Venice is one of our favorite places on earth, so last April after a visit to my brother and his wife in Rome, Barb and I took the train north for a four day stay. On the vaporetto ride to our hotel in the Dorsoduro, we noticed in front of the Palazzo Grassi a large grotesque statue of a horse and rider being eaten by a snake. There was also a sign promoting the new exhibition by Damien Hirst, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”.
We immediately purchased tickets online, and the next day arrived early at the Palazzo. The first thing that caught our attention was a giant bronze-like sculpture that filled the atrium of the building, several stories high. The conceit of the exhibition is that a shipwreck was discovered off the coast of east Africa, full of treasures accumulated by a freed slave from the Greek era. The slave’s name was Cif Amotan II, an anagram of “I am fiction”. In addition to the sculpture, jewelry and coins, there were videos showing how the booty was brought up from the ocean floor.
We quickly realized that Hirst was pulling our leg. The scale of the exhibit was breathtaking, ten years in the making. The exhibit was so large that it continued at another venue, the Punta della Dogana.
Reviews of the exhibit were very mixed and provoked strong negative reactions. One reviewer said “it is not an exhibition. It’s a showroom for oligarchs.” Since Barb and I are not oligarchs and are not allergic to kitsch, we were among those who loved it.
This April saw the opening of a new exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, “Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds”. Underwater archeologist Franck Goddio and his team discovered the site of two cities that had been on the coast of Egypt, but over the course of centuries had slipped into the Mediterranean.
See the similarities?
As we walked through this exhibit, we were struck by the comparatively small scale of the authentic discovery relative to Hirst’s extravaganza. There was great effort involved in mounting this show – door frames of the museum were removed to make way for the large granite statues displayed in the main hall. The fact that these two cities that were thriving for centuries and are now underwater is a reminder of how transient were are, and that a place like Venice will undoubtedly be swallowed up by the sea like Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.
I’m grateful to have seen both exhibits, and each of them reinforces my appreciation of art and reality.