Raphael Montañez Ortiz, ‘De-Struction Ritual, Henny-Penny-Piano-Sacrifice-Concert’, 1967, performance

Here’s a timely topic: destruction. With the world economy in a shambles, a number of the ideological systems that formerly underpinned it thoroughly shaken, and the futures and trajectories it guaranteed dashed, destruction seems to have permanently installed itself in the general atmosphere, like an unwanted, but fascinating, guest at a party. Exactly what destruction is doing at the party, aside from providing a fierce, ambient edge, is a potential source of much metaphysical and philosophical speculation, but that it is ‘in the house’ cannot be contested.

As much could be said about destruction and art. For what destruction in art means today has significantly changed from what it meant a century ago. Generally, the mention of destruction tends to conjure up a triumvirate in the art historical imaginary—Gustav Metzger, Jean Tinguely and Raphael Montañez Ortiz—temporally locating it in the 1960s. But the idea is older than that; in fact, it is tempting to ascribe destruction’s artistic début to Courbet in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, which saw the painter credited with a revolutionary act of iconoclasm: the demolition of the Napoleonic column at the Place Vendôme.

However, it is probably more accurate to see destruction as the unruly offspring of the historical avant-garde, both as rhetorical trope and literal methodology. Cases in point would include the condemnation of institutions and the art they housed by FT Marinetti in the Futurist Manfiesto of 1909, ‘We want to demolish museums and libraries!’, and Malevich’s iconoclastic suprematism and no less vehement repudiation of the past in his 1919 essay ‘On the Museum’. Additionally, cubism’s simultaneous collapse and explosion of form (Picasso said, ‘For me, an image is the sum of its destructions’), and dadaism’s wholesale and absurdist rage against culture cannot be discounted. All of these instances testify to destruction’s crucial role in the avant-garde. Indeed, it could be argued that the avant-garde was fuelled by a series of emancipatory surges of destruction, initially in the service of revolutionising social relationships and breaking formal ground, and later on, toward more cathartic and apocalyptical ends. If one were to take in these various periods in a single panoramic glance, it might seem as if destruction were gathering momentum and mutating from a theoretical beast (Marinetti et al) into a practicable postwar monster, when it finally hit its stride in the 1960s, the heyday destruction art proper.

Although destruction played an integral role for the Gutai group during the 1950s, and the Viennese Actionists in the early 1960s, the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) held in London in 1966, organised in part by Gustav Metzger, is the historical fulcrum around which the era’s destructive lore tends to revolve.

Metzger, a German artist who emigrated to London during the Second World War, had already penned his first ‘Auto-destructive Art Manifesto’ in 1959, and made a name for himself in 1961 for his Acid Action Paintings at The South Bank, London. As a protest to nuclear armament, these were made by pouring hydrochloric acid onto nylon, which disintegratinged almost immediately. Jean Tinguely, the madcap Swiss kineticist had already orchestrated his legendary, self-destructing spectacle of machinery ‘Homage to New York’, in 1960 at MoMA. But it was DIAS that turned any allegiance to the riotous dismemberment of matter into a would-be international ‘ism’, ie destructivism. To say that the symposium was anti-object would be something of an understatement. It featured workshops, conferences, happenings and performances by a slew of artists, notable among them, the New York destructivist Raphael Montañez Ortiz, who took a sledge hammer to a piano; the preferred object of his ritualistic wrath (as of 2007, the still-living artist has destroyed around 80 more). What separates these three artists from their avant-garde forebears is a commitment less toward forging new formal ground—though Tinguely’s mechanical marvels of kitsch were not without a spectacular sense of novelty—than a commitment to protesting various issues.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that there was not an element of protest in the avant-garde, but that element was linked more with revolting against the status quo. With these artists, protest was explicitly linked to legitimate dreads and anxieties of the present and the future, and was therefore expressed in a mode symbolically proportionate to those dreads and anxieties.

In the case of Ortiz, who himself penned a manifesto in 1961, destruction is a much more metaphysical matter than for his coevals, motivated by a protest against death and steeped in a kind of Bataillian rhetoric of sacrifice and transcendence. For Tinguely and Metzger, destruction was directly linked to the spectre of nuclear war (and environmental disaster) and was artistically deployed to reflect the urgency of these spectres. In all three cases, destruction was a manifestly spectacular affair, a development which invested it with a theatricality that it had not known before.

Since that time, destruction has had its fair share of avatars and varying raisons d’être, usually in the form of isolated instances in the context of more varied practices. With the exception of some feminist practices, these instances can’t necessarily be organised along any coherent plot line, but nonetheless testify to destruction’s post-destructivism staying power.

Differing from the largely object-oriented mode of the works discussed in this text, there is a history of women artists who commit destructive acts of self-mutilation, such as the French Gina Pane, the Cuban-American Ana Mendieta and the New-York based Serbian Marina Abramovic. Yet self-mutilation in this case could be said to respond to some of the original, iconoclastic concerns of the avant-garde, here translated into gestures against traditional conceptions of femininity and the objectification of the female body.

Chris Burden, 'Samson', 1985, (the first substantial monograph on teh artist in over 20 years is published by Locus+)
Chris Burden, ‘Samson’, 1985, (the first substantial monograph on teh artist in over 20 years is published by Locus+)

But if we shift our attention back to doomed objects, we find Los Angeles conceptualist John Baldessari’s ‘Cremation Project’, 1969–70, in which he had his entire former production of paintings cremated, going so far as to bake cookies with some of the ashes, and in doing so, manifesting a ceremonial and highly personal sense of tabula rasa. Alternatively, Gordon Matta-Clark’s film ‘Fresh Kills’, 1972, which shows the complete and total destruction of his truck at Fresh Kills landfill, could be said to have an environmental bone to pick long avant la lettre . Chris Burden’s ‘Samson’, 1985, is a giant in the annals of destruction art: this piece consists of a turnstile connected to a pair of wooden arms, themselves linked to gallery walls, via a 100 ton jack, so that every time a visitor passes through the turnstile, the arms expand outward, incrementally compromising the soundness of the building’s structure, thereby functioning as an aggressive literalisation of institutional critique.

Monica Bonvicini’s ‘Plastered’, 1998, inscribes itself in a legacy that includes, above all, Burden’s anti-institutional brutality, while inevitably referencing Robert Smithson’s cherished preoccupation with entropy. Likewise dependant upon viewer participation, this work consists of a fragile plaster veneer of floor laid above the original floor which gradually fills up with holes made by ‘viewers’ precariously advancing across it.

The most epic paean to destruction in recent memory however, remains British-artist Michael Landy’s 2001 Artangel project, ‘Break Down’. Taking Baldessari’s self-erasing tabula rasa to its logical, in this case, anti-consumerist conclusion, Landy inventoried everything he owned (7,227 items) and, with a team of blue-overall clad operators, had it all systematically destroyed over the course of two weeks in a former C&A department store on Oxford Street in London, much to the mixed reaction of the local art world and the shock of local passers-by. Initially operating as a methodical form of consumer protest, this material liquidation also indicated the possibility of a dramatic new beginning for the ‘self’.

Michael Landy, 'Break Down', 2001, installation view
Michael Landy, ‘Break Down’, 2001, installation view

Two elder statesmen whose practices categorically operate under the star of destruction are Swiss artist Roman Signer (b 1938) and American Jimmie Durham (b 1940). Active since the 1970s and the 1990s respectively, they exercise a distinct influence on a number of artists working today, their individual brands of destruction trading in different, more affirmative and aesthetic stuff than the previously mentioned artists. Their work arguably highlights a shift in destruction’s role in art.

Sometimes incorporating an explosive device, some form of technology and/or various objects or constructions of the artist’s own devising, Signer’s process-based ‘action sculptures’ resemble naive experiments of a modest, transformative nature. Whether it be blowing synchronized stacks of paper up into the air, as in ‘Aktion vor der Orangerie’, 1987, at Documenta 8, or recording a hovering toy helicopter in a box until it crashes and self-destructs as in the video ‘Schweben in einer Kiste’, 1999, any destruction that is part of his action sculptures is not so much the goal as a consequence of his inquisitive and eccentric mind. Destruction merely informs the overall aesthetic experience.

The Native American, Berlin-based Durham on the other hand, is a confirmed iconoclast. His acts of destruction, which comprise only one side of his multifaceted practice, almost always involve rocks of varying shapes and sizes and their sudden conjunction with a variety of aggrieved manmade objects. A recent project ‘Encore tranquillité’, 2008, consists of a boulder dropped on a small airplane, while ‘A Stone from François Villon’s House in Paris’, 1996–2009, is a performance of the artist caving in an empty glass display case with a cobblestone. One of his best known pieces is ‘St. Frigo’, 1996. Both a sculpture and video, the sculptural component of this work consists of a refrigerator pockmarked with dents, the result of the artist tossing stones at the domestic monolith for roughly an hour a day for approximately ten days. Beyond this work’s allegorical polyvalence, what is significant is the artistic transformation destruction undergoes here: by virtue of this piece’s ritualistic, and even meditative making, the repetitive act of destruction takes on an affirmative character, and a positive, if melancholic sense of agency. ‘Today I woke up, threw stones at a refrigerator, and yes, I am still alive’. For all his classical iconoclasm and directness, Durham’s practice affirmatively broadens the avant-garde appeal of destruction, lending it a more nuanced lustre.

Jimmie Durham, 'Stoning the Refrigerator', 1996, refrigerator, video recording 
Jimmie Durham, ‘Stoning the Refrigerator’, 1996, refrigerator, video recording

This comes in a moment when our relationship with destruction is itself undergoing a shift. Certain technological developments gesture toward a phenomenological paradox, which would have us reconsider how we perceive destruction. With the digital and virtual revolution, the nature of destruction has taken on a markedly imperceptible dimension. From computer viruses, to the failure of virtual banking, to crashed hard drives, a good deal of the destruction that directly menaces us cannot be seen or directly physically experienced. Contrary to what one might expect, the invisibility destruction has a way of rendering us even more vulnerable, more helpless than before. Therefore, the opportunity to witness the destruction of an object is liable to become an empowering, phenomenologically affirmative event.

In the context of this shift, the work of a handful of contemporary artists assumes a particularly affirmative valence. Take, for example, the visually sumptuous videos of New York-based Alex Hubbard. Often filmed from a bird’s eye view, his dazzling tangents of slapstick destruction such as ‘Cinepolis’, 2007, and the series ‘The Collapse of the Expanded Field’, 2007, which consist of a rapid montage of destructive events. In ‘Cinepolis’ a group of metallic foil balloons are torched, tarred and feathered. In one particularly snappy sequence from ‘The Collapse of the Expanded Field’, a vase is set on a table, flowers inserted into it, their heads clipped off with scissors, viewwhereupon a baseball bat comes down on the vase, the smashed aftermath of which is spray-painted black. Clearly engaged with the tradition of ‘action painting’, the living legacy of Jimmie Durham, and a comic tradition that goes back to vaudeville and the likes of Buster Keaton, these videos are on good, merry-making, affirmative terms with destruction.

Alex Hubbard, 'Cinepolis', 2009, video
Alex Hubbard, ‘Cinepolis’, 2009, video

Other practitioners might use technology itself to locate and test boundaries. Italian artist Arcangelo Sassolino, applies his former training as a mechanical engineer toward creating destructive mechanisms of a powerful and harrowing order. From his engineered bombs of compressed nitrogen, to a weapon that randomly fires bottles at a wall at 900 kilometres an hour, his sculptures inspire fear, anxiety and an acute corporeal awareness in the viewing subject.

‘Untitled’, 2007–08, features a hydraulic arm, which, when approached by the viewer, activates via a motion detector, and slowly extends, into a large piece of wood, gradually snapping it in half and piercing the silence with a series of thunderous cracks. By demonstrating such an uncanny, self-destructive display of force, the work inevitably poses a threat to the viewer’s body, which, akin to Chris Burden’s ‘Samson’, is implicated in the act of destruction. At the same time, the viewer is positively anchored in the present act of witnessing, both by virtue of participation, and by being made aware of his or her comparative human fragility.

Of a more allegorical and less technologically preoccupied nature, the work of Berlin-based artist Michael Sailstorfer engages issues of consumption with a dry sense of humour. A collaboration with Jürgen Heinert from 2002, 3 Ster mit Ausblick is a contemporary classic in the history of destruction. In this allegory of consumption, culminating in a series of photographs and a video, the artists systematically dismantle and feed a log cabin into its own wood-burning stove. If questions regarding the environment are bluntly pointed at here, they are done so with a drollness befitting Buster Keaton himself. In ‘Untitled (Lohma)’, 2008, another chunk of architecture is ceremoniously dispatched. Sailstorfer had a large, metal shed detonated and filmed the process. In the film, he stops the explosion before it pulls the building apart, reverses it and loops it so that the edifice expands and contracts as if breathing. Through the specious deferral of annihilation, this building is made to live. This living death, becomes a paradoxical metaphor for destruction as a life-giving force.

As unhinged as it may initially sound, perhaps an affirmative embrace of destruction is just what this crisis-fraught moment needs. Seeing destruction, or extravagant expenditures of energy, as essential to the organic process of life, Georges Bataille warned against taking measures to prevent destruction in his unorthodox economic treatise The Accursed Share . To deny its necessity, Bataille argues, is to deny an essential stage of organic development, engender stagnation, and as a consequence, incur even greater losses. Destruction, in the context of this thought, ensures the perpetuation of life and the possibilities of creation without which it can easily seem not even worth destroying.

Chris Sharp is a writer and curator based in Paris. He is currently co-curating with Gianni Jetzer, Under Destruction, scheduled to open at the Jean Tinguely Museum, Basel in 2010, moving to the Swiss Institute in New York in 2011

Joyous Machines: Michael Landy and Jean Tinguely, Tate Liverpool, 2 October 2009–10 January 2010: Gustav Metzger: Flailing Trees, Manchester International Festival, 3–19 July and then permanently sited in Whitworth Art Gallery grounds: Gustav Metzger, Serpentine Gallery, 29 September-8 November