Review: Damage Control – Art and Destruction, The Hirshhorn Museum of Art

Jeff Wall, “The Destroyed Room,” 1978. Glenstone.

The exhibition is monumental. Damage Control: Art and Destruction at the Hirshhorn Museum of Art is one of the smartest exhibitions I have seen in years. Taking destruction as its theme, the show moves through artist projects and historical works that explore the implications, actualizations and interpretations of wreckage. 

Arnold Odermatt, “Buochs,” 1965. Courtesy Galerie Springer, Berlin.

The show is presented chronologically beginning in the post World War II years through to the present. The atomic bomb begins the tale – destruction perceived literally as it permeates throughout artistic responses and magazine features. As years progress, destruction’s definition becomes more and more nuanced, reflecting the historical, the formal, the anthropological and the social in intertwined modes of expression.

Highlights from the exhibition include Arnold Odermatt’s documentary photographs of car wrecks. A Swiss police officer, Odermatt photographed both on and off duty. The images capture a sense of momentousness with an eery stillness that will have you gazing into their compositions seeking out clues. 

Robert Rauschenberg, “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” 1953. Collection of SF MoMA.

As interpretations of destruction move from the literal to the conceptual, notable artists add their take. John Baldessari and Yves Klein offer textual protests, while Robert Rauschenberg famously erases a William de Kooning drawing. In the late 1960s, Gustav Metzger initiated the Destruction in Art Symposium featuring international artists and thinkers coming together to publicly speak about the role of destruction in art. Yoko Ono famously presented her Cut Piece, in which audience members were invited on stage to cut strips of her clothing until she was left sitting in her underwear. The film is included in the Hirshhorn exhibition – the full eight minutes of which must be watched. 

Yoko Ono performing Cut Piece, 1964
Yoko Ono performing Cut Piece, 1964

Other highlights in Damage Control include Luc Delahaye’s poignant documentary photographs, Christopher Wool’s text paintings, Walead Beshty’s sculptural installations and Michael Landy’s Break Down footage. Footage from Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting is also presented – a 1974 project in which the artist literally splits a two-story New Jersey home in half. The literal and conceptual symbolism could not be more poignant. 

gordon-matta-clark+split+house, 1973
Gordan Matta-Clark, “Splitting,” 1973.

A striking work is Roy Arden’s video documenting 1994 riots after Vancouver’s hockey team lost the Stanley Cup. Without a corresponding title, the footage feels as though it should correspond to political protests. Indeed, in the first few minutes, I thought the rioting youth represented the WTO protests, but on closer watch it becomes clear that the destruction set off is merely from a sporting event. The degree of wreckage and public disregard is frightening – the feeling heightened as you wonder what else so minuscule could set off such reactions. 

Christopher Wool
Christopher Wool, Text Piece.

Incorporating a vast array of media – film, photography, painting, installation, sculpture – Damage Control reminds us of the power of interpretation. The literal is placed against the conceptual in a harmonious balance of signification, suggesting a complex web of artistic processes and fixations. The exhibition succeeds in proving to us just how significant the concept of destruction has had on our society and culture, while preparing us for future manifestations.

The exhibition is on display from October 24, 2013 to May 26, 2014.

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