Damien Hirst’s monumental new show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable looks and feels utterly gorgeous. An extraordinary assemblage of over 2,000 objects, carefully raised off the seabed from the wreck of the Apistos and convincingly displayed in Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, two of Venice’s heavyweight museums. Here is a statue of Laocoön writhing in agony, there a coral encrusted sphinx. Shields from ancient Greece, swords and scabbards, a cabinet filled with ancient artefacts that would not be out of place in The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. But none of it is real. It is all an illusion.
In a world growing used to fake news, we now have fake heritage.
This is nothing new. History is littered with examples of counterfeit-history. I visited The Horniman Museum in south London last weekend. First opening its doors in 1890 to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’, it is a treasure trove of fossils, musical instruments and stuffed animals. In a case of its own, is a merman. Blackened, twisted and grotesque, it glares out with unmistakable fish tail and grotesque human[ish] head. It isn’t alone. Numerous other museums across the world proudly display their own mermen. All made by Frankensteinian hands combining everything from monkey heads and fish bodies to chicken claws, papier-mâché and wire. The circus showman, P.T. Barnum, famously exhibited one in 1842 named the FeeJee Merman, which sparked yet more ‘discoveries’. All fake, and part of a long trend that can be traced back to a centuries-old Shinto tradition in Japan.
An enduring theme
The list goes on: the Calaveras skull from California found in 1866, the Tiara of Saitaferne (acquired by the Louvre in 1896), the Shapira Strips (presented as an ancient scroll in 1883) and my favourite, the Cardiff Giant. This three-metre ‘petrified’ man allegedly found in 1869 in Cardiff, New York, was actually carved from a single block of gypsum, given ‘pores’ and aged using acid. A giant fake giant, which prompted our friend, P.T. Barnum, to create a replica when his offer to purchase the original from its owner, David Hannum, was rejected… a fake, fake giant. Inevitably, the two were soon at loggerheads over authenticity and took their dispute to court. The judge promised a favourable outcome for Hannum, but only if his giant attended the injunction personally and swore to its ‘own genuineness’. It failed to turn up.
You couldn’t make it up – but then again, perhaps you could… they did…
Or what of the countless sham ruins that adorn the landscapes of Europe’s stately homes? Want a distressed Gothic castle to complement your 18th century mansion? Then the must-have architect was Sanderson Miller, a man famous for his ready-distressed designs for places such as Wimpole in Norfolk, or Hagley in Worcestershire. Deliberately ruined walls, incomplete towers, elaborate traceried windows opening onto nothing but fresh air, all designed to catch the eye and celebrate links to a distant and noble past, real and unreal.
21st Century Fakery
And it is not all about Georgian or Victorian deceit. The London Blue plaque scheme is the oldest in the world – now run by English Heritage, and spawning many other schemes across the UK. Its 900+ circular blue plaques adorn buildings around the city, tagging them with an authentic stamp declaring Charles Dickens, Horace Walpole or Freddie Mercury… ‘lived here’. More recently, there has been a spate of bogus plaques. Fans of the late Graham Chapman, disgruntled that the Monty Python actor was dropped from the official scheme, decided to erect one in his memory. It reads: Jacob Von Hogflume 1864 – 1909. Inventor of time travel lived here… in 2189’. Providing it does not fall foul of local planning legislation and has the appropriate permission of the owner, there is nothing to stop anyone erecting such a sign and creating their own piece of history.
So, what’s new? Is there a difference between Hirst’s Treasures and the missing links of the antiquarians? Many from the past set out to deceive, to hoodwink, each desperate to prove an academic first or generate a profitable sale. Hirst is playing a game. The clue is in the title, both of the exhibition and of the ship, Apistos being ancient Greek for incredible or incredulous, unbelievable. The sunken treasure belongs to Cif Amotan II, an anagram of ‘I am a fiction’. Look closer at the Venice exhibition. Isn’t that Hirst’s own head, and Kate Moss as a winged Egyptian goddess, and a barnacle encrusted Goofy? Knowing nods and clues litter the galleries. This is heritage that reflects the 21st century rather than the distant past. It speaks of fake news, bling and reality TV, of the over-saturated colours of Instagram or the exaggerated fantasy world of CGI and video-gaming. It is heritage extreme.
Welcome to the Palaeo-ironic Era.