It's a tough life, visiting exotic locales, taking in the sun on a foreign shore, tasting the local brews and wandering the winding streets of a mediaeval city- but someone's got to do it. Venice can be a frantic buzz, bursting full of other people just like me who have the cheek to be there at the same time, and looking at the same things ... but there are quieter places where hardly anyone gets mugged, you rarely tread in something awful, and a sense of history echoes back to the sound of your own footsteps.
Sunday was my chance to see Damien Hurst's latest offering: his new exhibition staged for the Venice Biennialle, 'Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable'.
The Guardian loves it...
... the Telegraph sort-of-hates it, (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/damien-hirst-treasures-wreck-unbelievable-review-spectacular/)
…. but if you're not popping over to Venice in the next 6 months, then here's wot Our Damien has been up to, using his millions to create some Big Art about Truth, Lies. Faith, Belief, and Remembering. As you enter, 'authentic' film footage recounts the story of a fabulous treasure ship from the second century, newly discovered on the bed of the Indian Ocean. The museum entrance sports the following quote over the entrance:
With that we're off, wandering around displays of 'discovered' objects from the sea-bed that owe more to the stop-motion cinematic genius of Ray Harryhausen ('Clash of the Titans', 'Jason and the Argonauts'...) than real history- but never mind. There are monsters, heroes, heroines, gods and demi-gods. Amidst the swords and sorcery, there’s occasionally a hint of real human feeling lurking inside all the cleverness- but let's start with the awesome stuff. Imagine an 18 metre-tall cast-metal giant demon, headless, bursting with muscular malevolence. It's a colossus, a gob-smackingly big piece of engineering that makes you wonder how they even got it into the building (through the roof, apparently).
There's a horse-rider under attack from an enormous sea-serpent, and evidently not enjoying the experience.
Here's a magnificently resplendent mermaid, blasting up from the waves accompanied by sundry crustaceans, molluscs and other assorted denizens of the deep.
Clash of the Titans-territory again. Andromeda, menaced by the approaching Kraken without a rescuer in sight.
A Warrior-woman rides into battle astride a rearing Grizzly.
The Hindu goddess Kali meets the Hydra of Greek myth in a celebrity death-match- underwater.
A massive Sun-disc from the time of the Incas- and Indiana Jones.
But Our Damien is throwing in clues all the time. Can you spot one here?
Third one down. I probably bought my grandson one when he was six. Now check out these helmets.
Nobody ever made winged helmets like that. (They get knocked off too easily in battle, unless you're an extra in Lord of the Rings.) As for the goddess Kali's swords- they're mediaeval two-handed broadswords from North-Western Europe, not the usual tableware for a Hindu deity.
This 'Proteus' is actually based on John Merrick, the original Elephant Man of the Victorian era (a gentle human being).
And this? The original lab-rat from a rather dubious experiment appeared on Have I Got News For You as the end-of-show caption competition. (Paul Merton: 'Pardon?')
This is Quexacoatl, the Mexican snake god. Or is it Optimus Prime?
So by the time you get to this one, you know that Damian Hurst is truly taking the Michael.
Sometimes, it's banal. A jade Buddha, a mocked up sculpture of Durer's Praying Hands, the phallic Chinese Drummers, a busted Bacchus. Is Hurst saying that the Disney organisation repackage ancient myths for modern consumption? (So what's new?) That's him with Mickey, by the way, best buddies by the look of it.
One particular piece is horribly real- of a life-size Minotaur raping an Athenian girl. No, I'm not showing the picture. The outrage on the girl's face, the pain and disgust... is that art, or pornography of the worst kind? Is it an attempt to portray sexual assault for what it really is... or just bad art? I can't decide. Looking back over the whole show, you can see Hurst is trying to provoke reactions. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. There's Pride... Horror ... Sorrow... Awe... Mystery... Pathos.. But curiously, we see nothing about Love.
The gallery's first opening to the general public (on two sites) came on Palm Sunday. Around Venice that morning, worshippers had processed through the city waving palm branches, celebrating a divinity and humanity that was more down-to-earth than the flash-bang mythology of the exhibition. Palm Sunday remembers a wild parade through an excited crowd wanting a Messiah. They sing their Hosannas. A Temple market is trashed. Protests are made, and broken bodies mended. Children sing in delight. In that story there are no monsters, the only swords are wielded by ignorant disciples, soldiers and Temple guards. The lurking horrors don't have teeth or scales- just clubs and whips. Does this story contain any more truth than the tales told by Damien, Donald or Mickey? Historically yes- but curiously, there seems to be more human compassion in it, too.
Believable? Unbelievable? This Easter, as we see what's happening in the world, what do you and I want to believe in- and Why?