Under Destruction

Playing on the pervasiveness of images of destruction and devastation in the news and in Hollywood movies, artists are making works that range from violent to chillingly disquieting

Cai Guo-Qiang’s Black Ceremony, 2011, commissioned by Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar.


On a hot afternoon in December 2011, artist Cai Guo-Qiang set off a series of explosions in the desert outside of Doha, Qatar. Plumes of black smoke made patterns against the stark blue sky, and a rainbow appeared over the landscape. Scheduled to celebrate the opening of his retrospective at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Cai Guo-Qiang’s daytime fireworks could have been mistaken for a military maneuver or a terrorist attack given the event’s location, in the Middle East. In minutes, the display was over, embedded in the memories of the audience on hand.

Dedicated to creating works that reflect the fear and anxieties of a post-9/11 world—or at least challenge the notion that an artwork must withstand the test of time—many artists are incorporating elements of obliteration in their work. Not all of the productions are violent; some are simply chilling in their subtle references to everyday occurrences. Many play on the pervasive images of destruction and devastation in today’s society, drawn from headline news to Hollywood movies.

In April 2013 the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., will open “Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950,” a show surveying the impact destruction—as both imagery and process—has had on modern and contemporary art. The works range from Harold Edgerton’s films of nuclear explosions to Andy Warhol’s “Disaster” series to a video by Laurel Nakadate of herself dressed in a Girl Scout uniform as the Twin Towers burned.

Meanwhile, three other shows have also highlighted this artistic theme: last year’s “Under Destruction,” which was on view at the Museum Tinguely in Basel and the Swiss Institute in New York; “Gustav Metzger: Historic Photographs,” at the New Museum in New York, dedicated to the founder of the auto-destructive art movement; and “Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through June 10. Then, this past April, there was a special explosion event in conjunction with the current show “Cai Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder,” at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through July 30.

“There is something about destruction right now, not only in art but in society in general, that is calling this back to attention,” says Hirshhorn chief curator Kerry Brougher, who is co-organizing “Damage Control” with Russell Ferguson, chief curator of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “It may be the fact that, to some degree, destructive images now shoot across the Internet at such incredible speeds that we see so much of this every day. It has become a part of our households. And then, of course, 9/11 ushered in—for Americans, anyway—a new era that we are certainly still living through.”

“Destruction comes into art history with artists cutting images from somewhere and then juxtaposing them in an almost violent manner,” say MFAH curator Yasufumi Nakamori. He points to German artist John Heartfield’s 1930s photomontage caricaturing Adolf Hitler and Martha Rosler’s 1967­–72 “Bringing the War Back Home” series, with its scenes of the Vietnam War inserted into House Beautiful spreads. “I think destruction goes into cutting, assaulting, even burning other people’s images,” Nakamori says. “But at the same time, artists are doing this to destroy the way we see the world, which can be kind of provincial and narrow. The pictures try to destroy that kind of single, monolithic way of thinking about history.”

Certainly, Gustav Metzger, a Holocaust refugee living in London, was aiming to undermine people’s complacency when he founded the auto-destructive art movement in 1959. He has made paintings with acid on Mylar as well as re-creations of car accidents. “A lot of contemporary artists are using destruction as sort of an art-historical phenomenon, looking back at Post-Minimalist works from the ’60s and ’70s,” says New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari, who worked on Metzger’s “Historic Photographs” exhibition at the museum, “but for Gustav, it really is entirely political and historical and also a very personal and emotional motivation for making these works.” As Metzger himself explained in a 1960 manifesto, “Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected. Auto-destructive art mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture—polishing to destruction point.” An activist as well as an artist, Metzger organized with others the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium in London, where he, Yoko Ono, and John Latham stacked a tower of books outside the British Museum and set them on fire, not as an act of censorship but as a gesture to defy tradition. Still active in Europe, Metzger was the subject of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 2009.

“A machine that destroys itself” is how Time magazine described Jean Tinguely’s seminal Homage to New York when it was set in motion at the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1960. Two hundred and fifty patrons stood in the cold and watched while Tinguely’s 27-foot-high sculpture sawed apart its own structure and set tself on fire, imploding in 27 minutes. “Homage to New York was for me an attempt to liberate myself from the material,” said Tinguely about his creation. “The best way to do this was to make it self-destroying, like Chinese fireworks, so that during the event—and naturally it became an event, a spectacle—all these materials, even the smoke, became part of the sculpture.” Made in collaboration with other artists and engineers, among them Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg, it is today captured in the film Homage to Jean Tinguely’s ‘Homage in New York’, by Robert Breer.

British artist Michael Landy has been a huge fan of Tinguely’s ever since he saw the artist’s retrospective at the Tate in 1982. Landy is best known for his own installation Breakdown (2001), in which he created a machine that systematically destroyed every one of his 7,227 possessions, including books, mementos, clothes, artworks, and his entire art archive. “In its entirety, I was thinking about the first 37 years of my life as a consumer,” says Landy. “I did it on an industrial scale on a conveyer belt, not in an angry, violent way. It was basically everything I had collected over the first 37 years of my life—things that had a monetary value to things that had a sentimental value.” The machine operated for two weeks on Oxford Street in London, and over 50,000 people came to see it. According to Landy, it made other people reflect on their own possessions and behavior as consumers. “It was the happiest two weeks of my life because it was so liberating, but also it was a kind of witnessing my own death, so it was a mixture of emotions,” he says. Later, in 2009, Landy co-curated “Joyous Machines,” a show of sculptures by himself and Tinguely for Tate Liverpool. He is so enamored of Tinguely that he tried unsuccessfully to get the rights to re-create Homage to New York for the exhibition.

Tinguely was also the inspiration for the Swiss Institute’s three-part show “Under Destruction,” on view in 2011, a survey of contemporary art commemorating the 50th anniversary of Homage to New York. According to Gianni Jetzer, director of the Swiss Institute, who co-curated the show with Paris-based independent curator Chris Sharp, the exhibition posed a series of questions: “How is destruction deployed in today’s art? Is destruction to be considered merely an additional color, or is it still a radical gesture?” According to Sharp, “One thing that became very apparent to Jetzer and me, while working on this exhibition, was that destruction as a radical political act—as seen in the work of Metzger, for instance—had been deflated, co-opted, and commodified, like most forms of aggressive critique.” In other words, as the world is subjected to more and more acts of destruction and violence, the nature of violence becomes more banal and its impact on art diluted. “A consequence of the so-called liquidation of its radicality is that destruction becomes a method, a technique like any other,” Sharp explains, “without, however, forfeiting its ability to dazzle.”

Even without an explicit political agenda, many of the works in the exhibition had a striking impact on the audience, and on the exhibition space itself. Italian artist Monica Bonvicini, who lives in Berlin, contributed Plastered (1998), a length of drywall that extended across the entire exhibition floor, cracking under the weight of visitors as they moved. “I wanted to create something that would remind viewers of the terrain they were walking, the terrain of the museum, which is not dangerous, but it is different than walking in the street,” says Bonvicini, whose work was featured in the 2011 Venice Biennale and recently shown at Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin. Taking a similar tack was Liz Larner, whose early work Corner Basher (1988) was a mechanical sculpture that literally swung a ball and chain against the walls in an attack on the conventional pristine gallery setting and on tradition in general.

A far more radical gesture was South African artist Kendell Geers’s performance at MuHKA in Antwerp, The Devil Never Rests A.K.A. BLOW, first presented in 1999, in which the artist blew up the wall of a gallery with explosives. Geers often deals with the violence of his homeland in the post-apartheid era.

Sometimes even more subtle work can be mistaken for political commentary. New York artist Elana Herzog creates installations by using a staple gun to attack fabric, such as Persian rugs, chenille bedspreads, fake fur, and tablecloths, until only remnants of the materials remain. “The original thing is almost being vaporized or dematerialized and emerging as this other form,” says Herzog, who currently has a three-dimensional project on view at the University Art Museum at SUNY Albany. In September 2011, she created a wall frieze by eviscerating a red wool jacket, leaving only three strips of shredded material in a gallery in Oslo just weeks after the mass shooting on the island of Utøya. People immediately took the work to be a commentary on the violence. “I think that there is a certain explosiveness and a sense of pain and penetration in the violence of the process of stapling itself,” says Herzog. “That’s undeniable. You can’t get around it.”

An artwork that destroys can be mistaken for an act of vandalism. An artwork that is destroyed can be understood as a form of censorship. Yet there is a history of artists attacking the old to make way for the new. In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg took a drawing by de Kooning and erased it to create his own work, Erased de Kooning. In 1994, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei dropped a rare Han dynasty vase to the floor of his studio and had the act photographed. It was an aggressive move to herald the beginning of his art career. Likewise, John Baldessari in 1970 cremated all of his earlier works up to that date, taking the ashes and baking them into cookies, to declare his transition from painter to conceptual artist. Chris Burden in the 1970s and performance artist Ron Athey more recently have gone one step further, with life-threatening actions: Burden took a bullet and Athey engaged in bloodletting.

In recent years, artists have not only made works incorporating such self-destructive acts, but have also made images that reflect life in the age of terrorism. Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez splices together television footage and instructional films about terrorism and homeland security in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997). Finnish-born, New York–based artist Pia Lindman silently enacts the expressions of grief found in photographs on the front page of the New York Times in her 2004 video Lakonikon. Wolfgang Staehle accidentally created an homage to the Twin Towers while he was live streaming a video of the skyline of Lower Manhattan to Postmasters Gallery in New York on September 11, 2001. The resulting video—To the People of New York (2001)—is a chilling portrayal of a landscape disrupted by a terrorist act.

Without going so far as the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s infamous declaration that the World Trade Center attacks were “the greatest work of art,” pieces such as Staehle’s undeniably have a magnetism that comes from a combination of distress, pathos, and sheer spectacle. Once commenting on his own explosive productions, Cai Guo-Qiang said, “While signaling alarm like ancient smoke signals, the ominous arc of smoke . . . also serves as a somber and dreamlike salute and reminds us, despite our contemporary associations with explosive materials and warfare, that violence and its signifiers can possess ethereal and profound beauty.”

Working on the Hirshhorn show, curator Brougher has reached a similar conclusion. Looking at images of explosions such as those of the atomic bomb as well as those of cars in Hollywood movies, he concurs that “destruction can be beautiful in a way,” explaining that “while we want to push away things that are destructive, we are also drawn to them by their sheer beauty.”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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