Wrecking the Museum: Damien Hirst’s Wreck of the Unbelievable

July 15th, 2017Posted by Nancy


I am not an art critic. These days, I feel barely able to throw together a coherent thought about anything. But I had a lot of thoughts, coherent or otherwise, while viewing the huge show by Damien Hirst (or Damien Fucking Hirst, as one of my friends calls him) in Venice. It spans two locations and includes hundreds of pieces (churned out by assistants) supposedly recovered from wreck of a ship lost by the ruler of an imaginary kingdom between the first and second century A.D. Many of the items are covered in barnacles and coral (supposedly)  and the show includes video of divers supposedly recovering the huge statues. Items are displayed as they would be in museums, with scholarly cards outlining the mythology behind a particular statue and grouped displays of helmets, coins, and swords (one of which bears the logo for Seaworld).  According to the reviews, the material labelled as lapis lazuli, malachite, gold, and gems is real, though to my eyes some of it looked like resin castings. But what do I know?

It is undeniably ambitious, clever, funny (look, that’s really a Transformer covered in barnacles) and beautifully executed. I’m glad I saw it.

But part way though, I began to be profoundly uncomfortable.

I grew up going on family trips to the Royal Museum of Ontario and museum-going is a big part of our travel agenda. I can remember the sheer, giddy wonder of the Treasures of Tutankhamen show at the Art Gallery of Ontario years ago and the quiet, rundown beauty of the museum in Alexandria. I wanted to be an archeologist when I was young and I’ve always been fascinated by ancient cultures. And yes, maybe after you’ve seen one gold coin, you’ve seen them all, and all those rows of them in the museum might was well be gold-wrapped chocolate for all the difference they make. And yes, some of the conventions of displaying the artifacts of the past are strange and stuffy. And yes, our ability to understand exactly what these things meant to their creators and users is heavily filtered through our own view of the world.

All that is true – but I still felt the wrongness like a physical pain when all the bodies and faces in the Hirst show looked undeniably modern (Kate Moss and Pharrell are models for some pieces).  I felt vaguely insulted when the text wittered on about the meaning of this sphinx or that monster. Perhaps that was the point.  Perhaps it upset me because the suggestion that something that has mattered to me is in fact just as unreal as Hirst’s creations.

And yet. And yet. I remember the exquisite alabaster ointment jar with a carved lion on the lid that I saw at that long ago Tutankhamen exhibit.  I stood transfixed by it, circled its case, pressing as close as I could, trying to linger there while the crowd pushed me on. I had a poster of it on the wall of my bedroom for years.  It was just a little thing, so much less dramatic than the mask and the jewels. I think of the sculpted face of Nefrititi, not the famous one, but the one of unadorned stone, made when she was older and sadder and unbearably beautiful.  I think of all the jars and pots and coins and little sculptures of gods I’ve seen or walked past and how they had once upon a time been held in someone’s hand or set on someone’s table or placed in someone’s home altar. Or maybe they were just made to go into someone’s tomb, to bring them comfort in the afterlife.  Whatever the case, they are all real.

Hirst’s sculptures aren’t. And somehow, that makes all the difference to me.

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