Damien Hirst stages comeback with monumental sunken 'treasures'

Story highlights

  • After a period of quiet, Damien Hirst has opened a new exhibition of his work in Venice
  • Comprising 189 works, the exhibition fills an unprecedented 5,000 square meters of space

Venice, Italy (CNN)Damien Hirst has been quiet for a few years now, and his star has dimmed -- as have his prices. So at the age of 51, it seems it's time for a little bit of reinvention for the British artist.

Hirst has never been short of self-belief. He has never done things by half. So the art world press was in Venice this week to find out what he'd do next.
    The public relations people have been strenuously working to get us all there for several weeks now. One work, they told me, is over 18 meters high.
    The exhibition has a wonderful and intriguing title -- "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable."
    It fills an unprecedented 5,000 square meters of space at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana (the old Customs House) on the Grand Canal, buildings owned by the billionaire French art collector and Christie's owner Francois Pinault.
    Though neither has confirmed an amount, both Hirst and Pinault have evidently spent a huge amount of money mounting this show. In fact, this is quite probably the most expensive single art show ever put on by a contemporary artist.
    But whatever the cost, we wondered: Would Damien Hirst sink or swim in Venice?
    Damien Hirst returns with sunken 'treasures'
    Damien Hirst returns with sunken 'treasures'

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    Damien Hirst returns with sunken 'treasures' 01:20

    An ancient fantasy

    I last interviewed Hirst in London in 2010 and he happily told me about this planned exhibition. I complimented him on the title -- he has always been good at titles. It was "a kind of fantasy on a ship that went down," he explained.
    And that's how it seems to have turned out: Hirst has let his fantasies run riot.
    The exhibition is comprised of 189 works. The conceit is that he's discovered the wreck of an ancient vessel in the seabed off East Africa that went down laden with treasures from diverse cultures -- Aztec, Inca, Ancient Egyptian, Roman and others.
    Hirst's people have supplied extensive footage of artworks being salvaged. It's all very exotic, very photogenic and helps embellish the fantasy.
    The work that's over 18 meters high turned out to be a black statue called "Demon with Bowl." It rises impressively to the full height of the courtyard of the Palazzo Grassi. I almost got a crick in the neck marveling at it. You wonder how they managed to get it inside the building.
    It looks as if it's made of bronze, but in reality it's made of resin. I couldn't see any joins. It looks whole, but it simply can't be -- can it?
    A lot of the works -- bears, lions, a sphinx -- are encrusted with what appears to be coral. And yet it can't be coral -- this is all brightly colored, and real coral quickly loses color out of water.
    Hirst knows this and is teasing us. He told the New York Times: "It's all about what you want to believe."

    A return to form?

    Sculptures were submerged for a month before being exhibited.
    I felt the exhibition showed that Hirst's imagination has been revitalized, that he did have something new to say. But after a time, I found the work a little repetitive.
    My colleagues were more enthusiastic.
    Two British art critics, Jonathan Jones of the Guardian and Matthew Collings of the London Evening Standard, both gave the show five stars.
    Jones said he was "blown away," and that Hirst back at his youthful shark-in-formaldehyde best. Collings was initially repelled, then became fascinated.
    There was a sense that the artist had redeemed himself and his career.
    What's unquestionable is that Hirst is one of the only artists in the world with the wealth to have put this show on. Collectors have apparently already been offered some of the works at prices ranging from $500,000 to $5 million.
    Will he recoup his investment? Time will tell.
    "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable" runs from April 9 to December 3, 2017 at Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy.