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signed, numbered and dated ‘D. Hirst 3/3 MMXI’ (to the underside)
silver, paint
14 3/8 x 9 3/8 x 9 5/8in. (36.5 x 23.9 x 24.6cm.)
Executed in 2011, this work is number three from an edition of three plus two artist’s proofs.
Gagosian Gallery, London.
Corporate Collection (acquired from the above in 2016).
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Venice, Palazzo Grassi, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, 2017 (another from the edition exhibited and illustrated in colour, pp. 170, 324 and 402).
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.
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Lot Essay

Confronting the viewer like a lost relic, Penitent belongs to an edition that formed part of Damien Hirst’s celebrated 2017 exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. Held at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana in Venice, this extraordinary show was a technical and conceptual tour de force, drawing together the artist’s central themes of faith, humanity and the nature of art. Vast in both scale and ambition, the exhibition presented itself as a grand unveiling of buried treasure, purportedly rescued from the depths of the Indian Ocean after two thousand years. The hoard, it claimed, had belonged to the legendary Cif Amotan II—a freed slave from Antioch—whose lavish trove of artefacts had been shipwrecked off the coast of East Africa. Resembling an ancient bust or mask, exquisitely covered with intricately-wrought layers of coral and barnacles, Penitent was one of a number of works which—according to the story—were still awaiting restoration. By inviting the viewer to submit themselves to the tale of Amotan, Hirst drew attention to the act of belief that accompanies all our encounters with visual objects. Art and myth, he proposed, are two sides of the same coin.

The notion of faith lies at the very core of Hirst’s practice. Throughout his oeuvre, he has juxtaposed ideas about science and religion with questions about art-making, probing the different ways in which we are prepared to place our trust in each. His iconic medicine cabinets, for example—each a pristine theatre of pharmaceutical drugs—drew attention to society’s willingness to believe the promises of pills over those of art. ‘I can’t understand why some people believe completely in medicine and not in art,’ he explained, ‘without questioning either’ (D. Hirst, quoted in Damien Hirst, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1991, n.p.). His formaldehyde tanks, too, offered a captivating blend of reality and artifice, miraculously seeming to halt the mortal process of decomposition. Such notions are eloquently brought to bear on the present work and its companions: Penitent seems to be frozen in a state of permanent ambiguity, a masterful reproduction of something that never existed in the flesh. The meticulous opulence of its surface invites comparison with the artist’s celebrated diamond skull, For the Love of God, where the realities of human decay are held in tension with a vision of everlasting decadence.

Penitent operates in the conceptual legacy of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and other artists who have explored the power of the simulacrum. The sheer depth of the exhibition’s scope, however, far outstripped any historical precedent: from the detailed descriptions and narratives attached to each object, to the feature-length Netflix documentary that seemingly charted the process of the cargo’s excavation. Woven into the show’s fabric, nonetheless, were knowing hints of its own fantasy. Eagle-eyed observers would spot that ‘Cif Amotan II’ was an anagram for ‘I am a fiction’. Meanwhile, the name of the fabled ship —‘Apistos’—translates from Koine Greek as ‘unbelievable’. Hirst himself points out that the word itself carries two implications: implausible, and amazing. Whether or not Amotan ever existed is immaterial: the fact remains that, through art, Hirst was able to conjure a story that momentarily compelled its audience to lose themselves in its world. This conviction remains one of driving forces behind his practice: that art is no less true or meaningful than any other system—science, religion, history—through which we choose to interpret reality.

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