From Sunday 9 April to Sunday 3 December 2017, Palazzo Grassi – Punta della Dogana – Pinault Collection presents ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’. It is the first major solo exhibition dedicated to Damien Hirst in Italy since the 2004 retrospective at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples (“The Agony and Ecstasy”) and is curated by Elena Geuna, curator of the monographic shows dedicated to Rudolf Stingel (2013) and Sigmar Polke (2016) presented at Palazzo Grassi.
The exhibition is displayed across 5,000 square meters of museum space and marks the first time that Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, the two Venetian venues of the Pinault Collection, are both dedicated to a single artist.
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Damien Hirst’s most ambitious and complex project to date, ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ has been almost ten years in the making. Exceptional in scale and scope, the exhibition tells the story of the ancient wreck of a vast ship, the ‘Unbelievable’ (Apistos in the original Koine Greek), and presents what was discovered of its precious cargo: the impressive collection of Aulus Calidius Amotan –a freed slave better known as Cif Amotan II –which was destined for a temple dedicated to the sun.
The exhibition highlights the longstanding relationship shared by the artist and the Pinault Collection. A key artist for the Collection, Damien Hirst’s work has previously been exhibited at Palazzo Grassi, where it featured in the museum’s 2006 inaugural exhibition “Where Are We Going?”. This group exhibition derived its title from the British artist’s steel and glass skeleton cabinet, Where Are We Going? Where Do We Come From? Is There a Reason? (2000-
Damien Hirst also featured in “A Post-
The 2017 exhibition is part of a calendar of monographic shows dedicated to major contemporary artists – Urs Fischer (2012), Rudolf Stingel (2013), Martial Raysse (2015) and Sigmar Polke (2016) – alternating with thematic exhibitions of works from the Pinault Collection.
Excerpt of the texte of Elena Geuna, curator of the exhibition
In 2008, off the east coast of Africa, this legendary collection of treasure, lost beneath the Indian Ocean for around 2,000 years, was discovered and then slowly brought up from the depths of the sea. Following a complex underwater excavation, numerous sculptures and objects, made of many different materials, saw the light of day once more. Although the sea had returned the treasures, it had left its mark on them. The artefacts – silent witnesses in a remote, underwater world for two millennia – emerged from the water newly clad in spectacular colours and shapes: centuries of growth, in corals, sea fans, sponges and layers of marine deposits.
According to myth, corals were born from drops of blood oozing into the sea from a sack carried by Perseus that contained the head of the Medusa. Coral hardens as it comes into contact with the air, so it remained anchored to the artefacts salvaged from the Apistos. Some of the recovered objects underwent restoration, although vestiges of the underwater world remained. Museum copies were also made that imagined the pieces in their complete, undamaged states. It was decided to leave some artworks in the condition in which they were found, as an opportunity to examine our perception of how nature modifies manufactured objects. It is Venice’s Dogana da Mar, the Punta della Dogana, which juts out like the prow of a ship into the Grand Canal, that now houses these coral-
The opportunity today to admire this extraordinary legacy in Venice – the peerless city of the sea, a crossroads between East and West – breathes new life into the legend of the ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’, and reveals the extent of Amotan’s ambitions as a collector. ‘For it was a museum, within whose walls an intelligent and prodigal hand had assembled every treasure of nature and art.’ With encyclopaedic interests, obsessed with the desire to ‘accumulate’, Amotan appears to have been a singular collector, wanting almost to embrace and possess the whole world. Among his objects, we encounter many artistic styles in a vast variety of artefacts and sculptures (some with recognisable iconography) and art from a wide range of cultures: from ancient Egypt to India, western Africa to Classical Greece and imperial Rome.
Freedom of expression, eclectic sources and a distinctive vision are powerful features of this unique collection, which is suspended between the past and the present, astonishment and dismay. Mythology is certainly a hugely important subject: gods and heroes are protagonists in many of the works, and the human need to explain reality through fantasy spans centuries, continents and cultures. The power of the imagination succeeds in breaking through every boundary including knowledge: ‘everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear’.3 Amotan perfectly embodies the desire for success; he is scornful of, but then overwhelmed by, fate. He is an exemplar of human frailty, of the worship of false idols, as well as, in his fortunes, of the mutability of fate –the fate that, through the ebb and flow of history, has now seen these treasures restored to their original glory after two millennia resting at the bottom of the ocean.
Exhibition 9 April -
Context of the exhibition
In 2008, a vast wreckage site was discovered off the coast of East Africa. The finding lent credence to the legend of Cif Amotan II, a freed slave from Antioch (north-
Bloated with excess wealth, he proceeded to build a lavish collection of artefacts deriving from the lengths and breadths of the ancient world. The freedman’s one hundred fabled treasures – commissions, copies, fakes, purchases and plunder – were brought together on board a colossal ship, the Apistos (translates from Koine Greek as the ‘Unbelievable’), which was destined for a temple purpose-
The collection lay submerged in the Indian Ocean for some two thousand years before the site was discovered in 2008, near the ancient trading ports of Azania (south-