Exhibition Review
Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950

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Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Washington, DC
October 24, 2013–May 26, 2014

The tricky process of cranking operations back up just a week after the federal government reopened resulted in a mashup of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s press preview and opening reception of Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950. While the press was pleased to be part of the festivities, especially to witness Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s Piano Destruction Concert performed live in the museum’s outdoor plaza, others may have been aggravated by the opening’s shattered exclusivity. Whether perceiving the schedule annihilation as positive or negative, all those who grappled with the exhibition’s thematics of destruction had to note a correlation between the government shutdown’s destructive dimensions and what is currently on exhibit in Damage Control. And even if one is unwilling to concede congressional antics of self-destruction as art, it is nevertheless hard to deny that strange pleasure often felt upon confronting spectacular wreckage, whether inside or outside museum walls. I contemplated this uncanny linkage of congressional and museal display while watching Ortiz wield an ax forcefully enough to make bits of white piano keys fly around the Hirshhorn courtyard like so many tooth fragments.

The Ortiz piano destruction concert was at times riveting as the piano’s hacked strings sprang up and screeched in the brisk, late October night. The wind chill compelled Ortiz to wear a knit cap and insulated jacket that worked in tandem with his ax to project “serial killer,” adding to the drama. At other times, the performance was tedious as he chopped away unsuccessfully or even rather gingerly. Yet instead of enjoying an ennui interlude as one often does with performance art, I was startled by my sudden wish: “Just finish it off: kill that baby grand!” Just moments before, I had been equally surprised by my abhorrence of the piano’s destruction, given that I am rarely awestruck by icons of high culture. Throughout the performance, I was bemused by this simultaneous repellence and anaesthetization in the face of violence. The film of Ortiz’s original 1966 piano destruction concert running on the Hirshhorn’s second level did not affect me thus; I long had thought of it in the context of Fluxus, as an expression of Neo-Dada exuberance, of anti-art, of noise art. Ortiz’s filmic destruction of that old upright piano with such athletic élan was compelling enough. Or so it once seemed.

What Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 does so very well is to recontextualize post-World War II contemporary art up to the present in post-nuclear terms. This would appear an obvious consideration to impose, but it has not been done in the art world as consistently as in the literary and social science worlds, and certainly not on this scale: it is truly eye-opening to grasp in such graphic terms how nearly simultaneous fear, fascination, allure, disdain, embrace, and rejection of total annihilation habitually inflects visual culture. When activated, this “irradiation” of the aesthetics of destruction enhances appreciation of both the hyperactive demolition of Gustav Metzger in a gas mask, painting auto-destructively (Auto-Destructive Art, the Activities of G. Metzger, directed by Harold Liversidge, 1963, 7 min. 33 sec.), and the gentle erasure of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), alike. No matter how subtle, in a nuclear era, all attempts to purge have added resonance.

Curators Kerry Brougher and Russell Ferguson have positioned a variety of work in all media under an atomic cloud, some of which is not unforeseeable, yet is freshly edifying in this context: Yves Klein’s “Letter from Yves Klein to the President of the International Conference (‘Blue Explosions’)” (1958); D.A. Pennebaker’s footage of Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York (1960, 6 min. 5 sec.); Andy Warhol’s 5 Deaths paintings (1963); and Cyprien Gaillard’s video Pruitt-Igoe Falls (2009, 6 min. 55 sec.), to name but a few of the works that embody destructive finality. Other works are much less initially foreseeable as conceivable parts of the exhibition, yet bear up well under the nuclear load. These include those involving the purposeful destruction of art by Ai Weiwei (Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995), Asger Jorn’s Modifications series of painted-over flea market landscapes from 1959, and the Chapman brothers’ defiled complete set of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, Insult to Injury (1999). Ori Gersht plays with this idea of malicious art vandalism by presenting what appears to be an Henri Fantin-Latour still life, which on closer inspection is a moving image on a framed LCD flat screen that violently explodes to the sounds of alarm sirens in the viewer’s face about every four minutes. The vase and flowers, frozen by liquid nitrogen so that their fragments shatter like glass, are so atomized by the explosion that one cannot help but think of nuclear force, and the title, Big Bang 1 (2006), helps that notion along in addition to suggesting the idea of creative destruction, associated with the birth of the universe. Either way, Gersht takes the still life genre’s inherent memento mori message to its ultimate apocalyptic conclusion/beginning.

Damage Control participates in the current trend of contemporary art exhibitions (most notably the recently finished 2013 Venice Biennale) to insure that a large proportion of included works derive from the visual cultures of journalism, anthropology, sociology, and the sciences, as well as from the realms of popular, amateur, and outsider art. In many cases this trend is mere curatorial fashion, but Brougher and Ferguson use it to good effect in their effort to document the ongoing visualization of nuclear power and destruction from its harnessing, unleashing, documentation, representation, dissemination, and aestheticization in literature, mass media, and the visual arts. The exhibition opens with the spellbinding footage of nuclear bomb detonation recorded in the 1950s by MIT engineer Harold Edgerton for the US Atomic Energy Commission. Even then, it is clear that aesthetics as well as logistics were taken into consideration when making such films. A wall text informs viewers that this was a deliberate move to make nuclear testing somewhat more palatable to a skeptical public with growing health and safety concerns. “Sublime” comes to mind. Aesthetics is also undeniable in the stunning motor vehicle accident scene photographs that Swiss police photographer Arnold Odermatt meticulously took, beginning when he first joined the force in 1948 until his retirement in 1990. They are given pride of place in both the exhibition and catalog. I think this may be due, besides to their beauty, to their relationship to another major milestone in art’s entanglement with modern destruction, F.T. Marinetti’s paean, in his 1909 Futurist Manifesto, to creative release after crashing his car into a ditch, with which Ferguson opens his catalog essay. Odermatt made these photographs at the dawn of the Atomic Age and well into the nuclear era, perhaps even affected by such films as Edgerton’s. He uses the Swiss scenery as a kind of Claudean device to frame the wrecks. “Picturesque” comes to mind.

Picturesque. Creative destruction. Sublime. Destructive spectacle. Auto-destruction. Pleasure in destruction. Death drive. Anesthetics of escalating violence. Joy of wreaking havoc. Such terminology lurks at the edges of Damage Control to such an extent that a glossary of aesthetic destruction might be generated from it. Aesthetics permeates lightly, however— more experientially than theoretically—primarily while one traverses the exhibition. This is due in very large part to the fine curatorial selection based on a fortunate coalition of Brougher’s keen interest in the “atomic contemporary” and Ferguson’s broad view of destructive modernism.

It should not be surprising that an exhibition dealing with art and destruction since 1950 would necessarily comprise the moving image substantially. Wherever possible, films and videos in their entirety are on display on monitors throughout the exhibition space. Where not, healthy excerpts are shown. A number of films and videos, including Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976, 36 min.), Gaillard’s Pruitt-Igoe Falls (2009, 6 min. 55 sec.), Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997, 68 min.), Superflex’s Burning Car (2008, 11 min.), Ant Farm’s Media Burn (1975, 26 min.), Christian Jankowski’s 16mm Mystery (2004, 5 min.), and Doug Aitken’s House (2010, 9 min.) will be shown in full as part of a daylong screening on March 16, 2014, in the Hirshhorn’s Ring Auditorium.

Kathryn Kramer is professor of art and art history at State University of New York at Cortland, specializing in modern and contemporary art.

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