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

Guilherme Gutman reflects on Luiz Camillo Osorio’s text “Death in Venice”

PIPA Prize 2016 Nominating Committee member, Guilherme Gutman – art critic, curator, psychiatrist and a Professor of the Psychology Department of PUC-Rio – says that Luiz Camillo Osorio‘s last column inspired him to write some reflections of his own. Published in August, Camillo’s text, titled “Death in Venice”, examined “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”, solo show by Damien Hirst that opened in parallel to Biennale di Venezia earlier this year. A ‘delusional hubris’, the exhibition made PIPA Institute’s curator ask whether “is such a productive excess what we really need?” Here, Gutman invites Camillo to rethink his earlier ideas. “Aren’t we interested in excess? How come?,” he asks. “Excess has always known how offer its best
fruits to art.”


Guilherme Gutman

Luiz Camillo Osorio’s article, Death in Venice”, recently published on the PIPA websites, sparkled my interest. In the title, the double reference to two masterpieces: Thomas Mann‘s book by the same title, and Luchino Visconti’s film, Violence et Passion, his interpretation of the novel by Mann.

In this case, the reference that mattered most to Camillo – perhaps I should have checked it with him before – is Venice itself. I mean, he focuses on something that periodically and regularly happens in the city: the celebrated Biennale hosted and eventually exported by Venice.

From time to time, Camillo is also interested in finding out what’s inside the pavilions and the equally beautiful historical buildings. In a way, Camillo is interested in what is being produced today, dwelling specifically on what we currently call “Visual Arts”.

Many countries are represented in the Biennale, but even though there is an endless number of works of art, one must say that, unless you have a trained eye for doing so, not everyone will be able to perceive them as homogeneous (or, for that matter, as art!). However varied, famous or great they may be, let’s face it, they are but a sample of what is being produced today.

Now, do we need to see more? We will certainly leave something out, that´s for sure. Would we need to see a little more? Again, something will still be missed, that´s for sure.

Thomas Mann once said something like, “why read good books if we can read only the great ones?”. Such a wonderfully cynical question! For, no matter the age we live in, we have always been interested in knowing what was being produced.

Camillo was present at the 2017 Venice Biennale not only to reflect on what he saw, but as a curator to the Brazilian Pavilion. Aided by Cauê Alves, Camillo made choices in which many paths crossed: History of art, political perspectives, reflections about the importance of the artists and the works of art chosen, the architectural space, the dimension of the context in which the works were being exposed, and last, but not least, his own personal “taste”, all of which made up of broad range of countless elements that resulted in impressions, provoked reflections, and many other experiences that, so to speak, cut him in the flesh.

In the current Venice Biennial, a set of works by a single artist drew his attention. The works, exposed in all the exuberance that only megalomania can produce, were housed in two locations in the city (thus creating two concurrent exhibitions in a huge exhibition space). Camillo – and the world – stopped to see it and comment on it.

The adjective used by Camillo in hos review, which possibly summarizes his experience before those two blocks of works, was “unbelievable”; surely the term was used with that known and unfriendly connotation applied to something that, in the final reckoning, is neither believable nor strong or artistically stimulating.

In his own mild excess, Camillo is somewhat emphatic (as to the discomfort that the work provoked on him) by using, about Hirst’s work – Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable –  expressions such as “delusional hubris (…), insolence (…) egoic delusion “.

Even though Camillo does not disregard “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, nothing prevented him from leaving “Punta della Dogana feeling overwhelmed and depressed”. He wondered: “What was the point of all that?”.

Even though his review was supported by an article written by Laura Cumming for The Guardian, in my opinion, the British journal’s review of the exhibition was much more favorable when compared to Camillo’s critique.

At some point in Camillo’s perspective, on a stretch of imagination, there may remain a feeling that Hirst, just like Doktor Faustus, Mann’s main character, would somehow had sold his soul to the devil, or to François Pinaud, for that matter.

In our fantasy, we could we even imagine Hirst, in his bragging, being purified by the waters of the Italian city.

According to Camillo, “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’.”

Then, with his usual critical elegance, Camillo “tears apart” Hirst’s mise en scène by taking us by the hand and, inside the Accademia, “with its decadent, aristocratic atmosphere”, showing a small detail (10cm x 10cm) of a triptych by Bosch entitled rittico degli Eremiti.

Camillo’s attitude, when he subtly brings forward this small piece by Bosch, is less of a treatment given by Daniel Arasse to detail, and more the idea of “minor”, presented by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, even if in another context.

Aren’t we interested in excess? How come? Excess has always known how offer its best fruits to art.

Camillo would never dismiss madness as something to be said about art. Madness – the broad area of my own research – interests him, too. In his text, his dèmarche is driven by the opposition between Hirst’s excess and that of Bosch’s, which is timeless. Bosh’s Stultifera Navis depicts “something related to fear”; “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”.

There is in this small piece, the smaller of the greatest, something that “doesn’t fit in our measures”. It is something related to the delirium, something out of reason. The closed and inaccessible universe of Bosch’s “Trittico degli Eremiti” can refer to the suffocating atmosphere permanently present in Gruppo di famiglia in un interno, the original title of masterpiece Violence et Passion – as Visconti’s film was known. If, on the one hand, madness is an umbrella term, on the other hand, it can remind us, as strongly as possible, that we all have something that is out of the ordinary.

Then, it is not a matter of choosing either Hirst or Bosch, but to reacting – rather astonished –  to the excess of one or another with desperate rounds of applause.

As Camillo stated in his text, “Death in Venice comes not only from the Plague, but from success and excess”. His target is, of course, Hirst. But as Mann’s novel reveals, we strive for life, for a liaison with the world and with people, but we strive as much for our own destruction and death.

With Freud in mind, I went back to Mann’s novel and thought: bravo to all those who can make us escape, even if for a little while, from our neurotic everyday misery.

It can be a relief to embark on the stultifera navis that, as unstable as a vaporetto, will take us away from this Opera buffa that life can be at times. Specially, I would venture to say, life without art – be it Hirst’s or Bosch’s.


Guilherme Gutman is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and Professor of the Psychology Department of PUC-Rio and of the Visual Arts School of Parque Lage. Art critic and independent curator, he participated in the PIPA Prize 2016 Nominating Committee.  He is the author of William James & Henry James: filosofia, literatura e vida [“William James & Henry James: philosophy, literature and life”].

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