As a leading figure of the Young British Artists (YBAs) in the 1980s, Damien Hirst has become known for his striking installations and grand gestures that ruffle the feathers of the art world while constructing biting commentary on numerous subjects. Unknown Pharaoh is an exquisitely realized work that tackles notions of historical fact and fiction, and signals a return to more monumental projects for the artist. Following the thread of his oeuvre to date, although elevated to a new level, Hirst’s sculpture recalls ideas of death and human life in the face of the continuous march of time. Recalling a funerary statue from Ancient Egypt but taking on the guise of a contemporary figure, Unknown Pharaoh asks the viewer to combine ancient views on the afterlife with today’s beliefs. “Death is one of those things,” Hirst has explained. “To live in a society where you’re trying not to look at it is stupid, because looking at death throws us back into life with more vigour and energy. The fact that flowers don’t last forever makes them beautiful” (D. Hirst, quoted in E. Day, “Damien Hirst: Art is childish and childlike’’, The Observer, September 26, 2010). Even the title, suggesting that the particular god-ruler of Ancient Egypt depicted is unrecognizable and unnamable, forces one to consider the nature of time and the fact that even someone so revered in life could be forgotten in death.
Carved out of Carrara marble, a stone used since the times of Ancient Rome, Unknown Pharaoh depicts the head and torso of a shirtless man in pharaonic dress. The eyes are closed, atypical of common Egyptian statuary, and the mouth is set in a slight frown. The nemes headdress, the striped cloth adornment worn by Ancient Egyptian rulers and famously seen in the death mask of Tutankhamun, sits atop the man’s head to signify his status. A uraeus, a stylized cobra, adorns his brow. As far as the iconography goes, Unknown Pharaoh has all of the trappings of a work from Ancient Egypt. However, the body is incredibly lifelike in its rendering, and the face and muscles are less stylized than one would expect from a civilization so strict in its depictions of people. Furthermore, an obvious piercing in the man’s left nipple separates this figure from the distant past. The whole work has been constructed to seem like a lost fragment from a larger, full-body statue, when it is actually a fabrication by Hirst. The rough edges of marble at the arms and mid-torso were left as such to give the impression of cracking and breaking, yet the delicate headdress and snakes are perplexingly unharmed. Hirst’s interest in the depiction and understanding of time throughout his oeuvre is apparent here as he constructs a faux-historical object.
Part of a larger dialogue, Unknown Pharaoh is one of Hirst’s self-styled ‘found treasures’ from his monumental project at Punta Della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi in 2017, over the Venice Biennale entitled Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable. Accompanied by a full documentary about the discovery of a lost shipwreck, Hirst’s exhibition is a tongue-in-cheek blending of fact and fiction. The story suggests that each work was part of a large collection put together by a former slave name Cif Amotan II in the 1st or 2nd century. Lost in a shipwreck off the coast of east Africa, each work was brought to the surface by divers to be displayed in Venice. The broader story goes that Hirst financed the salvage in the Indian Ocean, but the fact is that the entire story, film, and trove of treasures are fabrications by the artist. Always one to play with the serious nature of the art world, Hirst does not try to discount or deny his more than surface level involvement in the project. Even looking at Unknown Pharaoh, one can note more similarities to modern day personalities (it is allegedly based on the musician Pharrell Williams) than anything ancient. Furthermore, the blending of seemingly historical objects and mythical figures like Medusa with anachronistic celebrities and cartoon characters (Rihanna, Optimus Prime, and Mickey Mouse are among the coral-covered statues within the greater collection) makes Hirst’s intent known. Though many artists today deal with pop culture and appropriate commercial figures into their commentaries, Hirst takes it to the ultimate. Writing about the overall exhibition to which this work belongs, Janelle Zara notes, “[W]hat shows through here is still the Hirst we know, the artist preoccupied with pseudo-scientific inquiries, jewel-encrusted relics, seriality, repetition, and the careful preservation of the dead. Instead of drugs, he offers glass cabinets full of treasures: scimitars and spoons crusted over with orange rusts and gorgeous cerulean oxides—row after row of beautiful fabrications, in both senses of the word” (J. Zara, “One Man’s Trash is Damien Hirst’s Treasure,” ARTnews, April 21, 2017). Though continuously shifting his medium, the conceptual basis for which Hirst is known is largely intact. Coalescing the past with the present, Unknown Pharaoh serves as a timely reminder that history informs the future.
Born in Bristol in 1965, Hirst studied at Goldsmiths College in the late 1980s. There, he became a friend and colleague to what would become the earliest group of YBAs. In 1988, Hirst curated an exhibition titled Freeze in a London Warehouse which served as the catalyst for the group’s wider recognition and attracted the patronage of a variety of collectors, namely Charles Saatchi. From there, Hirst became known for his use of preserved and rotting animals, as well as his interest in various aspects of human existence, going on to win the Turner Prize in 1992. Glass tanks full of formaldehyde, as well as vitrines meant to enclose lifecycles (as in A Thousand Years ) became his calling card as he examined the ways in which society deals with ideas of death and life. The blockbuster traveling exhibition Sensation, which was displayed in London, Berlin, and New York from 1997-2000 cemented Hirst and his fellow YBAs into the annals of art history. Hirst has always been one to embrace the extravagant and the extreme, but his exhibition of Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable takes his interest in ‘performance’ to a new level. Yet, as much as Unknown Pharaoh and its brethren are the product of a mind that thrives on flash and spectacle, it remains true that Hirst’s commentary on the course of humanity is often subtly potent. One can take the pharaonic fragment at face value, noting the celebrity visage thrust into Egyptian iconography, but by taking Hirst’s oeuvre into consideration, the relative brevity of human life in the grand scheme and our continuous efforts to create lasting tributes to the past becomes starkly clear.