Venice: Beyond the main Biennale

The official Art Biennale spreads across the entire city of Venice and seeing everything is quite the undertaking; the main spaces of the Giardani and the Arsenale alone take hours to cover.  However, there are many country pavilions and large scale installations to be seen elsewhere. In addition to the Biennale, Damien Hirst’s fantastical Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is currently on show at the Palazzo Grassi, and there are many impressive, permanent collections, such as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, that are essential viewing.

Among the large scale sculptural work  installed for Art Biennale are Lorenzo Quinn’s Support and  James Lee Byars’ The Goldon Tower. Although Quinn sounds like an Irishman, it’s a distant connection. He’s actually the son of Hollywood actor Anthony Quinn. In his work Support (pictured above), two giant hands emerge from the Grand Canal to support the famous Ca’ Sagreda palace. The Goldon Tower —literally ‘gold-on-a-tower’ — is a gilded phallus of more than 65 feet that, although sleek and modern, seems very at home among the fading opulence of the Campo San Vio, a short walk from the Ponte dell’ Accademia.

The Goldon Tower, James Lee Byars, Venice Biennale 2017.

The Hong Kong pavilion Songs for Disaster Relief (Campo della Tana) by Samson Young is an exploration of the confusing concept of the charity single. A large quote ‘The world is yours but also mine, but basically yours’ is rendered in neon in the entrance  and sets the tone for the installations. Various sound, light and sculptural works reinterpret famous songs like We Are The World (hilariously presented as a song whispered by a choir) and Do They Know It’s Christmas.

Damien Hirst‘s latest show is called Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable and the sheer scale and ambition of exhibition alone make it worth a visit. It tells the story of the shipwreck of an ancient ship, which is called the Unbelieveable, and the discovery of its sunken cargo which is presented here as recovered historical artefacts. It is fitting that these treasures are on display in Venice, with its close relationship with the sea.

The ‘story’ behind the exhibits is as important to the exhibition as the ‘treasures’. The value of one is contingent on the value given to the other. How we choose to view the ‘treasures’ depends in part on whether we believe their story – and here the story is delivered with conviction. There is an extensive programme which outlines, with commentary from notable historians, on the provenance of the treasures. Part of the exhibition is a video installation that shows the treasures being discovered by deep-sea divers. It looks real. It must be true.

‘We accept reality so readily – perhaps because we sense that nothing is real.’ Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph

Deep sea diver discovering artefacts from the wreck of the Unbelievable, Damien Hirst. 2017
Colossus statue in atrium, Palazzo Grassi. Damien Hirst, 2017.

The collection on display is impressive. There are statues of all shapes and sizes, including the massive statue on display in the atrium (pictured above). There are cabinets of smaller items (coins and jewelry), lightboxes of photos of the artefacts underwater and sketches and drawings of the artefacts made for the catalogue. It is all very plausible for an exhibition of this type. It appears just like a museum of classical archaeology in Athens or Crete. Indeed, the Palazzo Grassi was recently in use as an archaeological museum. There is a strong attempt at authenticity in play here and the treasures are very convincing – at first glance. Many are covered with coral or limpets. But this is when the fun starts.

Encrusted Mickey Mouse statue, Damien Hirst 2017.
Mowgli and Baloo statue, Damien Hirst 2017
Treasure from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Damien Hirst.

On closer examination, the treasures have further secrets to reveal. There are items connected to modern pop culture, like a encrusted statue of Mickey Mouse, alongside convincing reproductions of ancient Egyptian, Aztec and Chinese art. That they are ‘reproductions’ becomes evident so is the whole story fake? We humans have always believed what we want to believe irrespective of the evidence in front of us.