Ed Ruscha, “The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire,” 1965–1968.
Doomsday devices, the zombie apocalypse, weapons of mass destruction, and the doomsday clock are all elements of pop culture that we are familiar with. Our society’s obsession with destruction is further evident as audiences flock to films such as King Kong, War of the Worlds, Beware! The Blob, 28 Days Later, and the more recent Contagion. Post World War II art envelops this theme and gives it a new light, one that not only displays destruction as merely a spectacle, but opens up a myriad of accompanying themes.
Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950, currently at the Hirshhorn Museum, employs destruction as its main motif and presents ways the art world has adopted the pop culture phenomenon and conceptualized it. It is not surprising that such a dark theme can yield such aesthetic value. I believe it is in the nature of destruction itself to be a beautiful thing; for out of the ashes rises the Phoenix and life begins anew. It is the anticipation and the act of destruction that produces chaos and anxiety.
Raphael Montanez Ortiz is known for a happening in which he destroys a piano, a symbol of culture and class distinction. Watching the performance is unlike watching a rock music artist destroy a guitar, it is an arduous process that takes time. As he proceeds to smash the piano into pieces, the axe hitting the strings produces a wailing noise, and the instinct of the audience changes from shock over the initial loss of a beautifully crafted instrument to a call that speaks to our inner Freudian destructive impulse and the want to join in and finish the job. The piano that Ortiz destroyed in a performance at the Hirshhorn now lays scattered along the gallery floor as a symbol of the happening. Ironically, probably now worth more than it was as a working instrument.
Not only does the exhibition speak to our fascination over the act of destruction but also strikes a dissonant chord when it comes to questions of ownership and waste as sighted in pieces such as “Break Down” by Michael Landy, where the artist had all 7,227 of his personal items systematically destroyed in an assembly line, only to dump the remains in a land fill. What we as a society deem valuable also comes into question in pieces such as Ai Wei Wei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”, self-explanatory by its title. And of course, as goes with all postmodern art, we must ask “what is art?” Rauschenberg answers our question vaguely, destroying a De Kooning by erasing it and leaving behind a framed piece of paper.
Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950, will be open through May 26th, 2014. For more information on the exhibit and Damage Control events, visit http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/home/#collection=damage-control.