Art Travel

Damien Hirst Exhbition @ Palazzo Grassi in Venice

27. May 2017

“Do you really want to spend 18 Euros for this exhibition?!” My Venetian friend gave me a questioning look. And during my stay in Venice, he was not the only one – local and tourists alike – who encouraged me to boycott this exhibition. Nevertheless, I was curious about it. I had seen so much footage about it and had read so many reviews about it. I just had to go. I thought it was worth spending money on a ticket and go see this exhibition which, plays on our human ambition to travel, constantly discover new things and the nostalgia about colonialism.

Most of you will have seen pictures of the gigantic statue in the main hall of Palazzo Grassi. This start of the exhibition itself is already impressive. If you wonder how they managed to get this statue inside of the Palazzo, I found this time lapse video.

The statue itself is already one of the most impressive parts of the exhibition. But there is much more.

The big headless statue seems to be a hybrid creature of a man and a reptile or dinosaur. Its foot is bigger than a human being and the statue is covered with corals and other underwater plants and it already gives you a first idea about the underwater theme.

Look how small all the people are!

The exhibition “Treasures of the Wreck from the Unbelievable” tells the story of an ancient ship wreck. It takes you on a discovery journey of this wreck of the “Unbelievable”. The fairytale of Damien Hirst is the following:

In 2008, a ship wreck was found off the coast of East Africa and is linked to the legend of a former slave named Cif Amotan II from what is now north-west Turkey. Slaves in the Roman Empire obviously had the chance to amass a great fortune by being involved in financial affairs of their patrons. Cif Amotan II was one of these ex-slaves coming to wealth and decided to bring together a vast collection of artefacts on his ship, the “Unbelievable”. The destination of the ship was a temple built for this collection but the ship sank and lay undiscovered in the Indian Ocean until 2008.

Real or fictional?

According to the guide, the exhibition shows the works almost one decade after their excavation. When I read this, I was not quite sure what I was reading. I had not read too much about the actual content before my visit (most of the reviews where opinion pieces on Damien Hirst and his art). Throughout the exhibition, it is hard to draw the lines between reality and fiction. Throughout the whole exhibition, similar to the guide and the texts on the wall, visitors are made to believe this fairytale and you will ask yourself:

Is this really true?

Was there really a ship called the “Unbelievable”?

The artist plays with our human ambition to travel and always discover new things and the nostalgia of the great discoverers. I think his artefacts of the Unbelievable might also be a reference to what future generations might find about us when they go on discovery missions. Hirst also refers to Greek mythology and theology. Very often, it will take you some time to realize what you are actually seeing.

Look at this “artefact”.

You will come across real artefacts – or sometimes what you consider to be real – but then you will also come across some funny exhibitions: a Mickey Mouse statue covered with corals in front of a photo as “proof” that this piece was excavated from the Unbelievable.

The excavation of Mickey Mouse.

The exhibition is displayed not only at Palazzo Grassi but also at Punta della Dogana and the ticket is valid for both. (You do not have to visit them on the same day, the ticket is valid longer than on the day of purchase).

Damien Hirst’s works form a perfect symbiosis with the rooms.

The monumental perspective of the exhibition does not stop at the statue at Palazzo Grassi. There are huge exhibits at the Dogana as well. According to the museum, it took Damien Hirst over 10 years to prepare this exhibition. And when I looked at the exhibits and the involved attention to detail, I was not surprised about this long period of time.

The interior of the Punta della Dogana reminded me of the interior of a ship and creates great synergies with the exhibition’s underwater theme.

Apart from the exhibition itself, the buildings of the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana are beautiful and a must for architecture lovers. I really liked the synergy of the underwater concept with the interior of the Dogana, which makes you feel like being inside a ship.

The beautiful ceiling of Palazzo Grassi

Summing up, I really enjoyed the exhibition. I am a (not so) secret admirer of Hirst’s art and this exhibition was one of my highlights of my recent trip to Venice – love me or hate me for this. 😉 If you do not like his art, I do think it is a very impressive exhibition from a logistics point of view and regarding the buildings hosting the exhibition. Furthermore, it is kind of fun walking trough this fairytale and experiencing the uncertainty of fiction and reality.

I actually had to look twice to spot Baloo, the bear, and Mogli

Hirst is often being criticized for being commercial. And it is obvious that for this current exhibition, this is one of the major points of criticism you will find. However, I enjoyed his references to commercialization and the craze for luxury goods. At the times when the Unbelievable set sail these goods were gold, statues and jewellery. Today, it might be a designer bag or a comic collectors’ item. I really appreciated Hirst’s explicit references to these topics. Maybe because I spend so much time in Asian countries, where mass consumption has become “the” major hobby and you feel like an outsider if you do not have an expensive designer bag. Furthermore, this exhibition is fun to visit and will make you laugh. And who says that art cannot be fun? Therefore, I think the exhibition might actually attract people who are usually not the typical “museum crowd”.

And as if Damien Hirst had planned it as a reference to this gigantic and luxurious exhibition, if we look outside, we can spot a massive Yacht docked outside of the Dogana…

Perfect coincidence…

The exhibition is open until December 3rd, 2017 at Palazzo Grassi  and Punta della Dogana.

Opening hours (both locations): open daily (except Tuesdays) 10 am – 7 pm (last entry at 6 pm (and the museums are really strict about that))

Tickets: Regular ticket: EUR 18 (about USD 20), concession tickets available (e.g. for students): EUR 15 (about USD 17)

Palazzo Grassi, Campo San Samuele 3231, Vaporetto stops: San Samuele (Line 2) and Sant’Angelo (Line 1)

Punta della Dogana, Dorsoduro 2; Vaporetto stop: Salute

Sources: Information based on the guides and press material of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. Website:


View from the Punta della Dogana

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