The first chamber sets up the thesis of “Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950,” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington through May 26. As visitors enter, a 1950s filmstrip plays, showing nuclear blasts recorded for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. To one side, so you only see it once you’re already in the room, there’s a smashed baby grand piano with an axe still sticking out of its body: the remains of a 2013 performance art piece in which Raphael Montañez Ortiz hacked the thing up on the Hirshhorn’s plaza. This opening juxtaposition suggests that artworks focused on destroying art—or destroying some symbol of modernity, such as industrial tools or cars—are in some way the same kind of act as political events that threatened the world with destruction. They have something in common and thus can be fruitfully compared.
Even in this first room, though, there are hints of the complications to come, which will ultimately undermine the idea that “art and destruction” is a coherent concept. The nuclear blasts are just beautiful, for one thing. On pockmarked and striated black-and-white film or in glowy, painterly color, the blasts swell in impossible sunrises; the explosion blossoms and then the cloud spires up into the sky. There’s a confused, balked rush of clouds along the ground, or a yellow starburst in a red sky, shot in tight focus. There are several ways to “read” this beauty: Even nuclear weaponry can’t overcome the beauty inherent in the natural world; the explosions become more beautiful because we know what they are, because they call to the death drive, the longing for the world’s last day. Or, perhaps, it’s easy to make destruction beautiful if you only show things and not people.
There are very few human beings depicted in the first several rooms of the large, meandering show. Lots of crashed cars, but no blood; apparently no one has been injured or killed. Small knots of nondescript figures might hang around at the edges talking or holding up traffic signals, but mostly it’s just buildings and bombs and fighter planes.
This isn’t the only way to depict destruction. I felt the absence of any artwork like Lee Miller’s 1945 photograph of a silhouetted German opera singer, Irmgard Seefried, lifting her hands and singing “Madama Butterfly” in the ruins of the Vienna Opera House. The lack of human beings in these artworks became so oppressive that when we finally reached the 1960s (the show is organized chronologically), Andy Warhol’s prints of car crashes filled with mangled bodies actually felt humanistic rather than voyeuristic. At least he shows the cost!
Warhol and Yoko Ono provided the works which struck me as the most empathetic and insightful. Warhol’s series of tinted prints of an electric chair seem haunted; the chair is off to one side, not dominating the frame. It emerges slowly and blurrily from the background, like a memory surfacing against our will. There’s a delicacy and also a horror-movie atmosphere of dread. There are no people in these prints, but the chair itself so powerfully suggests them that their ghosts seem to linger just outside the edges of the frame.
And Ono startled me with a performance piece I’d read about but never seen, 1965’s “Cut Piece,” in which she knelt onstage at Carnegie Hall and invited members of the audience to come up and cut her clothes off, piece by piece. A lot of the destruction-based artwork in this show requires a certain level of power and wealth before you can even start in on it: You don’t destroy a piano if you can’t afford one. Destruction can—and in the later rooms of the show, generally did—seem like an act of asserting one’s power, a spoiled child breaking his toys in a fit. Ono, by contrast, emptied herself of power (at least to some extent) and made herself vulnerable. She held completely still, only once lifting her eyes as if to suggest—but carefully not perform—an eyeroll, as a particularly clinical man snipped away the blouse over her bra strap. Her stillness and acceptance, in contrast to the uncomfortable, brash, or not-quite-giggly movements of the men and women who trotted up to her, bent down over her, and cut away her clothing, was a moving portrayal of humility and even defeat.
“Cut Piece” is playing on a small television set in a room with many other artworks, so the viewer has to choose: How long will you stare? How close will you approach? It’s a smart choice that highlights our own complicity in the performance.
There are a few other powerful works in the show. Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave (up for best picture and best director Oscars this year) contributes his 1997 short film “Deadpan.” Based on a Buster Keaton stunt, the film shows McQueen standing stoically in a field as the frame of a house crashes over him again and again. It’s another piece in which the artist takes on the role of vulnerable victim and survivor. McQueen almost looks like he’s about to cry as he waits for the house to fall—a window cut in the frame falls over his body, so he isn’t actually struck by the wood, but he rocks backward slightly and the wind from the house’s passage blows his clothing back.
Christian Marclay’s 2000 film “Guitar Drag” sounded gimmicky and exploitative when I read the wall caption: as a memorial to James Byrd, Jr., the black Texan who was dragged to death behind a truck by a group of white supremacists in 1998, Marclay miked an electric guitar and dragged it on the back of his car through the highways and underbrush. This really should not work. But it’s a surprising, disturbing film. It’s perfectly displayed by the Hirshhorn, in a long, narrow room kept pitch-black, with the film playing on one entire wall. There are several minutes of preparations, but the movie crystallizes when Marclay checks the guitar strings and the room fills with the familiar sounds of an electric guitar tuning up. Suddenly my heart jumped as I remembered how often I’d heard those same sounds at the start of a night promising adventure, ecstatic loss of self in the music and the crowd, bourbon, vodka, maybe violence. I don’t know that this self-immolating thrill really motivates racial violence. But Marclay does capture that sense of a long night beginning, a journey into the dark. And then the actual dragging of the guitar creates such disturbing howling and scraping sounds, and goes on for so long, that you’re forced to imagine a person in the place of the guitar as it bangs along rutted concrete, or tears through scrub brush getting covered in tiny torn-off shreds of plants. Like Warhol’s electric chairs, the absence of a person is filled in by the imagination, and the movie becomes impossibly painful to watch.
Most of the pieces in this exhibit don’t have that power—although there’s strong work from Gordon Matta-Clark, Jean Tinguely, and Luc Delahaye. But more importantly, there are just too many different kinds of destruction-based art here. Some of it is the kind of “ruin porn” that fetishizes other people’s misery; some of it is Cold War-era sci-fi dreams of nuclear apocalypse; some of it focuses on the physical surfaces being destroyed, the canvas melting into open mouths, a sensuality which gets only a little of its kick from thanatos. Some of it, frankly, comes across as artists trying to prove that they can wear work gloves and use blowtorches as deftly as any ironworker. Frankly, I don’t buy that Ai Weiwei dropping a Han Dynasty urn has anything in common with Chesley Bonestell’s rendering of a nuclear attack on New York City for the cover of the August 5, 1950 Collier’s magazine. If the thing they have in common is “thanatos” then that term seems to have been stretched too far to be conceptually useful.
There’s also a strange imbalance: At first the show seems to be about the nuclear threat, the Atomic Age. But then the Cold War ends and it just… keeps going. There’s a point to be made here about the dissolution of one huge existential threat to everyone into countless smaller existential threats to someone—if you’re killed it’s the end of your own world, even if everyone else wakes up the next day—but it makes the exhibit feel lopsided. Everything is so gigantic and world-destroying, until suddenly it isn’t. It’s a pretty big comedown to go from the Doomsday Clock to a Canadian hockey riot (in Roy Arden’s 2005 film, “Supernatural,” which will make you wonder if we shouldn’t just close the border).
The exhibit’s end, however, is poignant and smart. Romanian Mircea Cantor’s 2007 “Shadow for a While” filmstrip plays—with the noisy whir of the projector adding an extra thrill of entropy and lost time—showing a flag waving and being torn down. And Christopher Wool’s text-based artwork proclaims, “THE SHOW IS OVER THE AUDIENCE GET UP TO LEAVE THEIR SEATS TIME TO COLLECT THEIR COATS AND GO HOME THEY TURN AROUND NO MORE COATS AND NO MORE HOME.” It’s a stinging memento mori, a shock that lingers.
And then there’s a charmingly self-centered little coda, since as you leave the exhibit you pass a couple sketches of the Hirshhorn itself on fire. If it all sounds a bit too heavy, I should have mentioned that demolition can be played for laughs, too: The “Looney Tunes”-style sight gag is another genre represented in the art of destruction.