Treasuring the Wreck of The Unbelievable: Envisioning a future archive of contextualised contemporary art

By Alex Butterworth.

This academic article explores Damien Hirst’s 2017 exhibition The Wreck of the Unbelievable, which mischievously purported to present treasures salvaged from the wreck of the legendary Apistos. How might we preserve, curate, and otherwise mediate such ambitious and distributed artworks, which extend in such convoluted ways through diverse social and cultural spaces, and which deliberately ambiguate their own boundaries and encounters? Where artworks both seek to capture and to intervene in their own historical moment, what obligations and affordances arise for future historians, curators, critics, and publics? Might the challenges set by The Wreck of the Unbelievable even model a new kind of digital art history including, for example, data generated incidentally and abundantly by digital processes? This article playfully mobilises new Digital Humanities methods for reading the vast and stormy seas of social media data discourse, reading between the artwork itself and the historical ‘moment’ in which it is so entangled.

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable by Damien Hirst

Man has no harbour, time has no shore;

It flows, and we pass away!

Alphonse de Lamartine: ‘The Lake’ as quoted by Franck Goddio, ‘Discovering a Shipwreck,’ in Damien Hirst, Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable

Damien Hirst’s 2017 Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was work of ‘spreadable’ historical narrative, spun around an elaborately wrought hoax. Ten years in planning and execution, the exhibition straddled two large spaces on either side the mouth of Venice’s Grand Canal, the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana. It alleged to present treasures salvaged from the Apistos, a ship lost almost two thousand years ago, comprising the art collection of a freed slave of incalculable wealth and cupidity. Treasures wrought of marble, gold, crystal, and jade were accompanied by films of the marine archaeology in action, featuring animistic figures — some with the disconcerting features of Disney characters — gently raised from the sea bed. The authenticity of the sculptures themselves was vertiginously involuted, with some sculptures appearing in variant versions, scaled up or down, cleaned of or encrusted with coral. Captions, located inaccessibly, also played games with curatorial authority, describing the construction of the luxurious display ‘cabinets’ as often as they did the contents of the vitrines.

But the physical exhibition was only a single, ephemeral manifestation of the world of Treasures. To commit wholeheartedly to comprehending that world is to hazard one’s sense of coherence in a game of narrative disentanglement, played out within a mise-en-abyme. The layering of the Lamartine epigraph, above, illustrates this experience: it serves as a textual gesture towards mortal infinitude, extracted from its context, relocated within an essay of playful dishonesty — printed in one of three catalogues advertised as accompanying the exhibition, of which only two appear ever to have been published — that aims to ground the exhibition in a plausible fictionality. In his essay in the same catalogue, Goddio ponders parenthetically of the wrecked ship, which bore the Greek name Apistos, translated as Unbelievable: ‘Was that its original name? Or did it acquire it subsequently because of its fabulous cargo? No one knows.’ On such uncertainty, the fascination of the show pivots.

The historian Simon Schama contributes an essay, which likewise plays the game of elaborating near-credible provenances for the collection, sleight-handedly offering not quite his reputation, but his biography and media persona, as surety. ‘I blush to think,’ he writes, with consummate wit, ‘that Amotan of Antioch (or Amotanius as Pausanius calls him), the greediest of antiquity’s collectors, only came to my attention a quarter of a century ago, and then by the most roundabout route.’ Known for his early scholarship in the art of the Dutch Golden Age, Schama recounts a visit to The Hague as a young scholar, the memory lent plausibility by his recollection of the noisome presence of July gnats. He there encounters the owner of an antiquarian bookshop who confides a recent discovery: documents found among a pile of books. Schama then leads us through the bookseller’s shaggy dog story of how the tomes were acquired, invoking a cast of real and invented characters, equally freighted with exotic, mythic and tabloid news connotations. At last, we learn that the documents include a partial inventory of ‘the cargo of the freedman Amotanius.’

Treasures is an exhibition that is fundamentally about stories, their world-shaping power, and their reliability or otherwise. It exists in a complex media and informational ecology, blurring the distinctions of artwork, curation, and reception. This turns the task of archiving Treasures into a tantalising puzzle. How might we preserve the full ‘excess … ambition … audacity’ ascribed to Treasures by its impresario, Francois Pinault, international businessman, Hirst collector, and owner of the two exhibition spaces? How might we not just describe, but capture these contexts through which Treasures generates its cultural significance? If such preservation were possible, it might also model a new kind of digital art history. It might include, for example, data generated incidentally and abundantly by digital processes: the data of digital surveillance cameras, or of online ticket sales, or of the arborescent paths of retweeted publicity and the vast networks of social media users, at large degrees of separation, who are consequently exposed to it. And it might address precisely those dynamic and unstable relationships that are so exposed in Hirst’s recent work, and the challenges that are inevitable for those working with an abundance of information, as much as for more traditional research that struggles with its relative paucity.

This will be a speculative essay, in keeping with the mode of the essayists in the Treasures catalogues. It will survey the exhibition both as a creative intervention in public discourse, prescient in its planning and launched at a moment of collapsing trust in traditional sources of authority, and as a famous artist’s attempt to reconcile his personal direction of creative travel with the contemporary art market’s imperative to commoditise. Like Treasures itself, it will be playfully sprawling and fragmentary, interpolating the advancing argument with sections of computationally-mediated Twitter analysis. For it is in the ‘fragments and glimpses of stories’ alone, Hirst suggests, that we may discover, ‘the solidity we call history’: a narrative, in this case, of loss of self, reawakening, uncertain belief, and possible afterlife.

Surprising Phrases

What if we were to treat these treasures as real? There would be much we might want to know. About the provenances of the artefacts, both as objects and ideas; about the geographies of distribution and trade and production the underwrote the collection; about their cultural allusions. New methods are being developed for modelling such knowledge, often using semantic graphs grounded in formal ontologies. Contemporary digital humanists — in projects like Golden Agents, Immersive Renaissance, and the Venice Time Machine — are seeking to understand artworks and antiquities in their broadest possible context. They are building Linked Open Data resources, stored on interoperable and federated databases, allowing the reassembly and reanimation of the past. They are seeking, also, to define the interfaces — graphical and immersive — by which we may negotiate our relationships with the histories exposed in the data. Many such techniques could fruitfully be applied to the Treasures exhibition, informing the design of an archive that might capture its totality as physical phenomenon.

The decade that Hirst spent developing the Venice show was a period of rapid technological change, as earlier iterations of the digital revolution tumbled over into the age of big data: an age in which almost any aspect of human activity can now be recorded, at a fine grain and in a readily fungible digital form. When Hirst exhibited his diamond and platinum encrusted skull, ‘For the Love of God’ in 2007, Twitter was still a year-old microblogging novelty, carrying 400,000 tweets a quarter. By the Sotheby’s auction of 2008, that number had multiplied two hundred times. At the time of the launch of the Venice exhibition, use was around three to four million tweets a day. That data superabundance creates the prospect of a new kind of historical enquiry — the History of the Big Now — in which the temptation to extemporise historical interpretation collides, productively, with the challenge of archiving for relevance. Social media alone has created the opportunity for eavesdropping at vast scale: a system of surveillance that is alarming in its potential for abuse and control, but an irresistible resource for surveying the contemporary mood and psyche. In the ideal archive for an extravagant work of transmedia art in 2017, social media must find a place.

Twitter restricts access to its data: real-time access to the ‘firehose’ of all tweets incurs costly commercial charges; retrospective use of the search API limits the depth of the search; the Streaming API requires the analyst to filter tweets as they are posted, for example by keywords. To inform this speculative essay, data was harvested using the Streaming API during the last seven weeks that the exhibition was open (24/10/176/12/17). Roughly thirteen million tweets were gathered, distributed across selected keyword — treasures, ship/wreck, unbelievable/incredible, authentic and fake, in English and, partially, in Italian — together with Hirst’s name. Method52 was then used to process this data. Method52, developed by the Text Analysis Group at the University of Sussex, is a suite of tools enabling the analysis of social media corpora, by means of pipelines of components constructed using a graphical interface. The key tool used was the Surprising Phrase Detector, developed by Andy Robinson, a novel process in some respects the flip-side of the more established process Topic Modelling. In this case, rather than automatically identifying clusters of lexical similarity that may suggest common themes in a corpus, the algorithm discovers lists of phrases, of varying length, that deviate most significantly from the norms of a background corpus selected as ‘neutral’ (here, the text of Wikipedia). The output approximates those phrases that most distinctively characterise the text being explored: an AI’s answer to the question, ‘What is this about?’

The Surprising Phrase Detector process was run on corpora of tweets that were assembled for each keyword individually, and additionally in combination for certain pairs of keywords, where both had to appear in the filtered tweets (e.g. ‘Hirst’ and ‘Wreck’). Following calibration, for each detection process, up to six hundred phrases were generated and ordered by degree of ‘surprisingness.’1 The output was then manually sorted, first scanning for themes and then, through close reading, grouping and annotating phrases. The cut-off point in the phrase list was usually around the 100-150 mark, though attention was paid to the appearance of any especially striking or relevant phrases lower than that. The resulting phrases and the insights gathered are distributed across the essay, the product of a personal and subjective ‘reading’ of the data, in which the idiosyncratic domain knowledge of the analyst serves as an implicit secondary and tertiary filter. Though in no sense rigorously representative, the results illustrate the potential for contextualising work such as Treasures.

A Spiritual Death?

Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable Review | MoMa UK

How an artist’s ideas, or the ideas that their creations animate, are situated within the wider and largely oblivious discourses of contemporaneous online society may seem of little more than marginal relevance to how their work might be remembered and archived. Hirst’s career implicitly challenges this assumption, however, as an artist who both appears to have an intuited sensitivity to the psychic shifts in society, and who operates in a close and complex relationship with the high priests of the art market, in a world that is fundamentally shaped by global capital. That market is opaque and elusive, seeming to operate as a system in which exchange value and public profile are almost inextricable: the works existing in a dialogic relationship with the zeitgeist they evoke, and with the investment calculations of dealers and buyers.

This aspect of Hirst’s artistic activity has received critical attention in a range of academic and journalistic writing. For Andrew Harris, his career exemplifies ‘how a symbiotic relationship has developed between finance and art in conceptual innovations, promotional strategies and transnational flows of capital, people and ideas.’ It is a notion that Hirst himself seemed to endorse when he remarked to Sarah Thornton about a fellow artist who was slow to produce that ‘the market can’t really get going because there is not enough of his work in circulation.’ Addressing the ideal perpetual motion machine, Hari Kunzru suggested in 2012 that Hirst’s work ‘isn’t just art that exists in the market, or is ‘‘about’’ the market. This is art that is the market — a series of gestures that are made wholly or primarily to capture and embody financial value, and only secondarily have any other function or virtue.’ Gerard Woodward, reviewing Hirst’s Tate retrospective of that year, explained recent, hostile responses to his work as ‘obscured or even contaminated by associations with a cynical art plutocracy and its excessive interest in wealth.’ This has been a perennial theme since Hirst courted notoriety as a student by putting a £10,000 price tag on his work.

Then, over two days in 2008, 15th and 16th September, Sotheby’s in London hosted a single artist auction of Hirst’s work, from which he would unprecedentedly receive the full hammer price. The financial markets were already deeply unsettled and, as the sale opened on the Monday morning, they were plunged into a new level of turmoil. At midnight, Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy; the following day, as Lehman’s employees were filmed leaving the offices with cardboard boxes of their personal possessions, governments were still scrambling to staunch the effects of the biggest financial crisis in eighty years. The sale began tentatively, with hesitant phone bidders stalling at £3.5m for a formaldehyde shark, before the patient auctioneer coaxed them up to £9.6, nearly double the pre-sale estimate. The flood gates opened and all but five of the two-hundred-and-twenty-three lots from the collection ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’ were sold. Investors spent in total over $200m, with the highest price going to ‘The Golden Calf’: the lovechild (characteristically pickled in formaldehyde) of an antique idol to Mammon and the bronze statue of a bullock that stands outside Merrill Lynch’s Wall Street offices, with its snorting, earth-pawing pose of anachronistic financial confidence.

Shipwreck and Rebirth

Anglophone tweets at the end of 2017 include many references to two electoral shocks of the previous year: the US presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum. Trump makes his first appearance in a phrase ranked 30 in ‘Incredible,’ just ahead of his outspoken critics, Elizabeth Warren and Al Franklin. Franklin would resign from the Senate in the course of #MeToo scandal, four days after the close of the Venice exhibition. In tweets containing the word ‘Wreck,’ surprising phrases about US politics are headed by Rex Tillerson’s wrecking his department as Secretary of State (#129), by references to the then lightning rod for Republic counterattacks, Democrat Donna Brazile, and by Andrew McCabe, who had briefly served as acting Head of the FBI questioning Trump’s fitness for office led to his dismissal. The wider cast of dramatis personae involved in the election scandals and their investigation are well represented, particularly in the ‘Fake’ and ‘Credulity’ keyword corpora. The latter features, in a high position, the infamous Russian dossier of Democratic opposition research compiled on Trump by former British Intelligence officer, Christopher Steele. It includes phrases referring to Trump as ‘compromised,’ involved in ‘collusion’ with Russia, and ‘asking the base to disbelieve their own eyes.’ ‘Fake’ covers similar ground with a slightly enhanced cast including Potus (i.e. Trump) and his associates Bannon, Flynn and Manafort; Hilary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta, whose emails had been released by Wikileaks; James Comey, the ex-FBI Director; and the Russian intel that was under intensive investigation. Brexit appears in ‘Incredible’ (#97) and ‘Credulity,’ where it is linked to the removal of environmental regulations. Hirst himself — who had been prominent on the roll of the ‘Artists against Brexit’ campaign, preparing a series of posters with the word ‘No’ filled with his signature pinned butterflies — does not figure in any of the phrases relating to ‘Credulity’ or to ‘Fake.’

Brexit also appears in the corpus for ‘Wreck’ (#189), and in ‘Shipwreck,’ distinguished by the deeper cultural references and anxieties that it surfaces, ‘bruising Brexit could shipwreck the British’ is placed as high as #9. Tweets with the keywords ‘Wreck’ or ‘Shipwreck’ are filled with references to historical ships lost at sea and to their exploration. In the first hundred surprising phrases, we find a ‘laden dutch east india company merchantman,’ a ship ‘lying 2km deep via #blackseamap,’ and something that befell ‘whaleship essex resulting in shipwreck.’ There is a hint of a lost ship even more ancient than the Apistos in the phrase ‘800bc britishmuseum,’ and more closely contemporary with it in ‘survey of #roman #shipwreck,’ whilst elsewhere ‘divers find cannonball clue’ to a wreck from a later age. There is already mention here of treasure in relation to these keywords, as in ‘ss gairsoppa shipwreck silver 1 oz,’ but when the keyword filter ‘Treasure’ is added to ‘wreck’ the detector strikes a rich seam. Only one hundred and fifty-six surprising phrases are returned, in total, but include the likes of ‘silver 8 reales carribbean treasure coin,’ ‘pirate coin large old spanish ship’ and ‘roman treasure in underwater alexandria wreckage,’ as well as reference to ‘suspected robbing treasure hunters.’ The oceans of the world are, it appears, teeming with wrecks and, in late 2017, with people intent on their recovery.

With a decade’s hindsight, arts journalist Tim Schneider would state that Hirst’s Sotheby’s auction of 2008 came to symbolize ‘both an inflection point in the world economy and a source of dramatic irony for anyone looking back.’ It may be seen as an inflection point in Hirst’s career too, both commercially and artistically. Rather than the usual established collectors, the buyers of Hirst’s work at the 2008 sale represented fresh blood: a quarter of them had not bought from Sotheby’s before, while a full two-fifths were firsttime purchasers of contemporary art. Soon after watching them gorge on his spot, spin and butterfly paintings, all mass-produced by his assistants, Hirst would tell Thornton, ethnographer of the art world, that he had since ‘ceased production.’ As the long-term Hirst collector Miuccia Prada told Thornton of ‘Beautiful in My Mind Forever’: ‘I think it was an incredible conceptual gesture, not a sale.’ Writing for The Economist in 2010, Thornton surveyed the precipitous collapse in the market for Hirst’s work in the previous two years, both in overall sales and average individual prices raised, and its poor performance relative to Artnet’s C50 index of the most traded post-war artists. This was, she suggested, the direct result of Hirst’s inflation of the primary market for his work, at the price of debasing the secondary. Quotations from Hirst suggested a calculated strategy, while she speculated that his sense of speculators profiting at his expense may have provoked, ‘an Oedipal determination to overthrow all the high-rolling dealers and collectors who thought they might lord it over the little artist.’ The twin conclusions she drew demonstrate, in retrospect, great acuity about Hirst’s future trajectory: that ‘the artist’s drive to assemble objects into […] spectaculars’ is the most intriguing and generative thread in his work, and that ‘Mr Hirst should repair his relationship with his collectors.’ Hirst confided a more personal motivation to the slow-burn development of Treasures in an interview with Roya Nikkhah, as a reaction to the endless demand for work from gallerists in the 2000s. ‘I thought, “Once I have a 10-year plan, they won’t want to know.”’ The image is of an artist who had passed through the financial tempests of 2008 and wanted the peace that a shipwreck of his own might bring: one who, in 2013, aptly appeared on BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs to reflect on his life and career.

Imagination and/or (Self-)Knowledge

Damien Hirst, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Claridges |  Culture Whisper

Across a number of English language keywords, there are prominent cultural references from particular non-anglophone countries. The phenomenon of the South Korean ‘Kpop’ musical genre makes frequent appearances. For ‘Wreck,’ for example, ‘wrecked by namjoon and hoseok’ appears at #9: Kim Nan-Joon is better known as RM (formerly Rap Monster), while ‘hoseok’ also goes by the name ‘Aka J-Hope,’ as which he appears too at #62. Hirst has a local place in that globalised culture, having sold his twenty-two foot sculpture Charity, based on the 1960s collecting box model for the Spastics Societies in the shape of a girl in leg calipers, to the Korean Kim Chang-Il for exhibition in his Seoul department store. More recently, a video featuring a shark about to swallow a vitrine-like box, in which the Korean boyband BTS-Bangtan Boys dance, has been linked to Hirst’s work by their publicity machine. Football too is a recurrent theme, with Damien having to share surprising phrases for his surname keyword with the young star striker, George Hirst. The shifting geographies of cultural power are revealed in this sphere too, with reference to Qatar’s U19 goalkeeper (#19) in ‘Incredible’. The Qatari royal family are enthusiasts for Hirst’s work: the emir’s daughter paid the highest price for a living artist for Hirst’s pill cabinet ‘Lullaby Spring’ in 2007, and was rumoured to be the buyer of ‘The Golden Calf’ in the 2008 sale.

Ranked high in the surprising phrases for ‘Treasure + Wreck’ are two ships famed for the treasure they carried: the Nuestra Señora de ‘Atocha’ and the El Cazador. The former was a Spanish galleon laden with extraordinary New World treasure, that sank off the Florida Keys in 1622. The loss of the latter in 1784, when carrying gold to stabilise Spanish rule in Louisiana, had ramifications that shaped the future of the United States as a continental power. The Hirst exhibition itself appears at #3, higher than either treasure ship, and recurs in various forms throughout. The ‘18m demon with bowl’ sculpture, that filled the three-storey atrium of the Palazzo Grassi, is the foremost individual work, followed by the ‘medusa.’ There is also mention of the wreck that yielded the ‘antikythera device,’ a piece of ancient technology so surprising that it seems almost to stand out of time, in keeping with Treasures’ attitude to the past. Meanwhile, in ‘Hirst + Treasure’ most of the thirty-six phrases generated refer to the exhibition, mixed in with references to songs by Park Woo Kin, Bruno Mars and Bella Thorne. Allusion is made to a phrase in Genesis 43:23, ‘Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, must have put the money in your sacks for you,’ and to the John Huston archetypal film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which Bogart’s character, greedy for Mexican gold, turns on his prospecting partner in paranoid suspicion.

Damien Hirst – Kaleidoscope Paintings | jessicapusey

‘I’ve always had a make-believe story going on behind the work,’ Hirst has said. In the case of the Kaleidoscope butterfly paintings, it was the story of ‘an imaginary painter who was trying to make monochromes,’ only ‘butterflies kept landing on the surface and fucking them up.’ With Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable, the title came first, with the narrative subsequently embroidered around it. Only some time later, as Hirst’s collector and collaborator Francois Pinault has divulged, did the artist create the first works in his studio. One might imagine a scene set in the Science Ltd. workshop in Gloucestershire, as envisioned by The Daily Mail designer in an isometric graphic: a high-tech art-abattoir in which an automated production line processes animal carcasses. Thornton, though, inadvertently reveals what must have been the practical genesis of Treasures, in terms more consonant with the idea of an artist in reflective retreat: ‘a nostalgic fantasy of a poor painter’s shack’ in Hirst’s garden, that contains ‘three paintings in progress depicting Medusa, which are in a standoff with a taxidermy bear.’

‘One does not discover a wreck, but invents it,’ writes Goddio in his catalogue essay, ‘so is it a figment of the imagination? Before the first sighting of it, the wreck’s presence here was suggested only by conjectures based on written accounts. It had no real existence, it was only a phantom.’ In the footnotes to his own essay, Martin Bethenod, the CEO of the exhibition spaces and now a director of Pinault’s private art collection, explains that this claim arises from a literal translation of the French, ‘inventer une épave.’ On this conceit the central paradox of the Treasures project is suspended: that the physical works, with their secret price tags, are at once an emanation of the artist, and a historic rediscovery. What, though, was the story that could endow these images with significance, prompt their translation into the monumental scale of Treasures, and sufficiently represent Hirst’s artistic rebirth?

Like the moment of rupture that initiated Hirst’s personal trajectory from ‘Beautiful in My Mind Forever’ to the Venice exhibition, that fictional narrative too would be rooted in the 2008 crisis in global capitalism, whilst oddly displaced from it. Its twin points of origin lie in the Indian Ocean, in the vicinity of Zanzibar, and in Heidelberg, the university home of the original Faust. There, at around the time of the 2008 sale, an impetuous young scholar, Peter Weiss, distracted from his doctoral studies by a hunger for archaeological adventure, stumbled upon a homemade video posted to the internet. Located on a Tanzanian beach, the clip showed a small golden figure of a monkey caught in a fisherman’s net. Recollecting the story of the drowned treasure of Amotan, Weiss sought evidence in the medieval copies of ancient collections of marvels. Before long a halfskeptical ‘Professor Andrew Lerner,’ concerned that ‘Peter’s romanticism sometimes (gets) the better of him,’ was nevertheless persuaded to launch an expedition with Weiss.

In the storyworld of Treasures, the 2008 Sotheby’s sale lasted for one day longer than in reality: a marginal difference but one that intentionally marks out this version of the sale as mythical. Whatever happened on that final day generated enough profits for Hirst — jaded by the endless commoditisation of his creations, in search of meaningful distraction, and tantalised by tales of treasures — to back the expedition. The terms of his investment are not revealed. The audience might remember the bargain struck with Mephistopheles by Marlowe’s Faust, Heidelberg’s most notorious doctoral dreamer, and Mephistopheles’s own pondering, ‘Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.’ ‘The unbelievable is a place in your mind,’ Hirst half-echoes, in a feature length ‘documentary’ of the expedition, released on Netflix after the exhibition had closed. And indeed, with Hirst braided into the alternative timeline by means of this fiction — in the unseen role of patron, collector and curator — the story of the rediscovery of the Apistos and the recovery of its cargo becomes a dramatic metaphor, too, for the artist’s own ambiguous relationship with the diabolical temptations of the market.

Knowledge Not Treasure

Something tantalisingly Hirstian did creep into the list associated with the key phrase ‘Treasures + Unbelievable.’ Amongst the gibberish of ‘manure me anywhere else Lancaster,’ ‘the amish food is delectable downtown,’ and ‘nye night out with mahiki,’ were the seemingly equally obscure  phrases ‘invocare conniving in secret over’ and ‘perrotet fabric executive simon want.’ ‘Invocare’ is not vulgar Latin but the name of a large funeral and crematorium operator in Australasia, ‘Simon Want’ an executive of ‘Fabrico’ (correctly spelt), an investment advisory firm, and Perrotet, the Treasurer of New South Wales. These phrases reference a report of a ‘$1bn plot to sell off Sydney’s cemeteries.’ One concerned voice is quoted there as saying ’we’ve always known there was a lot of money in death … it is a business,’ in an unintended echo of Hirst’s art and sales. The tweets were by @LyndsayFarlow, who supports ‘exposing lies, scams, corruption’ and whose biography proclaims ‘Knowledge is power!’ It is, as suggested, an aphorism with whose validity Hirst wrestles in Treasures.

‘I loved fantasy shipwreck stories when I was a kid,’ Hirst says. ‘Just loved them. All those old movies about treasures found under the sea.’ Archive footage of films from the artist’s childhood is intercut with the documentary material, while the adventure scenarios that fed his fantasies become the setting in which he stages his own psychodramas: the tug between the appeal or compulsion of art and science, astonishment and bewilderment, enthusiasm and dismay, treasure and knowledge. Weiss is Hirst’s surrogate as well as his debtor, his vision both uncompromising and of uncertain motivation, as is exposed when, following the careful recovery of an impressive haul of sculptural artefacts under Lerner’s scholarly supervision, a further horde of golden objects is noticed, strewn across a section of the seabed. Back aboard the expedition ship, doors are slammed, shutting out the camera crew, and behind them voices are raised that the microphones just pick up. It is a dramatic crux. Weiss presses for the items to be raised immediately; only after proper scientific records have been made, Lerner insists. ‘We must have evidence,’ he says, ‘Ours is a search for knowledge not treasure.’ A compromise is reached, with only the shortest pause allowed for archaeological diligence before the gold is raised. The audience perhaps suspects that Hirst has put his thumb on the scales.

As the end of the final season of the Apistos expedition approaches, Weiss presses for a last exploratory push into deeper water. and, reluctantly, Lerner accedes. The divers descend, in wetsuits emblazoned with insignia that might have been designed for a Bond villain’s organisation, their swim stunningly choreographed and backlit. They sight a sculpture rearing up from the seabed; the final fifteen treasures will be recovered. ‘The power of the imagination succeeds in breaking through every boundary including knowledge,’ writes Guena in the Treasures catalogue. Ironically, it is Hirst’s company, called Science Ltd. ( ‘science’ meaning, literally, the love of knowledge) that manages the production of his artworks, most profitably as multiples. The recurrent tension between artistic disinterest and commerce in Hirst’s career is not only unresolved but implicitly celebrated by the invented narrative. Yet the material products of Hirst’s imagination must be re-invested with unique provenance before they reach the market: sunk and cinematically retrieved, accelerating the process of a Shakespearean ‘sea change / into something rich and strange.’

The Collector’s Friend

References to recent popular culture are prominent among the surprising phrases extracted from the less restrictive, single keyword corpora. It is rare for standalone films to feature. With the rather obvious exceptions of the animations Wreck it Ralph and The Incredibles, it is expanded storyworlds that populate the lists. There is the second in a series extending the Harry Potter Universe, The Crimes of Grindelwald, still nearly a year from release in 2017 but already the subject of intensive speculation and pre-marketing. The Marvel leviathan, however, dominates, headed by its lead male characters: Captain America, Thor, Black Panther and Deadpool. An extended story world is even referenced, indirectly, for the keyword ‘Hirst,’ though it is not Damien but Michael Hirst, creator of Vikings for the History Channel.

Hirst’s fascination with collecting, already apparent in the medicine cabinets of Pharmacy and the live butterfly installation The Collector, is deep rooted. He has claimed an emotional affinity with collectors of all kinds, informed by his sympathy for a neighbour who was an inveterate hoarder when he lived in a student squat, but also by his own passion for buying art. ‘Collecting is fucking addictive,’ he once told Sarah Thornton, with the relish of the user and pusher, rather than of the reformed. In Treasures, every aspect of the exhibition is haunted by this obsession, presented as that of Cif Amotan, his doppelgänger from antiquity. ‘It’s me, it’s Pinault, it’s Walt Disney, it’s anyone who has a vision,’ Hirst has said of the long-dead Roman freedman with an unparalleled appetite for spectacular acquisition, whose name is an anagram for ‘I am fiction.’ The bronze Bust of the Collector, that we assume to be Amotan, uncannily resembles a cast of Hirst’s own features, while there is a physical similarity too in the encrusted statue of a male figure who leads Mickey Mouse by the hand in Collector and Friend. The exhibition was an act of conjuration, which summoned the imaginary of an imaginary across time, distorted through the sensibility of a creative interpreter intoxicated by contemporary mass culture. At the same time it is both a celebration of, and homage to collectors, one which may be dipped deep in irony but is nevertheless intended to flatter. The conflation of artist and collector in the figure of Amotan conceals an ambivalence, though, that is given polyphonic expression through the essayists and fictional characters who populate the Treasures storyworld.

In the exhibition’s catalogue of ‘Renaissance’-style drawings, purportedly based on ekphrastic descriptions of the lost treasures, Amie Corry evokes the collectors of the period who sought to signal ‘erudition and virtù.’ It is when Amotan is put in the context of the post-crash decade, however, that the more pointed moral judgements emerge. Although an incomparable collector, according to Loyrette, Amotan ‘clearly shared an approach marked by hubris and compulsive frenzy’ said to mark the contemporary collector. Schama, is less restrained. ‘Brought to light now,’ he writes, ‘his bloated excesses, his feverish passion to acquire, his pornographic ecstasy in the writhing of serpents and the torment of mortals — all seem pretty much in tune with the tastes of our time, do they not?’ Peter Weiss, assessing the archaeological haul, fresh from the Indian Ocean, puts it bluntly: ‘I am not prepared to say it is Amotan but there is someone with a dream, a massive dream, and a massive ego, behind all this.’ A massive dream or, in Schama’s words, a ‘delirium of obsession’ that renders ‘ridiculous’ those who abandon themselves to it.

The message delivered by artist-as-collector to collector-as-artist hangs between (self-)love and (self-)loathing: an invitation to indulge as connoisseur, whilst warning of the need to resist the hunger for vain acquisition. Or should even this be seen simply a gesture to flatter the discerning buyer?

Infinite Possibilities

In the surprising phrases thrown up the keyword ‘Fake,’ the phrases ’Fake yall so ridiculous’ and ‘niggas be so fake not’ sit highly and slightly inscrutably, followed by endless allusions to the dubious activities of Trump and his associates. That section of the tweeting public concerned with ‘Authenticity,’ by contrast, or perhaps those using Twitter for marketing, are focused rather on branded fashion. Phrases #4-8 here are: ‘adidas yeezy boost 350 v2 beluga,’ ‘nike air foamposite one,’ ‘authentic christian louboutin,’ ‘authentic burberry,’ ‘louis vuitton keepall 50 travel hand.’ Further down there are three phrases containing ‘Gucci,’ and references to Saint Laurent (#178). Bottega (#357 and #8), Balenciaga (#88): four of the fourteen fashion brands owned by Kering, whose chairman is Francois Pinault. Elsewhere, attention to issues of copying surface: surprising phrases in ‘Incredible’ include both ‘incredible plagiarised cultural appropriation’ (#62), ‘your faves lip syncing when barely’ (#61) and ‘its almost positive they’re lip syncing’ (#26). Under ‘Hirst + Incredible’ the relevant reference is to the ‘three versions’ (#66) in which many of the objects are displayed: coral encrusted, restored and reproduced.

‘I am so used to having any space I want. What fucks me up is infinite possibilities,’ Hirst confided to Thornton when she visited him in his artist’s shack, in the early 2010s. Over the following years, though, Hirst and his team cultivated a vast and intricate fiction out of the ideas conceived there. The Medusa painting and the stuffed bear will, in time, become The Severed Head of Medusa that occupies the front cover of the main catalogue in its malachite iteration, and the towering Warrior and the Bear. However, it is their thick narrative context, rendered in myriad manifestations and modalities, that lends them meaning. For Pinault, who operates the exhibition spaces that physically housed the Treasures exhibition, these works ‘do not fit any conventional aesthetic category of canonical structure.’ Given his role as chair of Kering, a company that controls many leading brands, his observation remains disappointingly focused on the ‘works’ themselves rather than the storyworld gestalt. Writing in the main catalogue, Bethenod cuts closer to the truth when he suggests the work tests ‘the demiurgical dimension of a creative process in which it is not a question of inventing only the works, but also the universe from which they proceed, the geographic, cultural, temporal conditions of their real or imaginary origin, and of their birth, their metamorphoses and their rebirth, beyond (or returning from) oblivion, disappearance and death.’

The exhibition organisers may have hoped that the estimated $65m cost would be recouped through the sale of individual pieces to collectors and investors, but the show itself constituted an extravagant and publicly available work of transmedia art. This form of dramatic storytelling had bloomed briefly during the decade preceding the exhibition, in the form of Augmented Reality Games (ARGs), which invited collective investigation of a fictional conspiracy by online participants but with a real world, location-specific component. Expensive to create, with audiences that were small but that demanded ever more narrative meat should be thrown from the wagon to sate their individual exploratory appetite, these productions were increasingly funded from marketing budgets: for prominent brands, for product launches, or to accompany campaigns for cinema releases. The promise usually outran the delivery. In retrospect, they might be seen as rehearsals in the shaping of the social media dynamics whose malign manipulation has contributed to political distrust and polarisation across the Western world.

Hirst turned transmedia, rather, into a form that promoted self-reflexion and foregrounded analogue media, in order to create a story world with tight inner coherence but just enough play to excite and co-opt the instinct of the visitors, encouraging them to discover seemingly elusive patterns and to weave narratives from uncertain evidence. In this way they are made uneasily complicit in the fiction, stranded between captivated awe and cognitive ownership. At the same time, the message inscribed over the entrance to the Punta della Dogana exhibition riddles, ‘Somewhere between lies and truth lies the truth’: a challenge to appearance and authority that is written through every aspect of the project. Can you resist, it seems to ask, the pleasure of embracing the stories of the Unbelievable? Stories whose seductive power are analogous to, or continuous with, the beguiling power of the conspiracy theory or the populist demagogue? Why not just sink into the tale you’re being sold, or the tale of the tale? You can even buy a memento of it for yourself: a plastic skull keyring in the shop, or a new original for your nearby yacht.

Treasuring the Unbelievable

Considered as a defining work of transmedia, Treasures is striking both for the conceptual richness of its storyworld and the apparent coordination of its manifold expressions, which demonstrate a fine balance of control and delegation. The layering and parallelism and nuanced inconsistencies of the stories that surround the exhibition, its origins and its development, are dizzying in their complexity. Yet the themes of the essayists and the other media voices resonate without stifling the idiosyncratic voices on which their persuasiveness relies. An archive of this storyworld, and the process of its conception, construction and dissemination, modelled as semantically linked data, should lie at the heart of any attempt to create a comprehensive record of The Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. Only by doing so would it subsequently be possible to reconstruct, for scholarly analysis and perhaps too for popular experience, the context in which the exhibition took place.

Such a process of archiving would start with the documentation that underpinned the project: the ‘bible’ of the storyworld, which one suspects that the Science Ltd. team maintained, with Hirst himself as story-runner, setting the outlines within which others could colour. Underpinning this would be the correspondence with the commissioned writers, setting parameters for their extemporisation around themes and later offering editorial tweaks. It would contain, too, the spreadsheets used to schedule the media campaign that rationed out hints, teasers and narrative nuggets into the media sphere. Taken together, such a corpus would provide a core around which further data might be aggregated. Science Ltd. has generously provided the captions and text from the exhibition but the additional perspectives afforded could be exponentially expanded with access to further material: the constant frustration of the historian, but here remediable.

So what might one wish for? A complete provenance for the materials used in the manufacture of the work, back to their sources and with full environmental audits; shipping routes and prices down to the finest grain, schedules for each stage of production, information about the tools and methods employed and about their development; full (temporarily anonymised) profiles for those involved in creative roles; information about their many and varied network relations; CCTV of the exhibition spaces and their environs for every day of the exhibition, the get-in and strike; official mooring documents for the yachts within site of the venues; plans of the exhibition spaces, but also 3D LIDAR scans, at the highest possible resolution, and of the objects too? Where, then, would the archive reach its full extent? Never, or else perhaps pragmatically, and probably somewhere far short of this list.

Four years before the Venice exhibition, the journalist Lynne Cooke wrote in the Burlington Magazine that, ‘where artists in previous decades sought to control the distribution and reception of their works in order to extricate themselves as far as possible from what they perceived as problematic aspects of the commercial, mainstream art world, Hirst, by contrast, has employed those mechanisms to embed himself more securely at its centre.’ It is a questionable argument, historically, and whilst plausible for Hirst’s earlier career, must even then be considered against the claim by the artist Beatriz Milhazes that, rather than being merely ‘seduced by money,’ the earlier Hirst was ‘playing with how to sell things, questioning what the values are, and testing how far he can go with that conceptual project.’ In Treasures, that exploration of the relationship between product, persona and market remains in operation, but is sublimated to the more fundamental relationship between story, identity and belief, viewed through the prism of the instinct to collect.

The constellations of idea, person, object, space and time that the exhibition projected were of a complexity that was tantalisingly suggestive but elusive to human comprehension. A computational approach, combining automated pre-analysis of multiple and diverse datasets and human exploration by means of interactive interfaces would expose new questions. What insights into the situated experiences of a visitor to the gallery in 2017 might be gained by a multi-dimensional analysis of dwell times in the exhibition space and the view-sheds they offer on specific artwork arrangements, correlated by date to market fluctuations in art funds, and the semantic fields of key concepts as mentioned in social media? Or of facially-expressed sentiment in those presence in response to variant copies, and the challenges to narrative plausibility which the viewer had previously encountered? Or of correlations between market prices for particular works and the materials used in their production, along with the category of cultural referent (Classical, Renaissance, Non-Western, Contemporary) that they evoked? Visualising data of such scale and variety might even reveal unforeseen facets and intersections in the experience of Treasures: an augmented digital memory of the exhibition.

Apotheosis in Fragments

Surprising phrases produced by the keyword ‘Hirst’ situate the artist and his work in relation to his contemporaries and forebears. We find the variously cryptic ‘jeff koons damien hirst mr brainwash’ (#1), ‘julian schnabel ny 1996 roxanne lowit’ (#21), ‘basquiats what s the fun’ (#79) and ‘marcel duchamp 3 salvador dali 49’ (#96), together with an association of his signature work and Britart colleague Tracy Emin, in ‘unmade bed and hirst’s formaldehyde’ (#26); it appears again in ‘pickled sharks and cheek damien’ (#108), while high at #13 is a testament to his marketing savvy, ‘shopper damien hirst Butterfly scarf’. There is some suggestion of abusive criticism, with ‘arts correspondent put it in vomit,’ although the ‘cunt’ (#61) and ‘nobody will begrudge you act like an entitled little twat’ (#19) both refer to Damien’s footballer namesake, and there is no obvious Hirst connection for the ‘IMAO’ (In My Arrogant Opinion) that appears at #25 in ‘Wreck.’ ‘Shipwreck’ generates divergent artistic fields as context for the Treasures exhibition: Claude-Joseph Vernet, among the foremost painters of storm-wracked seascapes in the mid-to-late eighteenth century appears, alongside DeviantArt artist Marc Brunet, whose work The Shipwreck tends towards the lubricious in its fantasy image of a semi-clad young woman with parrot on shoulder, in a sandy cove with a shipwreck.

Pertinently, ‘flaunts her incredible physique’ and ‘playing with her boobs’ appear for ‘Incredible,’ as intriguingly does ‘be sexualising mermaids and sirens since’ (#91), which plausibly could (but don’t) refer to some of the nude figures in the sculptures of Treasures. References to the human anatomy in ‘Wreck’ take a pornographically violent turn around ‘wrecking,’ and while mention of ‘Picasso’ catches the eye here, as a possible Hirst comparison amidst the surprising phrases, the allusion is actually to the outsized penis of porn star Eduardo Picasso. While the analyst, eyeballing the fragmentary phrases thrown up as surprising by the Method52 algorithm, may believe that they can find what they need to weave any narrative, all too often the material defies objective interpretation. It affords, rather, a kaleidoscopic time capsule and Rorschach test.

In Hirst’s interviews about Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable, he frequently plays the part of the idiot savant, masking authorial insight behind a faux naivety. ‘Am I believing this because it’s got these missing parts?’ he muses of one of the faked artefacts, before answering himself: ‘you believe it because, in a history of it travelling through time, through thousands of years, it’s bound to have had accidents and mishaps.’ The ambition of digital art history must be, in part, to collect and link evidence to build a more complete vision of the past: of production, dissemination, markets and reception. With the treasures of Treasures already dispersed, the exhibition venues redeployed, contributors bound to silence by non-disclosure agreements, and the digital ephemera of social media already almost inaccessible, the effects of fragmentation are already at work.

Stories and myths about the exhibition will surely grow from slivers of fallible memory. That is inevitable. There is still the opportunity, though, for Hirst to take his extraordinary transmedia project one step further, and build an ark for its unprecedented preservation. It would be a model for others, unique in the conceptual and technological demands it made, but with generalisable features; it would provide a second life for the exhibition as collection, as well as a further layer in the narrative game he created. Access to some doors in the ark would be restricted, others would be locked for an indefinite period, until such commercial or other sensitivities as required the closure had expired, while some significant data would already be irrecoverable. Those lacunae and restraints would themselves, however, illuminate even as they obscured, and the artist-as-collector, untrammelled by historical time, would reach a digital apotheosis.

In counterpoint to the manufactured enthusiasm of the upbeat Twitter influencer or marketeer, the ‘Wreck’ and ‘Shipwreck’ keywords evince evidence of much malaise. Metaphorical wrecks abound: ‘drunk’ (#39 and recurring), ‘train wreck’ (#25); there are, ‘emotional irrational outbursts untethered to fact’ (#47), ‘paranoid,’ ‘blubbering’ and ‘a depressed emotionally unstable nervous wreck’ (#110). And there is the tragedy of real wrecks, too, of refugee and migrant boats, crossing the Mediterranean, with a count of drownings, notably in Italian language tweets, where the horror is closer to home. For ‘Naufragio,’ ‘migranti’ is at #17; when combined with ‘Incredible’ it produces ‘smugglers on the loose,’ ‘the violence of the coast guard,’ ‘5 deaths,’ ‘30 out of 200.’ The looming end of the exhibition, during the period of data collection, causes any combination of keywords combined with ‘Hirst’ to offer a skewed but suitably ominous foregrounding of ‘Final Day” (e.g. #38). There are consolations to be found in philosophy and poetry, though, and impressively we glimpse (#38) the wisdom of Voltaire’s ‘life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.’ It is in the tension, though, between the theme song of science-fiction television comedy Red Dwarf, heavily promoted as a box set at the time, and the verse of Longfellow, that the true Hirstian sublime may finally be found:

Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another, Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, Seeing, shall take heart again.


I want to lie, Shipwrecked and comatose Drinking fresh mango juice

Gold fish shoals Nibbling at my toes

Fun Fun Fun, in the Sun Sun Sun


1. Fewer were sometimes produced where the more limited number of tweets, or the more restricted subjects that those tweets concerned, produced a smaller number of phrases that were deemed ‘surprising’ according to the parameters set.



With thanks to Anna Godfrey of Science Ltd People, Michael Peppiatt, and to the Text Analysis Group at the University of Sussex, director, Professor David Weir. ( The TAG Lab/CASM Consulting tool, Method52 (built on Method51) is a general-purpose tool for collecting, analysing, and storing text. Data can be uploaded (incl. CSV, PDF, Word, MSG), or collected from the web (incl. Reddit, Twitter, 4Chan, YouTube, and general web crawling). Method52 users analyse text by constructing programs visually from components of functionality, such as bespoke machine learning classifiers, network analysis, geoparsing, and clustering. Thanks also to Jo Lindsay Walton, Poliva Levontin and Rhona Eve Clewes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s