Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. through May 26, 2014.
Raphael Montañez Ortiz begins by pouring a large circle of white powder from aluminum wrapped canisters on the ground. The white powder is later revealed to be salt. Few members of the audience notice when Ortiz begins, but as it becomes apparent that he is doing something out of the ordinary, a hush falls over the crowd. The audience now becomes part of the piece as Ralph walks in a large circle within this outer ring of bodies and salt around his piano.
The Hirshorn Museum’s current exhibit Damage Control surveys how artists utilize the act of destruction in their art. The most dramatic example occurs on preview night during a one-time reenactment of Ortiz’s Piano destruction concert.
The drawing of a salt circle around Ortiz’s performance space signals the creation of a sacred boundary, and this silent gesture ushers us into a sacred moment. After he finishes pouring the salt circle, Ortiz picks up an axe and begins touching the piano with it, then hacking, prying, picking, and scraping. The piano is amplified so that we hear every application of the axe blade. In the beginning the sound that bleeds through the amplifiers make sense, but soon the sounds become alien and frightening. This, compounded with our knowledge that the piano itself is destined for utter destruction, as well as the evidence of strings and wood pieces spewing out of the piano, intensify the complex emotions the concert evokes.
Ortiz walked around the piano calmly, methodically applying the axe blade to wood and brass, without any expression. Watching him, my heart was pounding and my eyes teared spontaneously, interior sobbing reverberated soundlessly. Half way through the concert, I looked around and everyone else seemed as mesmerized; their accompanying interior emotions may have been similar. Ortiz remained deliberately unmoved by us.
We viewers are electrified; adrenaline courses through us as we anticipate the imminent final blow of the axe. The piano that is inanimate has gathered all our empathy and we need the screams to end. We can’t flee, for we are at an art museum after all. The concert ends abruptly when Ortiz leaves his axe embedded on the edge of the piano and walks away. The silence comes as a relief. We feel the uncertainty of survivors who have just stepped through the arms of our deliverers. We are left wondering what we just endured and why. Many other pieces in the exhibit document destruction; this live performance exaggerates the pain of being a member of humanity, which intentionally creates in order to destroy. This performance piece further exposes and accuses us of being voyeurs of destruction.
The first time Ortiz destroyed a piano was in 1966, a performance act which reflected the exuberance of power in human hands, cautioning against advances in nuclear technology, warning against the threat of nuclear annihilation and protesting war.
While history tells the story of humans destroying in order to mitigate further destruction (consider animal and human sacrifices from ancient cultures), do these piano destruction concerts serve to appease the voracious bent in humanity towards destruction that the artists in the exhibit reveal? The performance expresses and evokes such an immense amount of pain that the viewer is brought to the edge of trauma, and then awakened to the reality that we are watching performance art. The artist destroys a piano to demonstrate by degree the greater senseless and wasteful destruction already occurring. He further warns that even the salvific potential of beauty and creativity symbolized by the grand piano is helpless against humanity’s destructive bent.
I wander the exhibit wondering if there is any damage control, as art pieces demonstrating destruction span sixty years of art. The art works demonstrate various approaches to destruction by artists, which include: destruction to express angst, destruction as protest, destruction in order to create, destruction for the pleasure of it, and destruction as creation.
While the concert offers little in the way of hope, the video installation by Dara Friedman entitled Total documents the destruction of a room and replays the scene in reverse suggesting a possible restoration. Instead of a woman trashing a room, the video shows her throwing a chair, which gently glides into a corner, and then throwing a pile of bed linens, which fly through the air draping over a bed perfectly. Her conception of reversal appears starkly inadequate and childish in an exhibit that opens with footage of nuclear demonstrations. We want Friedman’s vision of restoration, but we want more than a reversal of circumstances — we want healing and new direction as well.
And this is where art brilliantly demonstrates the potential for healing and new direction. As curator Russell Ferguson notes, this video demonstrates the power of the artist to reconstruct. Similarly, Juan Muñoz’s Derailment (a derailed train whose cars are perfectly stacked upright) portrays hope for human cultivation despite our pleasure in and tendency towards destruction. Inside the cars, Muñoz builds a miniature city of trees and buildings. Muñoz leaves open ended the answer to the question of whether this derailment is an accident due to natural disaster or human error, or an incident of human destructive intent. His work reminds us that while we cannot determine our fate as much as we would like, we do have control over a lot. In our efforts to reconstruct life and culture, as symbolized by the miniature city within the train cars, we are finally able to accomplish more than damage control.
Image Credit: Raphael Montañez Ortiz performing his “Piano Destruction Concert” on the Plaza of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, October 25, 2013. Photo: Drew Doucette