Damien Hirst’s latest trick is certainly very provoking – but is that enough to qualify it as Art?
This week, having succumbed to the flu, I have had plenty of time on my hands. And so I found myself in front of Netflix wondering what to watch (having already finished all the new Star Trek Discovery episodes). Netflix suggested a documentary entitled “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”. Why not?
The documentary, it turned out, is about an incredible assortment of artefacts coming from the sea bed, off the coast of an (unmentioned) East African country. It had supposedly sank together with a gargantuan Roman ship in the 1st century AD. The archaeologist in me was intrigued.
The name of Damien Hirst, the artist of shark cross-sections fame, popped up as the producer, but I didn’t think much of it. Right at the beginning of the 90-minute documentary, the archaeologists credited with the discovery and the recovery of the artefacts, explained that Hirst had been a willing sponsor. It is not unheard of for the rich to sponsor archaeological digs – quite the contrary. So far so good.
I found myself watching the first twenty or so minutes with a mixture of bewilderment and amazement, trying to figure out the incredible statuary and other artistic pieces that they were showing strewn among coral. True, a few of the artefacts did not fit the style of the period ascribed to the wreck, but that was rendered acceptable by the theory that this could be a one-off eclectic hoard by an ancient collector. The rest seemed pretty believable: all the archaeological clichés of the team were there- including the terminus post quem concept and the unease with finding gold – and so I was willing to watch more. Moreover, the reference to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea was reminiscent of a novel by David Gibbins – himself an archaeologist and whose stories are usually based on plausible archaeological theories.
After a few more minutes, however, it started becoming too good to be true and certain things started to seriously irk me (e.g. a Roman coin with absolutely no patina on it). So I ran a quick Google search. Almost instantaneously I found out that what I was watching was, in fact, a “mockumentary”: in other words a complete fabrication that Hirst created to market his latest exhibition, which carries the same name as the film.
I have to admit that my first reaction was one of anger and revulsion. Anger at the fact that Damien Hirst had tricked me into wasting twenty minutes of my life watching his rubbish and revulsion at the fact that, in an age marked by fake news and post-truths, all it takes is some money to make the “unbelievable” entirely credible.
I fast-forwarded through the rest to find out whether at any point in time Hirst doesn’t let the cat out of the bag. But he doesn’t. As a student of an Archaeology I had found him out quickly (though not quick enough!) and in all probability, most well-read persons would have become suspicious at some point or other during the film. But I am sure that the majority of viewers have found it totally believable. And that would not have made them stupid – the ruse is simply very well made. So well, in fact, that while I admire the genius behind the effective – if devious – marketing, I find the production verging on irresponsible and the distribution by Netflix outright cheating.
Art is meant to shock people. But not everything that shocks me is art.