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.

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