over 18 meters high.

The exhibition has a wonderful and intriguing title – “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.”

It fills an unprecedented 5,000 square meters of space at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana (the old Customs House) on the Grand Canal, buildings owned by the billionaire French art collector and Christie’s owner Francois Pinault.

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Though neither has confirmed an amount, both Hirst and Pinault have evidently spent a huge amount of money mounting this show. In fact, this is quite probably the most expensive single art show ever put on by a contemporary artist.

But whatever the cost, we wondered: Would Damien Hirst sink or swim in Venice?

VENICE, ITALY - APRIL 06:  A sculpture from the Damien Hirst's exhibition 'Treasures From The Wreck Of The Unbelievable' is seen at Palazzo Grassi on April 6, 2017 in Venice, Italy. Damien Hirst is back with a new exhibition in the city of Venice which will open on April 9th.  (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)
Damien Hirst returns with sunken 'treasures'
01:20 - Source: CNN

An ancient fantasy

I last interviewed Hirst in London in 2010 and he happily told me about this planned exhibition. I complimented him on the title – he has always been good at titles. It was “a kind of fantasy on a ship that went down,” he explained.

And that’s how it seems to have turned out: Hirst has let his fantasies run riot.

The exhibition is comprised of 189 works. The conceit is that he’s discovered the wreck of an ancient vessel in the seabed off East Africa that went down laden with treasures from diverse cultures – Aztec, Inca, Ancient Egyptian, Roman and others.

Hirst’s people have supplied extensive footage of artworks being salvaged. It’s all very exotic, very photogenic and helps embellish the fantasy.

The work that’s over 18 meters high turned out to be a black statue called “Demon with Bowl.” It rises impressively to the full height of the courtyard of the Palazzo Grassi. I almost got a crick in the neck marveling at it. You wonder how they managed to get it inside the building.

It looks as if it’s made of bronze, but in reality it’s made of resin. I couldn’t see any joins. It looks whole, but it simply can’t be – can it?

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A lot of the works – bears, lions, a sphinx – are encrusted with what appears to be coral. And yet it can’t be coral – this is all brightly colored, and real coral quickly loses color out of water.

Hirst knows this and is teasing us. He told the New York Times: “It’s all about what you want to believe.”