Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950

Article excerpt

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 Montanez 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 current lv 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 Hirsh horn 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 out 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 elan 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 or 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 mm. 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.

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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 Tinguelv's Homage t o New l'Ork (1960, 6 min. 5 sec.); Andv Warhol's 5 Deaths paintings (1963); and Cyprien Gaillard's video Pruitt-Igoe Falls (2009, 6 min. …