Damien Hirst, "Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable”

“Death in Venice”, Luiz Camillo Osorio’s new exclusive text

This month’s critical text by PIPA Institute Curator Luiz Camillo Osorio talks about Damien Hirst’s extravagant comeback, the exhibition “Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable”, which opened at Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi in parallel to the 57th Venice Biennale. Here, Camillo raises a discussion on the excesses and the irony of a “post-truth” world, opposing Hirst’s “delusion of excess” to the “intensity of less”.

Death in Venice

Luiz Camillo Osorio

Damien Hirst doesn’t fear risk. In his work, the will to art has always taken over the absolute power that puts together one’s wish and what he/she can actually do. Coming up in the contemporary scene in a Venice Biennale (1993) with a cow and a calf cut in half inside a tank of formaldehyde was just the beginning. From there to a diamond-encrusted human skull (2007) and an entire auction dedicated to a single artist – on the same the day the Lehman Brothers collapsed, in 2008 – it was only a matter of time. It’s not as if he didn’t pay for his audacity. You don’t mess up with the market and get away unpunished. He was put on a shelf for a few years, until a Tate Modern retrospective during the London Olympics, and a simultaneous exhibition at all Gagosian’s global facilities, brought him back into the scene.

Despite all that, Damien Hirst doesn’t seem to be tired. The latest step of this delusional hubris were two simultaneous exhibitions, again in Venice, but this time at Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi – “Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable”. Unbelievable is a rather appropriate adjective here. How could one single artist fill two museums with his recent, both monumental and miniscule artworks, supposedly coming from an ancient shipwreck that contained the collection of the Roman Emperor and ex-slave Cif Amotan II? Everything is designed to make believe, in a time in which we no longer believe in anything, that such a rescue from the depths of the Indian Ocean in fact happened. The pieces are encrusted with supposed corals, topped with sludge and marine vegetation, washed with that greenish patina which results from a long submersion time. A movie and giant photos of divers rescuing deities belonging to a crazy imaginary, half Greek, half Viking, half Disney, are displayed. Exhibition copies were produced to make it more real and more unusual, as well as an endless set of utensils: guns, jewelry, vases, fragments, all of it accumulated in the two spaces. All of it incredibly fake.

Exhibition view of “Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable”, Damien Hirst’s solo show on view at Palazzo Grassi | Photo by Luiz Camillo Osorio

It should be noted that the exhibitions were funded at the artist’s personal expense, the total cost reaching nearly GBP 50 million. Of course, there are plenty of collectors willing to cover off the expenses. Apparently, many of these works have already been acquired. Perhaps François Pinaud – owner of the collection that is housed in the Venetian spaces – has contributed acquiring part of the works. But that’s the least of it. Regardless of any subsequent sales, which will come quickly, Damien Hirst’s ability to make, to go mad, to create a complete fabrication and make something out of it – an exhibition, a film, an auction, a success, and a shipwreck – is quite impressive.

However, some questions arise. Do we need this success? Can success be, at the same time, a symptom of our failure as a civilization? Is such a productive excess what we really need? How should we look at those pieces? Would they be, as stated The Guardian’s review, the adequate “art for a post-truth world”? What mobilizes Hirst’s faith to make possible exhibitions on this scale? Does he need it? Do we need it? There are no easy answers. Introducing the moral element – should he do that? – to evaluate an art piece is always tricky. Freeing art from all “musts”, while, out of the blue, it happens and makes itself necessary, was a modern conquest. What type of need produces such things and imaginary beings if not that of the judgement of he who can do all things, but that apparently wants nothing else?

Who am I to judge. Nonetheless, I offer two counterexamples, also found here in Venice, that seem to go against Hirst’s insolence. The first one is a small lesson of poetics from a failed artist. At the Swiss pavilion in this year’s Biennial, a duo of artists, Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, produced a remarkable film installation about Flora Mayo, an artist today completely unknown, but who, at the end of the 1920s, had some success as a sculptor and was Giacometti’s lover. An American artist who was born rich, and a promising sculptor living in the Paris of the Belle Époque, she had a love affair with both sculpture and sculptor, lost everything during the 1929 crisis, returned to the US in financial distress, had a child out of the wedlock, supported herself working degrading jobs in California, and lived anonymously and disconnected from this past for the rest of her days. But what is the point of this story? On an occasion, when Giacometti was visiting her studio, struggling to finish her pieces, Flora Mayo told him she hated art. The answer came right away: hate is a good feeling for an artist to have in relation to his/her work. Art can also exist as failure. There’s something to be constantly discovered that doesn’t have much to do with our ability to make, but rather with what can come out of nothing from what we believe in or hate.

Of course, Giaciometti’s success and Flora’s failure are not mutually exclusive. However, both exclude Damien Hirst’s world, based on the delusion of excess. Somehow, intoxicated as we are by the excesses around us, we should remain alert to the intensity of less, not as a form of renunciation, but as a choice.

From left to right: Giacometti, his bust and the author of the sculpture, Flora Mayo | Photo by Luiz Camillo Osorio

I left Punta Della Dogana feeling overwhelmed and depressed. What was the point of all that? We don’t need this deliberate show of power. Especially in Venice, a city where every single place looks like a tourist photo backdrop, and a surprising angle or corner can always appear out of nowhere. Luckily, Academia still stands there, only two vaporeto stations ahead, with its decadent, aristocratic atmosphere, clumsy labels and lack of scenic design. Where one just goes to see the artworks, and that’s it. I stopped there after Hirst’s and came across a magnificent exhibition on Philip Guston and his relationship with poetry. However, what really caught my attention as a counterpoint to Hirst was a small exhibition on Bosch. He is not a painter whom I love as much as the Bellinis, Veroneses and Carpaccios that multiply there and are worth of any visit. Nevertheless, in a small detail (10cm x 10cm) of a triptych entitled “Trittico degli Eremiti”, by Bosch, I saw way more fantasy than in Hirst’s egoic delusion.

Detail of “Trittico degli Eremiti”, by Hieronymus Bosch | Photo by Luiz Camillo Osorio

In that little corner, there’s something beyond the ability to make. What catches our eye is related to fear. There is a metaphysical interplay between fear and excitement that opens up a whole imaginary in front of us, a craziness that makes our world less predictable and scarier. Damien Hirst doesn’t scare anyone, because he does not believe in what he’s doing, despite doing it very successfully every time around. Only this time the success was a deadly shot. As Joseph Brodsky wrote in his essay on Venice, “there is no landscape like this to make delight fade; right or wrong, no selfish individual is able to shine for a long time in this landscape of porcelain floating on crystal water, because it steals the scene”. In addition, Bosch’s triptych, in its fantasy, in its evident fear and belief that there is something that doesn’t fit in our measures, is exactly what turns the infinite into something finite, the little detail into something monumental. Death in Venice comes not only from the Plague, but from success and excess.


Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015. To read more exclusive texts written by Camillo, click here.

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