A monumental apparition towering over twenty-three feet in height, The Warrior and the Bear is an extraordinary tour de force from Damien Hirst’s landmark 2017 exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. Greeting visitors in the very first room at the Punta della Dogana in Venice, its vast, glistening coral-covered surface set the tone for what was widely hailed as the artist’s most ambitious undertaking to date. The exhibition posed as a triumphant unveiling of buried treasure—once owned by the legendary collector Cif Amotan II—whose hoard of artefacts had supposedly been shipwrecked off the coast of East Africa. Excavated from the depths of the Indian Ocean, so the story told, the vessel’s ill-fated cargo now appeared before the public after more than two thousand years. Conjuring the Greek maturation ritual of arkteia—in which young girls would imitate female bears as part of a sacrificial dance—the present work confronts the viewer like an ancient, totemic wonder, its lustrous bronze surface seemingly rescued from the ravages of time. Blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, it speaks to the central theme of Hirst’s practice: that all encounters with art demand a leap of faith, and a momentary suspension of belief.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made.”
Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was all-consuming in its scope. The fable of Cif Amotan II—an anagram for “I am a fiction”—was as elaborate as it was remarkable. As the exhibition guide explained, Amotan was a former slave from Antioch who lived between the mid-first and early-second centuries CE. After obtaining freedom, he built a large fortune that led him to acquire a veritable treasure trove of artefacts. The collection had been destined for a purpose-built temple aboard the gigantic ship Apistos (“unbelievable” in Koine Greek) when fate intervened, leaving the hoard to flounder at the bottom of the ocean. In 2008, the story continued, the wreck was discovered near the ancient trading port of Azania, as relayed in the feature-length Netflix documentary produced in conjunction with the exhibition. The show’s narrative, however, deliberately muddied questions of authenticity from the very start, explaining that Amotan’s collection of “commissions, copies, fakes, purchases and plunders”—some of which were awaiting restoration—were displayed alongside “a series of contemporary museum copies” (Exhibition guide for Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Punta della Dogana, Venice, 2017, p. 3). Such rhetoric captured the very essence of the project, forcing the viewer to question where myth ends and art begins.
I believe in art, I believe in objects … We all believe what we want to believe.”
Ideas about belief—and its relationship to art—have long guided Hirst’s practice. Working in the legacy of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, he is fascinated by the systems in which we choose to place our faith. This conceptual focus is borne out in his navigation of fields such as science, nature, religion and history, using art as a means of throwing their truth claims into relief. His early use of live insects in works such as A Thousand Years (1990) showed that life and death were as fleeting as pen and paper. His celebrated medicine cabinets, meanwhile, suggested that the miracles of science were no less worthy than those of art. The present work might be seen in particular relation to his formaldehyde tanks, in which Hirst sought to artificially arrest the process of organic decay. Here, the pristine simulation of barnacles and coral seems to perform this process in reverse, consciously emulating the effects of corrosion. From the viewer’s perspective, however, the visual impact is the same: in both, art seemingly triumphs over nature, halting the march of time and forcing us into a state of disbelief.
The exhibition’s conceit was further enhanced by its infrastructure: in particular the detailed descriptions of each item that drew the viewer deeper into the world of Amotan. The present work was accompanied by a note recounting the “act of sanctioned wildness” performed by Athenian girls following the slaying of a bear. The ritual was designed to appease Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, by “expelling the animalistic qualities of a woman’s nature in preparation for a life of domesticity.” In this work, however—ran the description— “[the] figure subverts the tradition by celebrating the ferocity that inhered within the goddess” (Exhibition guide for Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Punta della Dogana, Venice, 2017, p. 7). Rising up like a warrior from the deep, the work’s protagonist seems to capture the spirit of the exhibition itself, rewriting her own myth as she wrestles with the forces of nature. Veracity—as in the tale of Amotan—becomes secondary to the sheer sense of awe that arises from our encounter with the work: the “unbelievable”, if only for a second, becomes a reality.
Lot Essay Header Image : Present lot illustrated (detail).