Artist Date | Damien Hirst at the Galleria Borghese

Artists have the privilege to play with what is reality – what is truth. In constructing “realities” in our imagery, at best, we create often new realities, or challenge existing ones. Damien Hirst’s exhibition Archaeology Now at the Galleria Borghese was a journey into an altered reality, one that at once mirrored and toyed with the classical works surrounding his pieces.

Having just visited the Borghese Gallery “straight” without its current exhibition, it was a refreshing contrast to find myself in a world seamlessly blended between contemporary and classic art. Between Bernini, Canova, and Caravaggio, Hirst offered an element I truly enjoy: the element of surprise.

Here were new forms with a classical vibe – nude figures, mythical creatures, busts, skulls – shown in replicate with varying signs of age and deterioration. What struck me was the sheer beauty of the ocean’s markings on many sculptures: coral growths, barnacles, shells – a subject unto themselves upon the sculpted, “excavated” works.

True/false? – all the aspects of the show posed this question. The ironically-seriously composed descriptions accompanying each work were often humorous, but always authentic-sounding enough to fool. The sheer luxe of the material added validity to the concept of their importance: gold, silver, coral, turquoise, jade, Carrara marble, bronze. Yet multiple replicas of the forms hinted of manufacturing and knock-offs. Massively oversized shells reproduced perfectly could have fooled even mother nature herself.

Curious, after the show, I probed deeper into the show’s origins through online research. I discovered that Hirst had masterminded a shipwreck of treasures. The story is documented in a film he created, showing the pieces being retrieved from the deep sea before being restored and placed on exhibition.

Natural and man-made, “high” and “low,” real and imagined, past and contemporary – these tensions were what I contemplated during my viewing of this deeply imaginative and intriguing installation.