I visited Damien Hirst Venice exhibition few days after its opening. Now, few days before its closing, reviews have been strongly controversial: a majestic example of creativity or, as Andrew Russet states, “one of the worst exhibitions of contemporary art staged in the past decade“? Regardless of the critics, what remains of “Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable” is a great example of transmedia storytelling.
How to define transmedia storytelling? Referring to Henry Jenkins’ 2006 book Convergence Culture, Wikipedia describes it as a narrative form that, making use of several types of media and formats, develops and delivers a story through unique pieces of content. These are not only linked together, but are in narrative synchronization with each other. In simpler terms, it means that instead of finding the same information in different ways (aka multimedia storytelling), users will have to assemble the story’s overall meaning, by matching all its pieces together, which is definitely more interesting and engaging.
Working in social media communication, I was pleasantly surprised to notice how Hirst put transmedia storytelling into the context of an art exhibition, a situation when visitors are used to experience content mostly in one way: by watching something on the wall.
Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable is more than a huge ensemble of artworks, located in the beautiful spaces of Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana: the moment you get the usual leaflet that comes with the ticket (and most of us throws away) is when you realize there’s something completely different from the last exhibition you saw.
That paper brochure is, indeed, a piece of art itself and the first media contributing to the narration: it tells the 2000-year-old story of Cif Amotan II (anagram of “I Am Fiction”), an Antiochian freed slave who became extremely rich and spent the rest of his life traveling the world by sea with his huge ship Apistos (an Ancient Greek word that means “Unbelievable”) and building an incredible collection of treasures.
After the wreck of the Unbelievable, its treasures seemed lost down the Indian Ocean forever, until Damien Hirst decided to fund a team of archeologists to bring them back to life. And that’s what you see at the exhibition: statues, jewels and eclectic objects alternate with behind the scenes footage documenting the recovery of the treasures’ collection. The hypnotic underwater videos create a distorted sensation; they are totally fake, still completely believable. The whole exhibition is built around this balance.
The concepts of post-truth, replica, myth are the main themes of the story Damien Hirst wants to tell us. The recovered collection represents legends and gods from ancient civilizations, but among them you notice contemporary references and quotes to pop culture, from the Egyptian statues reminding Kate Moss, Rihanna, Pharell, to the Grecian nudes that look like fashion mannequins (“they used to represent the society portrayal of the woman”). Some of the pieces are repeated several times: you see the statue as it was found, marked by the water and covered with shells and corals, its brand new museum replica and a precious version for private collectors.
Of course, a lot of these works are extremely flamboyant and redundant and the use of both standard and precious materials – aluminium, LED, gold, marble, silver, jay, malachite – appears eclectic and fascinating, but can also be perceived as kitsch, egocentric and unnecessary. The real jewels of the exhibition are the captions on the wall: more than the boring date – location – technique info, brief and humorous descriptions brilliantly contribute to the odd credibility of a coral-encrusted Mickey Mouse, a SeaWorld sword, a Transformer figure.They perfectly complete the narration of a story that looks authentic from any point of view. In the time and space of the exhibition, what you see, touch and read is true. As the Damien Hirst himself states, truth is in what you decide to believe in, and that explains the massive use of religious icons: art is like a religion, it works only if you believe. Damien Hirst sold us a lie, and that lie is a piece of art.