What makes more than 32 million people in the U.S. and fans around the world crazy over HBO’s record-breaking series, Game of Thrones?
Maybe it’s our love of fantasy? Even though we know creator R.R. Martin’s storylines are make-believe, they feel as real as the locations – Malta, Morocco, Croatia, Iceland, Spain and Northern Ireland – where they were filmed. Or maybe we identify with the warring personalities of the Seven Kingdoms and the dominant women vying for power in unpredictable battle scenes and plot-driven entertainment that’s as richly complex as our own history of civilization? Whatever it is, Damien Hirst’s popular Arte Biennale show in Venice, Italy entitled, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” provides a timely example of how treasured art meets storied women warriors that merge our love of fantasy, history and entertainment.
Visitors to the Hirst exhibit move beyond the romantic waterways of Venice’s Grand Canal and into the underwater world of buried treasure. The 53,000 square foot gallery space sets the tone, with an entryway display of three spectacularly large pieces: a massive stone Mayan calendar, a large photograph of deep sea divers excavating artifacts from the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and a large bronze female diver statue covered in colorful coral and oceanic crustaceans. The calendar seems out of place but suggests visitors are traveling back in time, before the sunken treasures from Apistos, a Roman ship, were discovered in 2008 off the coast of Africa.
The buried treasure from 2,000 years ago is presented as a collection of fabled treasures from the legend of Cif Amotan II, a freed slave from Antioch. He amassed incredible wealth around the first century AD and constructed large installations in Alexandria that were transported down the Nile River. The plan was to assemble them at Myos Hormos, a temple museum. But the ship sunk before it reached land.
As visitors walk through gallery halls and stroll two levels of interesting artifacts hidden in every corner, they learn about the process Hirst used to create his unique artwork. Big cast moldings made from the recovered pieces were painstakingly replicated with the use of molds transformed into fantastical works of art over a ten-year period. Each area displays a variety of artifacts from glass showcases of coins, jewelry, bowls, and masks, to larger scale treasures. Detailed descriptions provide information about their origin and historical significance.
Hirst’s creative artwork can be seen online in various reviews and video sites like YouTube, where critics debate its authenticity and artistic integrity. By the end of the tour, it’s difficult to know what is real and what has been carefully reinvented to look like an historic piece.
But critics miss the point. Hirst’s exhibit is meant to be a combination of real and invented art that pays homage to important works as well as our imagination.
What follows is a description of some of his larger installations that focus on women warriors. They offer the perfect parallel to the powerful women in Game of Thrones while also providing a provocative discussion of their history.
The first of five sculptures is The Diver at the exhibit entrance. She is a fifteen-foot statue, standing at the bow of gallery; the gallery floor plan is designed to resemble the shape of a ship. Seeing The Diver immediately reminded us of the same defiant posture we see in Queen Daenerys I Targaryen. At the end of season six, Daenerys stands regally on the deck of her navy’s flagship in this Businessinsider.com photo, charging into war with her new naval fleet while dragons circle overhead.
The Diver also looks like Cersei Lannister as she proclaims herself Queen of Kings Landing after the death of her son, Tommen. Cersei stands with a cache of swords behind her, merciless and ready to employ any violent means for harnessing power.
Three large sculpture further into the gallery denote more obvious warrior women images. The animalistic qualities of women are seen in the Warrior and the Bear, the Lion Women of Asit Mayor, and the Sphinx. The wild looking woman sitting on top of the bear represents the ancient Greek ritual, arkteia. Arkteia pays homage to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt who was admired for her animalistic qualities. When Athenians slayed a bear as a sacrifice to Artemis, the city’s girls would imitate she-bears by dancing and celebrating their own female ferocity.
This type of dance is also a popular ancient tradition in the Near East, where women were considered divine guards for religious temples. Their protective, semi-god like qualities, are embodied in the sculpture which shows them taming predatory lions. The other animal-like sculpture is the Sphinx, dating back to the Egyptian period. A half-woman, half-animal creature guards the entrance of religious sites like the pyramids.
But one of the most interesting sculptures and photographs in the show depicts the mythological figures of Hydra and Kali. A massive photograph of the two Greek figures appears at the beginning of the exhibit, as if they are doing battle. Hydra was a seven-headed snake-like beast and Hercules’s most terrifying and immortal opponent. Every time one of her heads was cut off in battle, a new head grew back making defeat seem impossible.
Daenerys’ mythological dragons in the Game of Thrones have the same qualities: they are all powerful and destroy Khalessi Daenerys enemies on command. The mythical figure of Kali, aka the goddess of destruction, eventually defeats Hydra and seems to have much in common with Khalessi. Khaleesi is the Mother of Dragons and fans will remember the scene in season four when she is trapped in a burning fire with the Dothraki overlords. The men perish but Khaleesi walks away from the pire, immune from its purge and seemingly immortal.
Daenerys has become the leading contender to recapture the throne of the Seven Kingdoms. She aggressively takes matters into her own hands, wielding weapons of revenge and outmaneuvering her opponents. Both daughters from the House of Stark, Sansa and Arya, show similar strength as they focus on avenging the deaths of family members and looming threats. Arya wields a sword throughout her journey, having left a more skilled and nimble warrior after her stay with the Faceless Man. As she heads for home, Sansa is no longer the victim. She demonstrates strategic foresight sending Littlefinger to the Battle of the Bastards, in time to save Jon Snow and to demonstrate her determination to take back Winterfell.
See the before photo below, showing Hirst’s mold of Kali, the goddess of destruction, and what she looks like after she’s embellished with Hirst’s cretaceous sea life.
The final sculptural art piece from Hirst’s show that communicates the warrior woman theme is the Woman Archer piece. Ygritte, the fallen love of Jon Snow killed in the battle for Castle Black (and pictured in the BusinessInsiders.com photo at the end of the article) exemplifies the role of women archers in medieval battlefields, as do the sword-wielding Yara Greyjoy and Brienne.
As we tune into season seven, we escape ordinary life to see if Daenerys Targaryen will rule Westeros with her dragons, if Sansa Stark or Yara Greyjoy will become Queen of the Iron Throne, and who will win out in the battle between Margaery Tyrell and Cersei Lannister in the looming battle for Queen of Westeros. Artists creating stories of fantasy provide entertainment often rooted in historical significance.
An earlier WomanScape article that mentions the fantasy character of Katniss and her bow and arrow quest to save her nation of Panem did more than entertain us. It showed us the treasures of our imagination and the daring possibilities of art. So even if storytelling is other-worldly and does not ring historically true, as many critics claim Damien Hirst’s exhibit doesn’t, it’s worth the provocative stimulus and discussion that ensues when millions of people can enjoy it.