Art, Money, Ambition: Lessons Learned From Damien Hirst’s Treasures From The Wreck Of The Unbelievable

Damien Hirst is my favorite modern artist and sculpture is my favorite physical art form, so when I heard Hirst was doing his latest exhibition in Venice, I booked immediately.

treasures It’s only a two-hour flight and filling the creative well is an important part of my writing process. Plus, it’s Venice … 🙂 Here’s what I learned from the trip and you can see all the photos here on Flickr.

(1) Be memorable. Create a body of work that you’re proud of

We walked into the Palazzo Grassi and were immediately faced by a gigantic 60-foot sculpture of a demon. It had the form of a headless man but with the claws and spine of something not quite of this world. As we walked up the three levels of the Palazzo, it drew our eyes at every turn, beautiful and raw, encrusted with deep sea coral and (seemingly) marked by history. It must have been built inside the venue, because there was no way it could come in any other way.

Demon with Bowl, Damien Hirst

Demon with Bowl, Damien Hirst

Other pieces that particularly stuck out for me: a tableau of Andromeda and the sea monster in brilliant blue, crawling with gigantic crabs, the mouth of the great white shark opening to devour the naked princess. A young goddess with altars either side of her, rust reflecting the orange marigolds. Kali fighting the Hydra. A brilliant green head of Medusa with writhing snakes carved from jade. Cronos devouring his children.

These pieces will stick in my mind, alongside Hirst’s Anatomy of an Angel, For the Love of God, and I am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds – his butterfly canvas that captures ephemeral beauty into a form of stained glass. His work is truly unforgettable, so what about our writing?

We only have one life and the hours tick away every day. What do you want to use that time to create? What is the body of work that you want people to remember?

These were the questions that I thought about as I turned for one last glimpse at the gigantic demon.

(2) Create a story and an experience around the work

After the entrance hall, two small cinemas played videos of the discovery of the wreck off the east coast of Africa. A ship had sunk, filled with treasures collected by a rich ex-slave from all over the world, and the pieces had been brought up two thousand years later. The videos showed divers finning around the pieces on the ocean floor, eerie scenes of torchlight playing over the ancient figures, then lift bags and winches carrying them to the surface where archaeologists cleaned them off.


Skull of cyclops, Damien Hirst

There were photographs around the exhibition as well, the skull of the cyclops on the sea floor next to the recovered piece, a diver hovering by it. A unicorn with horn intact underwater and then the cleaned piece with the horn broken off in a glass case, with a label explaining that it had broken in the recovery process. I don’t know whether they sunk the pieces in order to film and photograph them, or whether it was all CGI, but it was a very cool artifice.

Each piece was labelled as in a museum, with a description of mythology and meaning. In a corner of each room were the labels you’d expect in an art gallery, with descriptions of the materials used for the piece. But they were discreet, and you’d only find them if you were looking.

We heard one of the tour guides explaining how a particular gold monkey had been found in the net of a fisherman and led to the wreck being found, and a woman talking about how incredible it was that they had found all this under the ocean.

The wreck story was maintained across the whole exhibition, which was structured more like a museum than an art gallery. There were glass cases with lines of coins and weapons, reminiscent of the Assyrian rooms in the British Museum. 

The story behind the experience heightened our appreciation of the work. We found ourselves smiling and shaking our heads at how clever the design was, and the incredible attention to detail needed to maintain the fantasy.

Of course, we can’t necessarily create such an intricate web of story around our books, but we can share the journey and our influences as we create. We can also include Easter eggs in our stories, weaving in cultural and series references that make our readers smile along the way.

(3) Steal like an artist

kali hydra

Kali fights the Hydra. Damien Hirst

Each piece was rich in mythology, and the creativity came in combining them into something new.

Examples include a giant sculpture of Kali, multi-armed goddess from Indian Hindu culture, fighting the Hydra, the many-headed snake from Greek myth. A Mickey Mouse figure, aged and covered in coral, as if the modern world had imposed itself back into the ancient. A woman, draped in folds of a Greek dress, with the head and wings of a fly in a parody of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The foot of a colossus with a wrinkled mouse scurrying across it, an ear growing out of its back. Ancient weapons, swords and spears, with a futuristic gun in the middle, the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, all found under the sea.

There are no rules. You can take ideas from all cultures, all civilisations. You will never be stuck for ideas if you mine the riches of what has gone before and then turn it into something new.

(4) Art, money, ambition

The last night we were in Venice was also the opening night of the Biennale, when the city celebrates the art world. The uber-rich arrive in their super-yachts and the parties begin. There is serious money in Venice all year round, but it definitely spikes during the Biennale.


Aspect of Katie Ishtar Yolandi, Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst chose to set his exhibition in Venice for a reason. Some of the pieces had to have been designed for the two venues – the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta Della Dogana. But there’s also the fact that it is a fantastic showcase for his artwork at a time when some of the richest collectors are in the city. As art fills the canal sides, his work stands as the most dominant, even just by sheer volume at 189 pieces of art.

After the exhibition ends, many of the pieces will disappear into the hands of collectors, and some will end up in galleries. I hope the 60-foot demon will be somewhere public because it is truly awesome. But a lot of it will be sold, and the money will be used to start building Hirst’s next ambitious creation. This show has taken nearly 10 years and many millions to create. 

I love his ambition and the fact that Damien Hirst chooses to play at the top end of the market.

Some of the artworks looked priceless, as if they had come out of a museum, and that will affect the price tag. Hirst definitely doesn’t ascribe to the myth of the ‘starving artist in the garret.’ He is more in the mould of Picasso than Van Gogh, the former artist wealthy and prolific in his lifetime, dying with an estate worth around $500 million.

I meet so many authors who sell themselves short, when control and ownership of intellectual property assets can be worth so much more in the long run. Hirst has built his reputation over years, moving from smaller works to larger scale projects and now this, the Unbelievable, perhaps his most ambitious work yet. In the same way, we can build our careers over time and create an impressive body of work – and accumulate wealth – if that’s what we want.

(5) The creative scale of the artist’s workshop

Demon with Bowl, Damien Hirst.

Demon with Bowl, Damien Hirst.

Damien Hirst did not personally make every piece in the exhibition. Just like Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel by himself.

Artists who work on this scale have a workshop, assistants, other craftspeople who turn their ideas into reality. Does this make them any less of an artist? 

I don’t think so. Because this scale of creative ambition is way beyond one person to create in a lifetime.

Do we ask architects to build their own structures? Or expect chefs to cook every dish?

In the writing world, the equivalent would be James Patterson, who co-writes with lots of other authors, although the stories originate in his mind. Plenty of authors criticise Patterson in the same way that artists accuse Damien Hirst of selling out or ‘not being a real artist.’ I don’t think either of them pays any attention. They just get on with making their art. 

I highly recommend Patterson’s fantastic Masterclass, which changed my mindset around co-writing and led to Risen Gods and American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice. Kindle Worlds is a similar idea, as is the comic book world of Marvel. In the indie author world, Michael Anderle has started with this kind of approach, working with other authors to create in his fictional Kurtherian world.

I think this ‘workshop’ approach to writing will expand along with the indie community as it is increasingly easy to collaborate on projects that are much more ambitious than one writer could handle alone. 

Overall, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was an incredible exhibition and if you can get to Venice to see it, then I highly recommend it. If not, check out my photos here

Please join the conversation and leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below. 

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