What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark?

It would be like sleep without dreams.

— Werner Herzog1At the 2:58 mark here.

Critics are always chasing the next big thing, just like those old Nantucket whalemen. They set out into the immense art-world sea. They scan the art-horizon, looking hard for a bubble, a breech, or a blow — some sign of life. When an art-leviathan betrays itself, the critics lower their little newspaper or blog-boats, pursue the beast, and start hurling review-harpoons. With any luck, they subdue it, and drag it to the side of the mother-ship. Then the art historians and the “culture workers” begin their melancholy butcheries. One might skin the monster’s penis, another will crack the head open and bail out the spermaceti — the oily treasure that gives the sperm whale its name, while yet another will probe the corpse’s bowels for nuggets of ambergris — a type of whaleshit more precious than gold. Once the body is denuded of its strange trophies and mysterious treasures, they’ll chop up what’s left, toss it into a cauldron, boil it down to render the corpse into something useful — render it down to its greasy, pure, essential meaning.

Culture-making is like the whaling industry — reductive, predatory and, when seen up close, it’s kind of disgusting. The “culture industry” works like a well-oiled machine, as long as the prey — the talent — plays along. But once in a great while, a sixty-ton monster slaps his or her tail, upsets the whaleboats, gets up a head of steam, and staves the ship. Something like that is happening, right now, in Venice.

De Aquatilibus. [Published between 1551 and 1558]. Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-95207.

By any measure, Damien Hirst’s current exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, is a whale of a show — and the critics are dutifully tossing their harpoons. They will tell you the exhibition is not just a disaster, it is the “greatest flop in living memory,” it is  “undoubtedly one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade,” it is “quite frankly, absurd. It should be dumped at the bottom of the sea.” It is, according to the melliloquent Edward Lucie-Smith, a “gallimaufry of anachronisms.” One critic invites us to “look on these works and despair.” Some critics have written positive reviews, but they are few indeed.

The American scholars at Artforum continue their strategy for dealing with ideologically insolent art — near-total radio silence. Any number of our learned critic/historians might relish the opportunity to publicly trash Hirst and his show (as they do in private), but they are smart enough to know that doing this might have unintended consequences.

Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic of the New York Times, attempts a tactical abdication — he chooses not to play Ahab to Hirst’s briny behemoth of a show. Cotter responds to it in passing, with a strange non-review review, at the end of his round-up of this year’s Venice Biennale and related events:

Maybe because I was coming to Venice this time from a stay in Rome, I’d already had my fill, in art, of antique bloviation and bad Baroque, and here it was again on the Grand Canal. […][E]xperience has taught me that damning criticism can be as useful, promotion-wise, as praise. So I don’t have much to say about “Treasures of the Wreck” except that it’s there; that some people care; and that it’s irrelevant to anything I know about that matters.2Cotter, Holland. Venice Biennale: Whose Reflection Do You See? New York Times. May 22, 2017.

The problem is that Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is not just any whale — it’s another Moby Dick. It is gigantic, labyrinthine, and complex. It is congenitally, unapologetically, discursive. It leads the beholder through little lies and grand truths, from oceanic vistas to ancient minutiae. It’s both hilarious and frightening, maddening and brilliant. Like the novel that explodes and expands the very idea of a novel, this show does the same for the “contemporary art exhibition.” And when you read each one really closely, you’ll find they are put together with otherworldly, monstrous, lapidary skill.

And when sent out into the world, both were panned by bewildered critics.

Damien Hirst. Golden Monkey. Gold, silver, black and white opals. 2011.
The accompanying text reads: “The large corn cob may indicate this simian sculpture is of Andean origin. Maize worship was an important feature of Mesoamerican religion, corn being emblematic of the synchronized human cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The extraordinary opal eyes appear to have been added at a later date.” A solid-gold micro-swipe at New World critics and detractors?

 

Damien Hirst. Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement). Painted Resin. 2014.
The accompanying text reads: “Standing at just over eighteen meters, this monumental figure is a copy of a smaller bronze recovered from the wreckage. The discovery of the statue appeared to solve a mystery of a disembodied bronze head with saurian features excavated in the Tigris Valley in 1932. Characterised by monstrous gaping jaws and bulbous eyes, the head was initially identified as Pazuzu, the Babylonian ‘king of the wind demons’. The unearthing of this figure has since called this identification into question, due to the absence of Pazuzu’s customary attributes of wings, scorpion tail and snake-headed penis. Ancient Mesopotamian demons were complex primeval creatures that exhibited elements of the human, animal, and divine. Embodying a transgressive response to rigid social structures, these hybrid beings could be variously apotropaic, benign and malevolent. One theory posits that the bowl held in the demon’s outstretched arm was a vessel used for collecting human blood, conforming to the contemporary perception that demons were universally destructive beings. It seems more likely that the figure served as a guardian to the home of an elite person.”

Hirst’s exhibition fills two immense venues in Venice, the Palazzo Grassi on the San Marco side of the Grand Canal, and the cavernous Punta Della Dogana in the Dorsodoro. Entering the Palazzo Grassi, one is confronted with a sixty-foot tall colossus, a naked, taloned, headless monster that fills the three-story atrium. The remains of a menagerie of primitive sea fauna adheres to the body: barnacles, corals shaped like brains, make-believe anemones, madrepores, psuedo-polyps, sea-worms. The creatures share the patina of the sea-monster’s flesh, these accretions appear as a part of him, growing out of his skin like some bizarre and florid contagion.

Damien Hirst. Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement). Painted Resin. 2014. Installation view.

The price of admission to Hirst’s exhibition is consent to a certain fantastic fiction. This is, of course, commonplace — we do it every time we open a novel, go to the movies, watch the news, or enter the voting booth. Belief is not benign. If Hirst is just yanking our collective chain, his big joke is no joke at all. Empires and carnage are the potential consequences of consensual delusion, and this notion is but one of the engines that drives Hirst’s extravaganza.

It’s a maritime fairy-tale we are asked to believe. The objects here, we are told, may have been collected by the legendary Cif Amotan II, a freed slave who lived in Antioch in the first and second centuries CE.3Anagramming Hirst’s titles is a bit of a parlor game, here “Cif Amotan II” sorts out to “I am a fiction.” Or, I suppose, “I fit on a mica.” Amotan became spectacularly rich as a freedman, and proceeded to build a “lavish collection of artefacts deriving from the lengths and breadths of the ancient world.”4From the exhibition guide, available here. Amotan’s treasures — “commissions, copies, fakes, purchases and plunder” — were loaded onto a ship named the Apistos (which translates from Greek to the Unbelievable), which promptly sank in the Indian Ocean, consigning the treasure to the briny depths, the mechanics of time and decay, and the underworld of myth and legend. Two thousand years later, the site of the wreck was discovered, and after a decade of underwater excavations and recovery work, the treasures were delivered from the sea to be displayed here in Venice, a perfect venue, the most amphibious of cities, and place that lives outside of time.

Damien Hirst. Scale model of the ‘Unbelievable’ with suggested cargo locations. 2015.
The accompanying text reads: “This scale model (1:32) recreates the Apistos using the results of research undertaken by the Centre for Maritime Archaeology, University of Southampton. The suggested original storage locations of the one hundred treasures recovered from the wreckage – over three quarters of which feature in this exhibition – are further detailed in the digital model. The most reliable extant account of the Apistos was found on a medieval copy of an ancient manuscript and is attributedto a sailor named Lucius Longinus (who is also recorded on a papyrus excavated from the Red Sea port of Myos Hormos). Longinus reports that the component parts of the Apistos were constructed in Alexandria and transported down the Nile before being assembled at Myos Hormos. The ship is calculated to have exceeded over sixty metres in length, its cargo weighing over 460 tonnes, including a twenty-six-metre tall obelisk, which is presumed to have been installed on the deck of the ship.”

Damien Hirst. Scale model of the ‘Unbelievable’ with suggested cargo locations. 2015. Detail.
The model comes complete with an interactive app that specifies the details of each object loaded into the ship. Some never made it into the exhibition, like this one, The Obelisk of Failure.

The exhibition guide informs us that many of the objects have not been restored, and are “heavily encrusted in corals and marine life, at times rendering their forms virtually unrecognizable.”5Guide. 3. Furthermore, “contemporary museum copies of the recovered objects are also on display, which imagine the works in their original, undamaged forms.”6Guide. 3.

Damien Hirst. Submerged Demon with Bowl. 2015.
One of a series of large-scale backlit photographs documenting the recovery of the objects from the seabed.

The colossus in the atrium is one of these copies. It is a resin reproduction, a phony of a fake wrapped in a lie, made enormous to fill its new, palatial home. The original, bronze fake is not on display, but can be seen, it seems, as it awaits its recovery on the floor of the sea, in a large backlit photograph nearby. The colossal copy, if we believe the story, is an imagined version of the work in its “original, undamaged form.” Yet the copy is covered with far more maritime incrustations — markers of sea-slumber, age, and decay — than the “original.” If this Demon started its life festooned with marine life, did it anticipate its own undersea future?

And, why not give him back his head?

Damien Hirst. Head of a Demon, Excavated 1932 (Exhibition Enlargement). 2015. Bronze.

That head rests a few feet from his body. In an embellishment to the main narrative, we are told it was excavated decades ago near the Tigris, and it was “initially identified as Pazuzu, the Babylonian ‘king of the wind demons.'”7Guide. 36. The discovery of the Unbelievable’s beheaded demon body “appeared to solve a mystery” by disproving the earlier Pazuzu identification — but if not Pazuzu, who is he?8Guide. 36.

William Blake (1757-1827). The Ghost of a Flea. c.1819-20.
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05889

He bears an uncanny resemblance to the monster in William Blake’s little masterpiece, The Ghost of a Flea (1819-20), now at the Tate Gallery in London. The Tate tells us that the figure came to Blake as a “spiritual vision,” a hallucination that informed him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were “by their nature bloodthirsty to excess.”9From the Tate’s display caption. The anonymous museum caption concludes with the observation that “Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.”10Ibid. It is just this sort of anonymous, obvious and just-so-slightly-condescending  museum-speak that Hirst pokes at throughout the exhibition with captions of his own. For example, we are informed that a Roman spoon of the ligula type (which is not present) was “used for eating pulpy food.” That seems to be a reasonable deduction. The pitch-perfect and very amusing texts are credited to Aime Corry.

The ghost of a flea is a giant, bloodthirsty monster — and is the soul of Man. This soul-monster has found its true home inside an insatiable, reviled, pestilence-spreading, blood-sucking parasite, staring into its bowl of blood like a demented Narcissus. The painting is the result of a dream, a vision, a mystic’s kind of sight. There is nothing true here, except the type of deep truth that lurks far below the surface — in metaphor, myth, and dreams.

G. K. Chesterton tells us that the monster’s scale is a key to understanding Blake’s painting. He writes:

It will not be denied that Blake shows the best part of a mystic’s attitude in seeing that the soul of a flea is ten thousand times larger than a flea. But the really interesting point is much more striking. It is the essential point upon which all primary understanding of the art of Blake really turns. The point is this: that the ghost of a flea is not only larger than a flea, the ghost of a flea is actually more solid than a flea. The flea himself is hazy and fantastic compared to the hard and massive actuality of his ghost. When we have understood this, we have understood the second of the great ideas in Blake—the idea of ideas.11Chesterton’s biography of Blake is available here.

If Blake had made the soul of a flea ten thousand times larger than an actual flea, Hirst’s is larger again by several orders of magnitude. If Blake’s painting makes the ghost solid, Hirst translates Blake’s image into an even-more-solid object. Hirst is bigger and more than Blake, and he shows this through Blake’s idiosyncratic allegory of greed and insatiability. As soon as this art-historical in-joke reveals itself, Hirst undermines it. The hollow shell of a monster is beheaded, symbolically castrated, and left for dead.12See A Little History of Castration, here, page 82. And yet he lives, eyes wide and tongue slithering, to the annoyance of critics and the delight of the crowd. Hirst has created yet another zombie.

We could stop here, at Hirst’s art-historical, slapstick punchline, but there is still more to this Demon. He skips like a stone through time — beginning from his ersatz-ancient birth, to the actual-but-ever-elusive present moment, and from the present moment back, touching down in Pazuzu’s Mesopotamia, and once again on Blake’s flea-bitten nightmare. This Demon folds time onto itself, the ancient past and the object’s future are both remembered and anticipated — it is this sort of paradoxical time-bending, of recollecting forward, that is a foundation of Hirst’s entire Cosmos-building extravaganza.13Hirst’s exhibition shares much with the idiosyncratic Cosmos-builders of the New Museum’s recent exhibition, The Keeper. For a detailed note on recollecting forward, see this.

Art, specifically, allows this sort of strange temporal experience, this very special effect. Art historians Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood write:

No device more effectively generates the effect of a doubling or bending of time than the work of art, a strange kind of event whose relation to time is plural. The artwork is made or designed by an individual or a group of individuals at some moment, but it also points away from that moment, backward to a remote ancestral origin, perhaps, or to a prior artifact, or to an origin outside of time, in divinity. At the same time it points forward to all its future recipients who will activate and reactivate as a meaningful event. The work of art is a message whose sender and destination are constantly shifting.14Nagel, A. and C. Wood. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone. 9.

We all know that time is linear, unidirectional, and inescapable. Placing things outside their proper place in time is a mistake, an anachronism, an affront to the natural order of things, to “truth.” But what if the very idea of anachronism is the mistake, itself a chronic misfit — and art operates in time far differently than we do.

There is no anachronism. But there are modes of connection that in a positive sense we can call anachronies: events, ideas, significations that are contrary to time, that make meaning circulate in a way that escapes any contemporaneity, any identity of time with ‘itself.’ An anachrony is a word, an event, or a signifying sequence that has left ‘its’ time, and in this way is given the capacity to define completely original points of orientation (les aiguillages), to carry out leaps from one temporal line to another.”

— Jacques Rancière15Rancière, Jacques. The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth (English Translation). InPrint: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 3. Available here.

Hirst’s Treasures allows us access to this slippery truth. Hirst dives over and over again, into the realm of anachrony, of timelessness — the abyss of myth, ritual, the divine, dreams and nightmares, and deep time.

Damien Hirst. Head of a Sphinx. 2012. Silver, paint.

Damien Hirst. Head of a Sphinx. 2012. Silver, paint.
This panoramic photograph describes a 180 degree view of the front of the object.

(Foreground) Damien Hirst. The Warrior and the Bear. 2015. Silver, paint.
(Background) Damien Hirst. Sinner. 2011. Silver, paint.
Elsewhere, a text tells us that the Warrior and Bear subject “relates to the ancient Greek maturation ritual of arkteia, which involved groups of Athenian girls imitating she-bears, dancing and performing sacrifices. This act of orchestrated wildness served to appease Artemis — goddess of the hunt — following the Athenians’ slaying of a bear. While the practice of arkteia was intended to expel the animalistic qualities of a woman’s nature in preparation for a life of domesticity, this figure subverts the tradition by celebrating the ferocity that inhered within the goddess.” This exposition, like all of Hirst’s references, is entirely historically accurate.

(L) Damien Hirst. Penitent. 2011. Silver, paint.
(R) Damien Hirst. Sinner. 2011. Silver, paint.

Damien Hirst. Penitent, view of back of object. 2011. Silver, paint.

Damien Hirst. Huehueteotl and Olmec Dragon. 2016. Silver, paint.

Hirst mines this underwaterworld, and dredges up, for example, a collection of silver objects on display at the Palazzo Grassi. Underneath their faux-thalassic encrustations, we behold Hirst’s treasures: an Egyptian figure, encumbered with barnacles and brain coral, a wild Greek huntress, fierce and ascendant, a pair of human heads, each one equally blinkered and bound by either penance or sin, and finally, a child’s robot. Here’s another gag — the robot is not some Mesoamerican god, it is a Transformer.

These shiny treasures vibrate, rapidly cycling between two temporal poles — the present, marked by the contemporaneity of the toy robot, or the fashionable fetish gear encasing the Sinner and Penitent, and the deep historical past, evidenced by the Sphinx and the Warrior. This chronological vibration cycles through our everyday kind of time, a type of time that is divisible between past, present, and future — between remembrance and anticipation and now. But the florid maritime growths that afflict each artwork suggest yet another type of temporality — a sort-of oceanic time, the temporality of the abyss, the unbounded, cyclic, eternal non-time of aeon.

Sigmund Freud opens Civilization and Its Discontents with a discussion, suggested to him by his friend Romain Rolland, of the idea of “oceanic feeling,” a sensation of eternity. Freud writes:

[Rolland] was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded — as it were, ‘oceanic‘. This feeling, he adds, is purely a subjective fact, not an article of faith, it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.16Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton. 24. Freud was skeptical, indicating that this oceanic feeling is by no means universal.

The ancient Greeks made the distinction between these two types of time — chronological and eternal, knowable and mystical — and gave each one its god. Hirst’s glittering treasures rub up against both of them. These Treasures are burnished by the friction between Cronos and Aion — between history and knowledge, and mystery and faith.

Damien Hirst. Cronos Devouring his Children. 2011. Bronze.
“An unflinching portrait of base degradation, this sculpture depicts the Greek god Cronos consuming his own offspring. The myth tells of a prophesy that warned Cronos he would be deposed by his progeny, just as he had overthrown his own, tyrannical father. He thus proceeded to swallow each child borne of his wife, Rhea. The baby Zeus, who was to fulfill the prophesy, is present at the base of the sculpture. The story of Cronos was later conflated with Dante’s tale of the thirteenth-century nobleman Ugolino della Gherardesca. The starving Ugolino is damned eternally for the sin of eating his offspring, and became — for generations of artists — a symbol of the loss of reason in the inexplicable forces of chaos in the world.”  Here Cronos himself is devoured by the fauna of the sea.

Damien Hirst. Cronos Devouring his Children. 2011. Bronze. Detail of the baby Zeus.

Damien Hirst. Cronos Devouring his Children. 2011. Bronze. Detail.

As I have noted earlier, repetition is one of the hallmarks of cosmos-building, and so it is with these Treasures as well. If there is one figure that repeats and pervades this exhibition, it is Medusa. A semi-precious, gorgeous-green malachite Medusa’s head is an iconic image, a distillation that serves as a cipher for the entire project — she appears on posters throughout Venice, postcards, ticket stubs, and the cover of the catalog.

Damien Hirst. The Severed Head of Medusa. 2008. Malachite.
The accompanying text from the Guide: “The Head of this Gorgon is carved entirely in verdant malachite, a photo-historic copper ore that omits poisonous dust during carving. Fourteen of the world’s most venomous snakes — rendered in exquisite detail –crown the Gorgon’s petrified features. The African rock python, horned viper, and coral snake are all represented. In the early Roman Empire, exotic snakes were sometimes awarded as tribute; in 20 BCE, the emperor Augustus was gifted a giant venomous reptile from the Indian ambassador.” Another text is available in the vitrine itself: “The story of Medusa embodies numerous dualities: beauty and horror, sex and death, poison and remedy. This carved malachite head casts Medusa as victim, her petrified expression recalling Homer’s description in The Iliad of the ‘grim mask’ of the Gorgon on Agamemnon’s shield: ‘glaring fearfully, with Terror and Panic on either side’.”

Medusa is indeed the god of not just duality, but of simultaneity, of bothness. Medusa embodies both life and death, Eros and Thanatos, male and female, poison and remedy at the same time. Medusa is the first being that might, with perfect grammatical correctness, use the pronoun “they.” “They” appear over and over again, haunting Hirst’s entire project.

Damien Hirst. Detail of Severed Heads of Medusa. 2016. Graphite, pencil, ink and gold leaf on vellum. Each of the dozens of Hirst’s gemlike drawings is inscribed with the words “In this dream.”

Damien Hirst. The Severed Head of Medusa. 2015. Crystal glass.
The accompanying text: “According to myth, the beautiful Medusa was cursed with her head of writhing snakes and the powers of petrification as unjust punishment for being raped by Poseidon. She has thus been variously cast as monster, seductress and victim. The crystal head presents her terrible fury, her pointed fangs alluding to the Gorgon’s monstrous aspects; in the Archaic period, she was sometimes shown with boar’s tusks, hands of bronze and wings.” Hirst’s contextualizing notes here, as always, are art-historically accurate. An Archaic Greek fanged Medusa can be found here, for example.

Damien Hirst. The Severed Head of Medusa. 2013. Gold, silver.
The accompanying text: “From the Roman era onwards, Medusa’s great beauty became one of her most prominent characteristics. The late-medieval poet Christine de Pizan described her as a figure of ‘such striking beauty that not only did she surpass all other women, but she also attracted to herself […] every mortal creature upon whom she looked’. In a metaphorical duplication of the Gorgon’s fatal powers, Pizan concluded that her pulchritude ‘seemed to make people immovable’.”

Damien Hirst. The Severed Head of Medusa. 2008. Bronze.
The accompanying text: “Imbued with great apotropaic powers, the Gorgon — depicted here after her decapitation at the hands of Perseus — features repeatedly in the collection. The different versions emphasise the fluidity of Medusa’s character and the unique combination of themes she personifies: horror, fear, sex, death, decapitation, female subjugation and petrification. Once severed, her head retained extraordinary transformative properties: Ovid relayed that it was Medusa’s blood, dripping from her neck and onto twigs and seaweed strands, and still harboring the power of petrification, that accounted for the existence of coral.”

Medusa appears in malachite, glass, and gold. In one green, patinated bronze iteration at the Punta Della Dogana, Medusa’s head lies on a glass table, surrounded by the broken remains of the vipers and serpents that once adorned her head. Rising out of the side of her head is a coral growth, shaped like a primeval tree. She sprouts something like the  Tree of Life, that fundamental and near-universal ur-object that unites myths and religions from around the globe. This verdant Medusa’s head stands in for a strange and monstrous Mother Earth, the progenitress of all things in this constructed cosmos.

In an astonishing essay entitled Diva Matrix, an Austrian numismatist named Alphons Barb considered a group of things that other scholars — mistakenly, in his view — have literally removed from history. Or tried to. The subjects of his investigation are small, engraved stones called “Abraxas” or “Gnostic” gems. These gems are commonly engraved with a depiction of a uterus, and are often embellished with various phallic symbols –for example, cocks (the avian kind), snakes, suggestive elongated shapes, or cocks (the other kind). These objects were popular collector’s items in the seventeenth century, even the artist Peter Paul Rubens had some, but his were fake.17Barb, A. A. Diva Matrix: A Faked Gnostic Intaglio in the Possession of P. P. Rubens and the Iconology of a Symbol. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 16, No. 3/4 (1953), 193-238.

By the nineteenth century, these stones were considered “wretched objects,” beneath the dignity of scholarly study. They were removed from collections, or hidden away in deep storage. They were given, Barb writes, “a third-class funeral,” buried under heavy spadefuls of critical contempt.18Barb. 193.

One of the objects Barb discusses, a 3rd CE Greek amulet from the collection of the British Museum. Described as “Magical gem; intaglio; haematite; engraved: ouroboros enclosing womb with key, roots, and/or serpents.”

In his consideration of these strange, magical things, Barb dives ever deeper into ancient heresies, cosmologies, and origin myths surrounding the iconology of the uterus. With each step, through erudition and iconological legerdemain, he leads us to the sea. He begins with Gnostic cosmic mythology that promoted Hystera (Womb) as creator of the universe.19Barb. 197 This myth is borrowed from an older myth, which identified the primeval womb with “the dark waters of the abyss.”20Barb. 198. In Babylonian cosmology, Thalassa (The Sea), was cut in two — “split like a shell-fish” — one half forming Earth, the other, the vault of Heaven. This, in turn, Barb argues, looks back at a mythology even more ancient. He argues that the symbolic primeval womb takes the form of a spiral, a helix, the shape of a sea-shell — “shell-fish, cockles and conchs — the sexual symbolism [of these depictions] is well documented.” The ocean is the site of the birth of Aphrodite, spawned in the sea-foam splash of Uranus’ testicles, removed from him by his son Cronos, and cast into the ocean. Botticelli delivers Venus on what Barb argues is a womb-shell. This scallop shell, in turn, appears on “innumerable sarcophagi and tombstones where not Venus but the head or bust of the deceased appear inside the shell.”21Barb. 206. Venus’ shell would return as the pilgrim’s shell, a symbol, perhaps, of Christian rebirth.

These shells are not simply ornamentation, but an allusion to “rebirth and eternal life.”22Barb. 206 Mystical rebirth, like the earthly kind, requires a womb. Throughout time the dead have been buried — returned to womb of Mother Earth before a mystical rebirth. Barb describes an ancient, esoteric, oceanic twist. He writes:

“The chthonian conception of rebirth from “Mother Earth” was gradually replaced in the upper and middle classes of later antiquity, under philosophical and theosophical influence (mystery religions), by a maritime conception, a kind of funerary “Neptunium” as opposed to the older “Plutonism.” If one had to return to the Womb to reach the sources of life eternal, why should one stop at Mother Earth, who was herself created from the first abyss, the primeval ocean. For from Okeanos, as Homer already knew, have originated all things and even the gods. To represent this “Womb of the Sea” [one would choose] the shell symbol.”23Barb. 206.

Treasures presents a collection of fake shells — fashioned from silver, gold, and bronze — throughout the exhibition. They appear like way stations, minor but necessary stops along the path of Hirst’s undersea thought-labyrinth, there to remind us that the sea is the source of all things.

Damien Hirst. A selection of eccentric flints, animal figurines and valuable shells (including cowries and a shell necklace). 2016. Glass, powder-coated aluminum, painted MDF, silicone, LED lighting, stainless steel, gold, silver, bronze, and painted bronze. Detail.

Damien Hirst. Museum Specimen of Giant Nautilus Shell. 2011. Painted bronze.

Damien Hirst. Museum Specimen of Giant Nautilus Shell (Interior Exposed). 2011. Painted bronze.

Damien Hirst. Museum Specimen of Giant Clam Shell (I). 2010. Painted bronze.

Damien Hirst. Museum Specimen of Giant Clam Shell (II). 2010. Painted bronze.

Barb makes an abrupt turn at the end of his essay. He adds an appendix, a sort of post-hoc argument overlay, which returns us to Medusa. He reminds us of Freud’s analysis of Medusa’s Head — the psychosexual link between the petrifying fear of castration and a boy-child’s first glimpse of female genitalia, and the later, comforting petrification of his own erection at the sight of the Medusan vagina.24Freud, Sigmund. Medusa’s Head (1922). Collected Papers. New York: Basic Books. 1959. Vol. 5, 105-106. Barb searches for ancient mythological support for Freud’s insight. He reminds us that Medusa’s beheading was also a creative act — at the moment Perseus sliced Medusa’s head from her body, the horse-god Pegasus and his brother Chrysador were born — delivered from the womb of Medusa’s head. Barb argues that Medusa’s head does not just function as any womb, but as the symbol of an oceanic proto-womb. He writes, “The close relationship, if not identity, of the primeval womb with the “Abyss” = the Sea tallies with the fact that Medusa’s parents are reported to have been sea-gods, she is made pregnant by Poseidon himself [and] that in modern Greek folk-lore the Gorgons are identified with Nereids.”25Barb. 210.

Barb continues by troubling the art-historical cliché that Medusa’s head performs as an apotropaic symbol on Roman sepulchral monuments. 26In fact, he calls this reading a “cheap cliché.” Barb. 201. Instead, Barb suggests, Medusa’s head functions as a primeval womb-symbol, offering the promise of rebirth and eternal life.

Hirst’s Medusa, the one from which sprouts that strange coral tree, functions as a primeval earth mother, but, like all Medusa stories, this one knots together opposites. Here she lies, an object of the earth and sea, the mother, not only of all things, but of chthonic complexity. She is simultaneously Earth Mother and Sea Mother, a god of both earthly and watery underworlds.

Damien Hirst. Metamorphosis. 2016. Bronze.
The accompanying text: “Ovid’s narrative poem, Metamorphoses presents the extraordinary wealth of Graeco-Roman myths centered around concepts of transformation, in which an individual’s altered state was at times representative of a heightened character trait. In this sculpture, the fantastical assumes a grotesquely life-like appearance through the exceptionally detailed casting.”

Damien Hirst. Metamorphosis. 2016. Bronze. Detail.
From the catalog: “Juxtaposing the chiton-swathed classical form with the vastly oversized head and legs of a fly, this sculpture evokes metamorphic stories such as that of Arachne, a Lydian woman famed for her skilled weaving. The proud Arachne challenged Athena to a spinning contest, and proceeded to craft an exquisite tapestry that expertly portrayed the gods’ transgressions. The enraged goddess responded by turning Arachne into a spider, cursed to weave for all eternity. The story can be read as a parable on the power of art and the age-old antagonism between creativity and authority. Notions of transformation — both physical and metaphorical –were powerfully felt in the ancient world and extended beyond the realm of myth; in the Greek dance of morphasmos, there performer initiated a series of animals and became spiritually possessed by each in turn.”

Damien Hirst. Metamorphosis. 2016. Bronze. Detail.
Like many of Hirst’s surprises, they only reveal themselves if the beholder considers the entire object. Stepping around this sculpture at the Punta Della Dogana, a perfectly formed vagina appears on the back of this beautiful monster’s head, suggesting a metamorphosed Medusan head-as-womb.

[Perseus] washes his victorious hands in water drawn for him; and that the Gorgon’s snaky head may not be bruised on the hard sand, he softens the ground with leaves, strews seaweed over these, and lays on this the head of Medusa, daughter of Phorcys. The fresh weed twigs, but now alive and porous to the core, absorb the power of the monster and hardens at its touch and take a strange stiffness in their stems and leaves. And the sea-nymphs test the wonder on more twigs and are delighted to find the same thing happening to them all; and by scattering these twigs as seeds, propagate the wondrous thing throughout their waters. And even till this day the same nature has remained in coral so that they harden when exposed to air, and what was a pliant twig beneath the sea is turned to stone above.

— Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IV, 740-752.27Ovid. Metamorphoses, in Ovid III, F. J. Miller, trans. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard. 230-31.

In her catalog essay, curator Elena Guena points us to this passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.28Guena, Elena. ‘The Coral Diver’ in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable: Damien Hirst. London: Other Criteria. 2017. 10 It is yet another origin story, describing the mythological creation of coral. It is not Perseus’ intention to create this strange stuff — alive, soft and billowy in the sea, but petrified into dead stone when brought into our terrestrial world — it is a mythic accident, an overflow of Medusa’s posthumous powers.29For an art-historically definitive text on Medusa’s blood and coral see Michael Cole, “Cellini’s Blood.” in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 81, No. 2, June, 1999. 215-235. In this essay, Cole argues that the peculiar turgid blood pouring out of the head of Medusa in Cellini’s Perseus, in Florence, is, indeed, stylized coral. If we can think through myth, as our ancient kin were able to, Hirst’s entire project is bathed in the blood of Medusa. His mythological subjects, both ancient and new, sprout forests of coral — they are wrapped like mummies in candy-colored, stone-like instability. This stone instability is not a product of incoherence, ambiguity, anachronism, oxymoron, or paradox — but one of an essential simulteneity that art allows us to see, and to feel. It is that old, familiar oceanic feeling — the polar opposite of polar thinking, antidote to corrosive Manichaeism, the realm beyond insufficient logics and inadequate words — that Hirst invites us to experience. He invites us to dive into the abyss, and the water is fine.

–Michael Westfall

Damien Hirst. The Collector with Friend. 2016. Bronze.

Notes   [ + ]

1. At the 2:58 mark here.
2. Cotter, Holland. Venice Biennale: Whose Reflection Do You See? New York Times. May 22, 2017.
3. Anagramming Hirst’s titles is a bit of a parlor game, here “Cif Amotan II” sorts out to “I am a fiction.” Or, I suppose, “I fit on a mica.”
4. From the exhibition guide, available here.
5, 6. Guide. 3.
7, 8. Guide. 36.
9. From the Tate’s display caption.
10. Ibid. It is just this sort of anonymous, obvious and just-so-slightly-condescending  museum-speak that Hirst pokes at throughout the exhibition with captions of his own. For example, we are informed that a Roman spoon of the ligula type (which is not present) was “used for eating pulpy food.” That seems to be a reasonable deduction. The pitch-perfect and very amusing texts are credited to Aime Corry.
11. Chesterton’s biography of Blake is available here.
12. See A Little History of Castration, here, page 82.
13. Hirst’s exhibition shares much with the idiosyncratic Cosmos-builders of the New Museum’s recent exhibition, The Keeper. For a detailed note on recollecting forward, see this.
14. Nagel, A. and C. Wood. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone. 9.
15. Rancière, Jacques. The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth (English Translation). InPrint: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 3. Available here.
16. Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton. 24. Freud was skeptical, indicating that this oceanic feeling is by no means universal.
17. Barb, A. A. Diva Matrix: A Faked Gnostic Intaglio in the Possession of P. P. Rubens and the Iconology of a Symbol. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 16, No. 3/4 (1953), 193-238.
18. Barb. 193.
19. Barb. 197
20. Barb. 198.
21. Barb. 206. Venus’ shell would return as the pilgrim’s shell, a symbol, perhaps, of Christian rebirth.
22. Barb. 206
23. Barb. 206.
24. Freud, Sigmund. Medusa’s Head (1922). Collected Papers. New York: Basic Books. 1959. Vol. 5, 105-106.
25. Barb. 210.
26. In fact, he calls this reading a “cheap cliché.” Barb. 201.
27. Ovid. Metamorphoses, in Ovid III, F. J. Miller, trans. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard. 230-31.
28. Guena, Elena. ‘The Coral Diver’ in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable: Damien Hirst. London: Other Criteria. 2017. 10
29. For an art-historically definitive text on Medusa’s blood and coral see Michael Cole, “Cellini’s Blood.” in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 81, No. 2, June, 1999. 215-235. In this essay, Cole argues that the peculiar turgid blood pouring out of the head of Medusa in Cellini’s Perseus, in Florence, is, indeed, stylized coral.