Damien Hirst’s most ambitious and complex project to date, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” has been almost ten years in the making. Exceptional in scale and scope, the exhibition tells the story of the ancient wreck of a vast ship, the ’Unbelievable’ (<i>Apistos</i> in the original Koine Gre<i>ek</i>), and presents what was discovered of its precious cargo.
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Former CEO of the Louvre Museum
<span class="alinea"></span><i>Ekphrasis</i> rightly appears in the <i>Dictionary of Untranslatables</i>. The French “description” and English “depiction” do not fully cover its meaning. And even resorting to etymology—from <i>phrazô</i>, “to make understood, explain” and <i>ek</i>, “fully”—only offers a suggestion of its true function, because this word has advanced, and become enriched during that journey through the centuries by examples of use that have both clarified and deepened it. So we will have to adopt the driest and most accurate definition: “a wording that exhausts its object, and terminologically designates the descriptions, meticulous and complete, that we make of works of art.”<sup>1</sup> The description in <i>The Iliad</i> of the shield of Achilles (the model and origin of <i>ekphrasis</i>) and its numerous sculptural reconstructions, its equivalent in Hesiod (the shield of Hercules) and Virgil (the shield of Aeneas), the fabrics woven in their contest by Minerva and Arachne in Ovid’s <i>Metamorphoses</i>, without forgetting the ancient descriptions of lost works that have stirred the imaginations of so many architects, painters and sculptors. In the concluding entry to her 2004 book <i>Dictionary of Untranslatables</i>, Barbara Cassin notes that:
“With <i>ekphrasis</i>, we are further from both nature and the first natural science of philosophy, whose goal is to tell things as they are—and insofar as they are, and by what cause. We are also at the furthest remove from an innocent and ontologically phenomenological description. We find ourselves in the world of art and artifice, ruled by and following the effective, performative capacity of speech that has been freed from truth and falsehood, as it sets out to say not what it sees, but to make seen what it says.”<sup>2</sup>
<span class="alinea"></span>In the cargo of the <i>Apistos</i>, one finds, quite naturally, the <i>Shield of Achilles</i>, on which is inscribed the earth, sky and sea, stars and constellations, human cities, royal domain, the lives of soldiers and farmers. This is an allegory: Hephaestus, Homer tells us, for nine years and in great secrecy, with “no one, neither god nor mortal, knowing anything about it”, worked to forge many works of art, “brooches, and supple armlets, and rosettes and necklaces, within a deep cave, and around him flowed, the immense Ocean stream.” <sup>3</sup> Over a similar period, the Amotan collection was created by a new Hephaestus, his workshop comparable to the mythical forge.
<span class="alinea"></span>Artwork titles sometimes precede the works themselves: scattered and floating words that the demiurge embodies in a solid creation. If the words are realized from the beginning, the title is no longer, in the case of the Amotan collection, just the beginning, an indication of a process: it constitutes part of the work itself, which creates its own <i>ekphrasis</i>. Attached to this title consubstantially is the accompanying apparatus (provenance and historical background, exhibitions) and the gloss it generates, in an even more reasoned way.
<span class="alinea"></span>I know of no sculptural equivalent to “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”. It is hardly surprising that we should look for one in a literary enterprise. Like Flaubert in <i>Salammbô</i>, the artist wants “to fix a mirage by applying to antiquity the methods of modern art [the novel, in Flaubert’s case].” <sup>4</sup> The goal is not science but art: “The important thing above all is to have sharp images, to create an illusion.” <sup>5</sup> And so it is that “everything fits together.” The artist in his turn has created a “gigantic epic”, a complete recreation of a world whose mythological or historical costume should never let us forget that it is of our time, where Proteus and Pazuzu rub shoulders with Apollo, haunted by Medusa and the Mouse, illuminated or disfigured by love, war, death, money, everything of which Damien is the name.
Excerpt from the text “On the Name of” published in the catalogue of the exhibition: « Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable » (Marsilio Editori, Other Criteria, 2017).
1—Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, Barbara Cassin (ed.),
(Paris: Le Robert/Seuil, 2004), p. 205<br>
3—Homer, The Iliad, XVIII, 380–617<br>
4—From Flaubert’s letter to literary critic Sainte-Beuve, December 23–24, 1862<br>
5—From Flaubert’s letter to his friend Louis Bouilhet, October 8, 1857