Tricksters on the move:  Damien Hirst's exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable at the François Pinault Foundation

This year Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Gogana hosted Damien Hirst’s Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. A fictional story served as the leitmotif for this exhibition in the two Venetian museums, both operated by François Pinault Foundation. The tale is about the discovery of the wreck of the Apistos ship, found in the Indian Ocean in 2008. In the wreck, the treasures of Cif Amotan II were hidden from the moment that it was sunk in the first century.

During the preparation of an exposition, it doesn’t seem illogical that a museum is wondering how to attract potential visitors. The book The Experience Economy, written by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, may provide a good answer. After an agricultural, industrial and service economy, we are now in an experiential economy. In this model, the expo in the museum must be as authentic as possible to the public so that they will have an unforgettable experience.

Before the viewer starts the exhibition, he is enchanted by the architecture and location of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana, both situated along the wonderful Canal Grande. Once the visitor has taken his first steps into the museum, all attention goes to Hirst’s monumental works like the sculpture Demon with Bowl. All present works of art were linked to the shared story. The museum and the artist brought the tale to the visitor through text, photo and video. A clever move by Hirst and the Francois Pinault Foundation because people have been fascinated by all kinds of mythological stories since ancient times. In the book The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, Michael Witzel describes man as a homo fabulans. This statement emphasizes that we love stories, but we also need them to structure our life.

Through the exhibition, the works of art and the story go hand in hand.  The museum displays a lot of sculpture with classical motifs such as the Aztec snake god Quetzalcoatl and the Greek gorgon Medusa. Although the visitors know that the story is made up, this fiction is broken by the appearance of Mickey Mouse. The Disney character, both as a subject of sculpture and a photograph, pops up as an anachronism in the exhibition story. As a result, the audience considers the story no longer as authentic. Nevertheless, Hirst and the Pinault Foundation succeed in giving the visitor an authentic experience, simply by the fact a spurious experience doesn’t exist.  It seems that this confrontation leads to controversy, because most of the people, such as critics and journalists, can’t put their own authentic experience in the context just described.

This analysis of this practice, reinforced by the motif of Mickey Mouse, can be associated with Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum theory. The French culture pessimist states that technological means, such as television and computers, produce images where the real world no longer serves as a reference. Because of this tendency the society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is a simulation of reality. The discourse is explained by this Frenchman through different cases including Disneyland.

These arguments unmask the Pinault Foundation and Hirst as tricksters. On the one hand, they try to fool the audience with an incorrect fictional story. On the other hand, the exhibition offers insight into some contemporary trends. In this way, it is impossible to love tricksters by heart. At the same time they can’t be completely condemned.

Benedict Vandaele

© 2019 by Benedict Vandaele

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