Damien Hirst's Submerged Fantasy
Treasures From The Wreck Of The Unbelievable

This image shows a group of divers underwater, looking at two giant statues.Image © Youtube / Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable - trailer © Palazzo Grassi - Punta della Dogana
Jasper Tordoff

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In contemporary art, innovation and audacity often entwine, and Damien Hirst emerges as a figure of both reverence and debate. Renowned for his bold choices and unapologetic artistic statements, Hirst's endeavours have always captivated and oftentimes polarised art enthusiasts. Yet, among his diverse body of work, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is a testament to his unparalleled ambition and playful spirit. This elaborate installation was an immersive experience that blended the mystery of lost civilisations with the allure of marine archaeology and fantasy. In a masterful way, Hirst crafted a narrative that feels both ancient and utterly contemporary.

Youtube © HENI Editions / Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable | Presented by HENI Talks

The Genesis of Treasures: Behind Hirst's Vision at the Venice Biennale

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was one of the most ambitious and talked-about exhibitions in the 2017 Venice Biennale. Displayed at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice, Italy, this project was a decade in the making and is one of Hirst's most grandiose and polarising works. The exhibition, composed of 190 objects, purported to be a display of rediscovered treasures from a shipwreck of an ancient vessel named The Unbelievable. According to Hirst's narrative, this ship, laden with the vast art collection of a freed slave named Cif Amotan II, sank some 2,000 years ago and was only recently found off the coast of East Africa.

Of course, this backstory is entirely fictional, with clues spread throughout: Cif Amotan II, for example, is an anagram for “I Am A Fiction.” Yet the show's presentation was so detailed and thorough that it blurred the line between myth and reality. A mockumentary was issued alongside the exhibition, outlining the shipwreck tale and presenting it as factual.

The exhibited pieces, some monumental in scale, appear as if they have been submerged for centuries, looking coral-encrusted, barnacle-ridden and aged. The pieces in the exhibition span a vast range of styles, materials and subjects. There are sculptures made from gold, marble, crystal, bronze, and jade, among other materials. The themes and imagery borrow heavily from various cultures and myths worldwide; there is everything from ancient Egyptian and Aztec motifs to more contemporary pop culture references. Notably, many of the works are reinterpretations or mash-ups of existing artworks, with Hirst's own twists added.

The exhibition delves deep into themes of authenticity, truth and the narrative power behind art. It raises questions about what we consider genuine or valuable and how stories—whether rooted in fact or fiction—can shape our perceptions on the merit of an artwork. Ultimately, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is an exploration of myth-making, storytelling and the boundaries of art. Whether celebrated as a masterstroke or derided as overindulgence, the exhibit stands as yet another testament to Hirst's ability to stir conversation and provoke thought in the art world and beyond.

“One thing that really excited me about the whole project is how you inhabit the past. It’s unknowable, really, but what we have are little glimpses and fragments of objects and stories. The collection is about belief, and in a way my belief in art is like a belief in God.”
Damien Hirst
A large-scale golden sculpture depicting a face is seen underwater, surrounded by sand.Youtube © Palazzo Grassi - Punta della Dogana / Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable - trailer

Diving Deep: The Concept of Underwater Archaeology and Fantasy

For centuries, humans have been fascinated by stories of underwater civilisations, shipwrecks and undiscovered treasures. From the lost city of Atlantis to tales of mermaids and sea monsters, underwater archaeology and mythology have been an integral part of human folklore. These stories, passed down through generations, echo humanity's innate curiosity and fear of the ocean's depths. They paint a picture of a world where magnificent civilisations thrive beneath the sea, guarded by mythical creatures and filled with treasures beyond imagination.

But what draws us to the concept of underwater fantasy? At its core, it's a combination of our fear of the unknown and our insatiable curiosity. The ocean's depths remain one of the last unexplored frontiers on Earth. This vast, uncharted territory teems with the possibility of discovery, adventure and danger. When artists tap into this intrigue, they are not just presenting a fantasy; they are tapping into a deep-seated human yearning to explore and understand the mysteries that lie beneath.

Hirst leaned into these very human desires when creating Treasures From The Wreck Of The Unbelievable. The show stands as a monumental example of how modern creators can harness the allure of underwater fantasy to engage with viewers. By conjuring a fictional shipwreck filled with treasures, he transformed the ocean floor into a gallery of wonders, blurring the lines between historical artefact and artistic creation.

Youtube © Palazzo Grassi - Punta della Dogana / Damien Hirst - Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable

The Art of Storytelling: Weaving Fiction into Fine Art

In our post-truth world, the line between reality and fiction is more malleable than ever before. Technological advancements like virtual and augmented realities have amplified our ability to craft, modify and experience alternate realities. Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable masterfully taps into this zeitgeist, serving as a mirror to our contemporary struggles with truth.

Historically, the art world has always dabbled in fiction. Forgeries, allegories painted during the Renaissance, romanticised historical accounts and even political propaganda pieces all serve as reminders of art's long-standing affair with alternate truths. What was innovative about Treasures is that, rather than the artwork itself being the sole bearer of fiction, the artist has embedded fiction into the very fabric of the art's provenance – not as a result of forgery, but of principle.

This strategy magnifies the psychological impact of the exhibit. It nudges the audience to question not just the authenticity of the art before them but also the broader narratives they encounter in their daily lives. Hirst's decision to present a fictional origin story is also a nod to society's infatuation with discovery and the value attached to historical context. By claiming these artworks were salvaged from an ancient shipwreck, he plays into our collective admiration for the antique, the historic and the journey of rediscovery. This layer adds depth to the critique: it is not just about the artwork or the fiction, but also about our perceptions of value, origin, and authenticity.

A sculpture of the artist Damein Hirst's face, covered in mock coral.Youtube © Palazzo Grassi - Punta della Dogana / Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable - trailer

Treasures: A Multi-Layered Joke

Just because Hirst's conceptual pretence is anchored in important contemporary topics, that does not mean the exhibition escapes the artist's characteristically caustic humour. The works feature many tongue-in-cheek indications that their origin story is nothing more than a fib. As aforementioned, the supposed owner of the collection, Cif Amotan II's own name is an anagram alluding to the fallacy. This thread continues throughout.

Hirst inserts the likeness of a variety of contemporary celebrities, such as Rihanna, Pharrell and even himself. He also created works with pop culture icons, including Mickey Mouse and Goofy. Modern corporations such as Volkswagen are also present; behind one Classical Greek-style sculpture of a woman, reads ©1999 Mattel Inc, China. For attentive viewers, these clues should be more than enough to dismantle the belief in the shipwreck story.

This image shows two divers underwater, handling two statues.Youtube © Palazzo Grassi - Punta della Dogana / Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable - trailer

Controversy and Acclaim: Public and Critical Reception

Reviews to Treasures From The Wreck Of The Unbelievable were mixed. The Guardian offered a four and a five star review, claiming that "the arrogant, exciting, hilarious, mind-boggling imagination that made him such a thrilling artist in the 1990s is audaciously and beautifully reborn" and that "it takes a kind of genius to push kitsch to the point where it becomes sublime." It praised how truth and lie blur in the show, and how real historical information is offered about Hirst's clear fakes. ARTNews, on the other hand, called it "disastrous" and "undoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade. It is devoid of ideas, aesthetically bland, and ultimately snooze-inducing."

A look at the Youtube comments from the mockumentary shows a similarly divisive perspective. Many are upset, and admit to having fallen “hook, line and sinker” for the story until the end of the film, while others have called it “life changing”. Perhaps the comment that best summarises the general feeling Hirst invokes: “I was enraged at first. Then I realised I was angry solely because of how foolish I was and how easily I fell for it. I had no issue dismissing all the red flags because I wanted it to be true. This film was one of the first to help me realise that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was and how able and willing I was to buy a lie.”

Following the show in Venice, part of the exhibition travelled to the Villa Borghese in Rome, where it stayed from May to October 2021. There, it was displayed alongside sculptures by Bernini, paintings by Caravaggio and Greco-Roman objects. The museum stated: “Inserted among the masterpieces of the Galleria’s collection, these works celebrate the desire for variety held by the museum’s founder, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. His fantasy had been to go beyond categories, not only among the arts, but also those of fiction and reality.”

A human figure is shown fighting a hydra. Both statues are covered in mock coral.Youtube © HENI Editions / Damien Hirst: Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable | Presented by HENI Talks

Hirst and Belief

At the core of much of Hirst's work is his fascination with belief. This exhibit is no different, as it beckons a powerful commentary on perception and the narratives we accept or challenge. The meticulously crafted artefacts, replete with intricate details of age and marine wear, are testaments not only to artistic prowess but also to the power of narrative. Viewers, confronted with such "evidence", were compelled to grapple with their own suspension of disbelief.

In an age where 'deepfakes', misinformation and curated online personas are becoming increasingly prevalent, Treasures is more than an art show; it is a sociocultural experiment. It serves as a reminder that stories, whether in art or in the media, wield a potent influence. The origins of a tale, its presentation, and our predispositions can dramatically shape our acceptance or rejection of it.

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