A sculpture called Hydra and Kali, part of Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable by Damien Hirst in Venice. Photo: AFP

Wreck or revival? Damien Hirst’s new show in Venice divides the critics

Exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable has been 10 years in the making, and creates a vast world of supposedly salvaged artefacts. But not everyone is impressed with the massive undertaking

Damien Hirst is back, and the art world doesn’t know what to make of the latest grandiose exhibition from the crown prince of contemporary art.

To run until December, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable plunges visitors into a fantasy universe raised from the depths of the Indian Ocean that has been 10 years in the making.

And as ever with the 51-year-old Briton, famed for his stuffed sharks and the huge fortune he has amassed as the most commercially successful member of the Young British Artist movement (YBA) of the 1990s, it is nothing if not controversial.

Depending on which critic you listen to, the vast exhibition – spread across the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana halls of Venice’s old customs house – is either a spellbinding return to form, or a career-ending artistic shipwreck.

Damien Hirst. Photo: AFP

The two-site exhibition asks visitors to buy into a story about Hirst being alerted to a shipwreck discovered off east Africa in 2008 and organising the recovery of the treasures it contained.

It is these precious coral- and seaweed-encrusted artefacts from the hold of the Apistos (Unbelievable) that make up the exhibition.

The ship supposedly belonged to a former slave who amassed a fortune and spent it collecting artefacts across the ancient world: Egyptian sphinxes, Greek statues and jewel-studded sculptures including a massive 18-metre-tall monster, along with many other gems.

A bronze sculpture, The Monk, from Hirst’s Venice show. Photo: AFP

As visitors make their way through the collection they can watch videos of divers carrying out the supposed salvage operation.

But there are many surprises along the way that will unsettle anyone who goes along with the shipwreck story.

From an Egyptian goddess who looks uncannily like Kate Moss to coral-encrusted fossils of Disney characters, it’s all about the real and the false – or as many reviewers saw it, Hirst’s take on the very contemporary issue of fake news.

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“The visitor does not really know if the works she sees have spent 2,000 years at the bottom of the sea or if they are the work of the artist,” says Martin Bethenod, director of the two venues, both of which belong to the Francois Pinault Foundation, owned by the French fashion tycoon, a noted collector of Hirst’s work.

A picture of the sculpture Hydra and Kali, part of the Hirst exhibition in Venice. Photo: AFP

“There is this ambiguity which leaves space for dreams,” explains Bethenod. “There are different levels of interpretation that overlap, which give the project its richness and complexity.”

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Hirst rose to fame as the leader of the YBA group that dominated the British art scene in the 1990s.

He won the Turner Prize in 1995 and attracted a huge following that went well beyond the rarefied confines of conceptual art.

Hirst figures regularly on lists of Britain’s wealthiest people, thanks partly to a 2008 auction at Sotheby’s that saw him cut out the gallery middlemen to sell 223 new pieces for £111 million.

That sale coincided with the start of the financial crisis which hit the contemporary art sector hard, and the value of Hirst’s work has waned since.

The art world is already speculating about how much money Hirst will have left once he has covered the huge costs of creating the works over the past decade and transporting them to Venice.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Wreck or revival? Hirst’s latest spectacle divides critics