This remarkable specimen was found among the wreckage of the ’Unbelievable’ (or Apistos in the original Greek); a second century galleon, filled with treasure, which met a tragic fate and floundered off the coast of East Africa. According to artist Damien Hirst anyway! This summer I had the privilege of visiting Venice for the Biennale for the first time, and while I was there I took in his new exhibition. You can see it at the Punta Della Dogana until 3rd December this year.
The information that accompanies the various artefacts describes how Hirst took it upon himself to oversee their recovery from the bottom of the ocean. Across two sites, echoey rooms are crammed with hundreds of objects. Some appear encrusted with corals from the ocean floor. These are accompanied by large photographs, and videos of divers undertaking their groundbreaking ‘discoveries’. There is no hint of irony, even when recognisable characters such as Mickey Mouse emerge among sphinxes and golden amulets.
This show was ten years in the making and the amount of effort and money that has gone into this monumental work of fiction is truly unbelievable. It has been called a "meditation of belief and truth" which perhaps is because the authenticity of objects, ‘art’ or ‘artefacts’, is largely related to their place in both stories and spaces. Hirst has set the stage, he has told the story – but it is the viewer who decides what it is they are seeing. Even the most sceptical however, must concede that these dubious truths will probably sell for millions of pounds. The artist has the last laugh.
As an artist-educator I chose to show some photographs of this exhibition to the children I teach to see what they thought. I was a little surprised but pleased to hear the hypothesis that maybe Walt Disney was influenced by an earlier mythical character resembling Mickey – because why else would his 2000 year old likeness be found under the sea?! Regardless of whether this is true or not, it makes for a good story. It shows that that child used their reason and imagination to get there. This is much more important than being able to repeat pre-packaged answers.
In a recent discussion on ‘post-truth’ at the Science Museum, reporter Evan Davis called for more humility among would-be truth tellers. He advocated meeting people that we disagree with "where they are", with questions rather than assigning them into the category of ‘ignorant’ straight away. To be honest, this contrasted rather sharply with the museum Director Ian Blatchford’s assertion “I just don’t like talking to stupid people”, after having described how he barred someone from a Science Museum event due to their opinions on childhood vaccination. This struck me as jarring with the museum's objective of being an educational resource for all, by implying that only already learned people are worth investing in.
As a result of our class discussion: 'What is treasure?', among the crowns and pirate ships, the class produced several sculptures of pet bunny rabbits, because, as one girl explained to me “treasure isn’t just things”. The treasures we create or curate in the case of historical objects are just cyphers for our own frames of reference and value systems at the given moment. It doesn’t matter if Hirst’s objects are ‘real’ or not; it only matters if someone wants to look at (or buy) them. Through using wonder and imagination, Hirst has unsettled our confidence in what we know to be true. He opens the question of value; historical, educational, artistic and monetary value.