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Imagine finding a shipwreck off the coast of East Africa. The vessel, once belonging to Cif Amotan II and full of over 100 treasures, objects, and artifacts, has remained submerged underwater for more than two thousand years. Legend has it that Amotan was a freed slave from Antioch who lived in the mid-first and early-second centuries CE. As a free man, he gathered a great fortune and built a collection of art from the ancient world. In the hopes of creating a museum, his ship the Apistos (meaning “Unbelievable” in Koine Greek) set sail filled with his collection, ultimately meeting its demise at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
It was found there in 2008, or so we’re told in Damien Hirst’s exhibition “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” currently on view at both the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana in Venice, curated by Elena Geuna. It is the artist’s first major solo show in Italy since 2004, but even outside of Europe we haven’t seen much of Hirst lately. Maybe it’s because he’s been financing the excavation of the Unbelievable—or dreaming up its contents—for the past 10 years. Whatever his truth for remaining under the radar, this exhibition requires of visitors a willingness to enter a moment of suspended disbelief in order to take in all that Amotan’s collection has to offer.
Viewers will fail to spot any mirrored shelves of pills, spirals of paint, framed butterflies, colorful polka dots, or animals in formaldehyde here. But Hirst’s hand (whether actually or metaphorically) is certainly present. There’s an Aztec calendar stone, a collection of gold nuggets, a large clam specimen, ancient ingots, antique torsos, Grecian nudes, masks, a peculiar Sphinx, the bust of an unknown pharaoh, a sacrificial bowl, helmets and swords, a variety of jugs and vessels—some appearing to be reproductions, others still covered in barnacles seemingly straight from the sea. There’s a bronze several stories high, Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement), in the atrium of the Palazzo Grassi. Another monumental sculpture, The Warrior and the Bear, refers to the Greek ritual arkteia, where Athenian girls imitated bears while dancing and performing sacrifices.
Perhaps, with this show, Hirst is trying to own a swath of art history, and in turn question our very belief in art, history, and mythologies. And perhaps we should take a cue from the very name of Amotan’s ship. Either way, Hirst has truly created a show worth spending time with and getting submerged in.