Many people have said many things about Damien Hirst’s new show in Venice. But no one has compared it to the Pink Floyd exhibition in London—until now.

‘Animals’ cover © Pink Floyd Music Ltd

I should be in Venice. Mostly because I always wanted to be a gondolier and there’s really only one place to realize that particular dream. But I should also be in La Serenissima because there’s some sort of art event going on there at the moment and, having failed to pursue the punting and taken a wrong turn into journalism instead, I ought to be working up an opinion. I need to think something about it.

So Venice is where I should be, knocking back the bellinis and pressing “Publish” on my pre-written hatchet job on Damien Hirst’s new faux-archaeological exhibit, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which is filling up palazzi and puntas with its billion cubic metres of peerless vacuity. “As I toured the exhibit,” I wrote in advance of actually visiting the show, which I won’t now be visiting, “I was struck by the recurrent motifs drawn from theme parks and Disney and found myself asking: Doesn’t the now distinctly middle-aged Mr Hirst know that great biblical line about putting away childish things? I’m not saying that a grown-up should deny all knowledge of Mickey Mouse but after a certain age you shouldn’t still be thinking of him as your best friend either. The most flattering thing I can say about the show is that Michael Jackson would have loved it.” Alas, since I haven’t visited the exhibit and won’t be doing so—though I’ve seen the TV footage and looked at all the images and read the press release, and Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable surely first took life and finds its most complete and satisfactory expression as a press release—it would be unethical of me to publish the review. Thus my immortal judgment is lost to history.

So I’m not in Venice, I’m in London, and compensating myself with a visit to The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Like Hirst’s, this is essentially an overblown archaeological show, gargantuan to the point that it contains, according to the press release at least, a larger-than-life installation of Battersea Power Station. How big is that! Or how big would that be, were it true. (It’s just careless wording.)

There are similarities of scale and theme, then, between Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable and Their Mortal Remains. But there is also a crucial difference: the former is a fiction while the latter is archaeology of the real, documenting something that actually happened, full of genuine artefacts salvaged from a long-forgotten and now barely believable time—the Prog Rock Era, to give it its proper geological designation. If Floyd conceptualist-in-chief Roger Waters shares with Hirst a love of the Big (and not always terribly profound) Idea, his most overblown concepts have always been made to rub shoulders with reality. What has emerged has been not just Big Ideas but Big Ideas tested and changed by Actual Work and Lived Experience. There’s grit in the grandiose. From one perspective the album Animals can be seen as an auterish Orwellian fable but as a finished work it’s the result of intense musical and visual collaboration; a Big Idea given ultimate and altered form through the experience of its making; that’s not a sense you much get from Hirst’s new work.

As told here, the story of Animals also takes in the breathtaking climb rate of an escaped inflatable pig called Algie, a missing marksman and a helicopter despatched in hot pursuit, and a telephone call from a Kentish farmer complaining the porcine balloon was bothering his cows.

To ensure that it isn’t mistaken for a mere nostalgia show for old rockers, Their Mortal Remains kicks off with a little aesthetic context. There’s a slightly vainglorious mention of a 1966 Aubrey Beardsley show—which was held at the V&A, don’t you know—as an influence on the psychedelic visual style of time; on an adjacent wall a screen carries clips from Jonathan Miller’s unsettlingly trippy TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland from the same year. This is not so much Swinging London as Swirling London. Walking through the first rooms feels a bit like being sucked through a psychedelic rabbit hole that’s been decorated with consciousness-altering Op Art panache by Bridget Riley.

At the outset Pink Floyd were in with the in crowd, although the show charts a change in taste with the rise of punk and the band’s swift exit out of the door marked “Not cool, man”. There’s Johnny Rotten scrawling “I Hate” on his Pink Floyd T-shirt (before later admitting to quite liking them) and a slightly gratuitous—some might even say pretty vacant—display of Never Mind the Bollocks’s guerilla graphics, offered by way of contrast to the brand of surrealism practised by design agency Hipgnosis on Pink Floyd’s behalf. And anyway, Animals—the one with the pig floating over Battersea Power Station on the cover—is a great punk album. Don’t argue.

Some have suggested that, by comparison with the Bowie show a few years back, Their Mortal Remains lacks personality because Pink Floyd as a band lacked a leading personality. It’s true that their only real “frontman”, Syd Barrett, suffered a drug-related psychosis and retired from the spotlight straight after the band released their 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (the title is drawn from The Wind in the Willows). But actually the personality of the show—and of the band—comes out of that very anonymity and the band’s related desire to generate rock’n’roll spectacle by other means. Aided by Bluetooth technology, the exhibition inventively re-creates the band’s early experimentation with temporary architecture, inflatable sculptures and their collaboration with illustrator Gerald Scarfe.

Thankfully, there’s also plenty of pig documentation.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Hands over eyes © Pink Floyd Music Ltd photo by Storm Thorgerson/Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell 1971 Belsize Park
‘Wish You Were Here’ white cover © Pink Floyd Music Ltd
Poster promoting ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ in 1967 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Nick Mason Loading Van © Pink Floyd Archive
‘The Teacher’ illustration © Roger Waters 1978
John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten wearing his infamous ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ T-Shirt in 1977 © Ray Stevenson

‘The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains’ runs from 13 May until 1 October.

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