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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
This is by far one of the best blog articles I’ve read in a long time. As an artist and writer myself, I felt that you totally ‘understood’ me. And of course, those sculptures – such beauty and pain in one.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks so much, Jan – although I am a writer, I think in another life I would be a sculptor or an architect 🙂
Charles Harris says
Hi Joanna – a great post. I love the way you highlight the importance of thinking big and having ambition. It’s all too easy to get weighed down by all the little things.
I’m not, myself, a great Hirst fan – love some of his works, have doubts about others – but he is not afraid to aim high.
Zen archers tell us to aim beyond the target. We need to get the detail right but remember to be exciting too!
Joanna Penn says
I’m glad you found it useful, Charles. And yes, we need to stand on the mountain top sometimes and look up and ahead, not always down at the minutiae 🙂
Sukhi Jutla says
A great post that encourages artists to aim high. Really interesting how Hirst gravitates to and creates the environment where he will excel, something we can all learn from. It’s also important to assume you will be successful (so it motivates you to do the work) rather than just ‘hope’ it all works out.
I really like where you also say we need to create an experience from our stories because that is what people want. I always believe a GOOD book is one which the reader gets enjoys. But a GREAT book is one that changes the person in some way ie in the way they think or by implementing a change you suggested.
Can I also just admit that I thought the wreck was real (not from his imagination) until you pointed it out! (Face in my hands right now!)
Joanna Penn says
It’s awesome that you thought the wreck was real 🙂
Kudzai Pasirayi says
Wow. I am so inspired by this blog article to be a creator for generation work that speaks. I don’t think I will ever write a boring children’s book or take ordinary images again. I have to be a creator of something special which made from the heart. Thank you for the subscriber email leading me here.
Ian Robinson says
Hi Joanna Good for you taking in evermore culture. I found your piece inspirational. Cheers, Ian PS I’d love you to see my Pinterest, see below. I’m on track to go to Le Mans in 2018.
Vee James says
I read this article and was fascinated by the conclusions you come to in each segment,
Especially the end when you talks about a studio of artists working together. This has been the exact idea I’ve had in mind on a recent game project. We all have different strengths and mutual respect allows us to express ourselves in the great happiness that is creativity. The old way of thinking is to keep it all tightly controlled and locked down, greed driving every decision. The new way of thinking is that there is enough wealth to go around and the creation is more precious than every stinking dollar!
Joanna Penn says
Game projects are definitely suited to collaboration – and more and more creatives are able to do it as we get the tools to work across borders and time zones with the internet!
An awesome reminder how artists don’t have to starve in a dive somewhere… I loved the fusion you sculpted with your words welding art, vision, and the courageous tenacity to think big.
Rachele Baker, DVM says
Some of your insights in this post really resonated with me. Very powerful thoughts: “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?”
I never thought of my writing as leaving a body of work for people to remember me by. Now my writing seems even more important.
I have shared this post on Facebook.
I am a veterinarian and I am in the process of writing two books. I am nearing the finish line on the first one: “7 Simple Ways To Keep Your Dog Healthy.”
I already self-published one book entitled “Eighteen Months To Live.” It contains the end of life journal that my mother kept in her final months of life. She wanted her journal published so that her experiences could help others. I have been gratified by the comments in readers’ reviews that the book has indeed helped many people.
Thank you for sharing your insights.
Anne-Maree Gray says
oh wow… that is very very clever. And a huge risk with such a long term payoff and the millions spent to see his vision. We need Art Patrons back! Like the Medicis… well, not exactly like the Medicis. I guess with things like Patreon we can all be tiny daily patrons.
Joanna Penn says
Exactly – I really feel Patreon is today’s equivalent!
Well thought out interesting piece. The biennale is very special and this reminded me of how exciting it can be. Loved the insights you drew on the creative process. Brava!
Henry Hyde says
Now I’ve seen the exhibition myself, I’m in total accord with what you have written here. The scale of the exhibition, and many of the pieces themselves, is simply majestic. The attention to detail and craftsmanship is breathtaking. But most of all, the sheer brilliance and scope of the concept is almost overwhelming, but deeply inspiring. It’s an exhibition I could have spent days viewing, and still be hungry for more.
It also helps that it’s in a city I love and which part of me calls “home” — my sister lives in Venice ans I’ve been visiting the place for over 40 years. The connection between the place and the maritime theme of the exhibition made it doubly intense. Unforgettable.
I’ve done two gallery posts of the exhibition on my own blog.
Stephanie Leonard says
Love this article.! I am an artist and have always found Hirst daring nature to be inspiring. It is when we reach towards an untapped place of wonder without limiting ourselves that art can truly soar!
Arindom Borah says
Hi Joanna, A fantastic write. I agree with you in all respects. Damien Hirst-the world needs more like him in art. What is your opinion on the criticism that his work attracts-from PETA activists and others of that type? It’s a struggle to find any writing on Hirst which places his art first. Would love to know your thoughts about his alleged cruelty to animals and other ‘sins’. Does Art really exist within in a vessel labeled ‘Art’? Shouldn’t art be dimension and definition free?
All the best
Joanna Penn says
Everyone attracts critics. That’s just part of putting your work out there.