Damien Hirst and His Aztec 'Treasures'

Damien Hirst and His Aztec 'Treasures'
Andrea Merola/ANSA via AP
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Hailing from modern day central and southern Mexico, the Aztec Empire flourished in the period from 1345-1521. The Aztecs were eventually conquered by the conquistadors of Hernan Cortes and King Charles of Spain. However, the Aztecs 221-year reign introduced the western world to many things, including poetry, forms of medicine and chewing gum. The Aztecs were also the first civilization to introduce mandatory education for everyone.

Despite the relatively short existence of the Aztecs, the empire left a huge presence on human civilization to this day. Despite being a somewhat barbaric empire, which cruelly and violently punished any tribes in the area that dared to oppose them, the Aztecs left a profound history of art, culture and architecture. Aztec engineering achievements include the construction of a double aqueduct as well as causeways, artificial islands and dykes.

Art was a principal part of Aztec life. Aztec art included masks, pottery, shields, knives, carved pillars and painted walls. The Aztecs would often create art in order to honour and praise their gods. Aztec nobility would often wear jewelry and feather-work to set them apart from commoners.

Exploring how world views Aztec art

Ray Hernandez Duran of the University of Mexico wrote that:

“Following the Spanish Conquest, responses to Aztec art were varied. While architecture and many sacred sculptures were demolished and their material remains recycled into new construction, other works were either repurposed to fulfil new functions in the colonial setting or sent to Europe where they were collected and admired.

“Eventually, Aztec objects transitioned from being perceived as exotic curiosities in royal collections and world’s fairs to historical and archaeological artifacts to works of art appreciated by audiences in Mexico, as signifiers of national identity and indigenous achievement, and in museum exhibitions abroad where Aztec art often continues to be enigmatic, misunderstood, or unknown.”

On the other hand, Guardian writer Laura Cumming writes that “Aztec art appears to be shaped by a fear of death and catastrophe … nothing in Aztec art speaks of humanity or beauty … Aztec sculptures go some way to explaining the Aztec way of death as the voyage into life.”

Aztec art continues to inspire numerous artists to this day. From fashion and décor to video games and Megaways slots, Aztec art continues to influence 21st century minds. One of the greatest artists of the 21st century, Damien Hirst, created his own Aztec art.

Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasure From the Wreck of the Unbelievable’

The British artist Damien Hirst continues to be a rather divisive artist, despite his incredible influence on the art world. His Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition in Venice in 2017 was incredible due to the sheer audacity of the artist to mix history and art with one another. The exhibition showcases a variety of objects which on first inspection look as though they truly were discovered in the wreck of a sunken treasure ship called the Apistos (this is what the curators told the press). Of course, it was Damien Hirst who created each and every one of the ‘treasures’ shown in the exhibition.

One of Hirst’s "treasures" includes a Calendar Stone which is thought to have been direly inspired by the Aztec sun stone aka calendar stone, perhaps the most famous work of Aztec creation. The Aztec sun stone depicts the five consecutive worlds of the sun from Aztec mythology. Hirst’s recreation of the stone is heavily encrusted in corals and other marine life, it is meant to have spent hundreds of years under the sea afterall.  Although the sunstone is described by one Guardian art critic as "looking like a prop from an Indiana Jones movie" the Hirst-created sunstone is the first piece of treasure on display in the exhibition.  It is unknown why the artist chose to display the sunstone as the opening treasure though.

Using the copy of the Aztec sunstone, Hirst created a fictional museum that could quite easily deceive many people into believing it is showcasing real artifacts from history. The real sunstone is currently held in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. Does the process of keeping artifacts and treasures of extinct civilizations immortalise them?  Did civilizations that we have no record of having ever existed actually exist? Of course, they did. But Hirst’s "Treasure from the Wreck of the Unbelievable" puts into perspective the practice of collecting and why we go to museums and why we choose to remember past civilisations that were our ancestors and that other ancestors destroyed.

Understanding meaning of Hirst's exhibit

Nietzsche as stated in ‘The Madman’ said that: “God … we have killed him, you and I. All of us are his murderers … What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun. Wither is it moving now? Wither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continuously backwards, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Did we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? ...  God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we murderer of all murderers comfort ourselves? ... Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? Must we not ourselves become God simply to seem worthy of it?”

Could Hirst’s copy and use of the Aztec sunstone perhaps hint that the sun as Nietzsche describes is still with us? Or maybe it is the sun as Hirst has created it. Is Hirst characterising himself as a God through the use of his own sun stone?

Hirsts’ exhibition is perhaps questioning our belief system and stating through his exhibition that even if your belief system is relatively insufficient and easily challenged on intellectual grounds, the fact that it does lay out a moral structure is an advantage. And the effect to establish such a system is worthwhile. Hirst’s exhibition, which fooled a lot of people with its obvious fantasy elements, is flawed, but that doesn’t mean to say that the effort to establish such a system is worthless, it is still worthwhile.

Perhaps Hirst continues to fill empty spaces full of objects so that we no longer have to feel the breath of empty space? The bloodbath that was the destruction of the Aztec Empire was one of the worst massacres in human history. Is Hirst’s sunstone welcoming us into a brave new world? Or is it a black mirror showcasing human atrocity?

The beauty of contemporary art is that it makes one think. Treasure from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is one of the greatest art exhibitions of the 21st century.

You can see the exhibition for yourself here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwfjymPx8kM



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