It would be easy to organize an exhibition about destruction in the same vein as a big-budget Hollywood film. Step one: bring together a marquee-worthy cast of artists. Step two: assemble art works that bombard viewers with special effects and explosive devices to mask the non-existent plot. Step three: bank on audiences to come in droves while planning a sequel (or two) by repeating steps one to three.
Thankfully, ‘Under Destruction’ resisted such facile treatment. Instead of destruction serving as an organizing principle to illustrate a theme, co-curators Gianni Jetzer and Chris Sharp opted for restraint. These works, by 20 international artists, and shown across three successive shows were as much about subtlety as any shared destructive impulse. The exhibition, originating at Basel’s Museum Tinguely last year, commemorated the 50th anniversary of Jean Tinguely’s seminal kinetic work, Homage to New York, which was set to self-destruct on 17 March 1960 in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The works in ‘Under Destruction’ precariously balanced creative urgency and destructive force as an end in itself. All unfolded as part of a visual storyline in three ‘chapters’: the first embodied the subtlest forms of destruction; the second exposed its more literal (and audible) aspects; while the last intermixed both – and all in open-ended dialogue with viewers. Ranging in size and media, and including works spanning from the late 1980s until now, each chapter contained pieces identical to those in Basel save for a handful being replaced with others by the same artists.
Ariel Orozco’s black and white photograph Doble Desgaste (Double Wear, 2005) is akin to a storyboard: it features sequential images of a hand, first creating a drawing of an eraser, then erasing the picture using the eraser, and finally repeating this process until both the eraser and its likeness are gone. Orozco illustrates how destruction develops in time, whereas the film works of Michael Sailstorfer (Untitled [Bulb], 2010) and Alexander Gutke (The White Light of the Void, 2002) allowed viewers to observe, and sometimes listen to, this process. Similarly, video documenting live action works such as Michael Landy’s Break Down (2001) – in which the artist systematically catalogued and destroyed all of his possessions – tracked destruction from a distance. The recording is not the work per se, but, like Tinguely’s fragment, it has become the de facto ‘object’ where all others were lost – or, in this case, willfully destroyed.
For all the exhibition’s subtlety, unabashed destruction still abounded, as seen in chapter II. Jimmie Durham’s St. Frigo (1997), for example, is a refrigerator that has essentially been stoned to death. Roman Signer, Christian Marclay, Alex Hubbard and Martin Kersels similarly subject everyday objects – chairs, guitars, pillows, balloons and the contents of a bedroom – to various topsy-turvy scenarios. At times, these artists also implicate themselves, appearing on camera as a stand-in or decoy. Others made onlookers contingent to the mayhem their works create. Monica Bonvicini’s self-balancing structure, made from shattered glass and fluorescent light, could topple at any moment (White, 2011), while a switch gave visitors collective control over how much Liz Larner’s Corner Basher (1988) damaged the nearby walls.
Larner’s ball-and-chain was one of many globular forms included in each chapter. Elsewhere there was Nina Beier and Marie Lund’s crystal ball, obscured by dirt, which had been kicked from its point of purchase to the location of its presentation (History Makes a Young Man Old, 2008); Kris Martin’s orb, with the inscription, ‘10 BOMBS WILL EXPLODE IN 2014’ (100 Years, 2004); and Ariel Schlesinger’s Untitled (Bubble Machine) (2006), an elaborate kinetic construction that produced bubbles atop a ladder, only to have them meet a fiery demise after falling onto an electrified coil rack below.
The persistence of such elemental, mechanistic and pseudo-scientific works through alternately makeshift and elaborately crafted kinetic structures, positioned artists like Nina Canell and Arcangelo Sassalino as amateur inventors. Likewise, Johannes Vogl’s ‘machine to produce jam breads’, Ohne Titel (Marmeladenbrotstreichmaschine) (2007), runs like a slapstick-style assembly line: all of the bread eventually falls onto the floor in an uneaten pile. To Dust (2009), Jonathan Schipper’s two upside-down statues motorized to rub up against the other, piles up too, this time as dust ostensibly accumulating until both figures cancel each other out. Unlike Tinguely’s machine, Vogl and Schipper’s respective remnants expose how a system ‘glitch’ is consciously incorporated from the outset and is no accident.
Even Pavel Büchler, who in the simple act of reconstituting flea-market paintings by disassembling them to make his own in ‘Modern Paintings’ (1999–2000), balks at presenting destruction solely in bombastic terms. As such, ‘Under Destruction’ was no Hollywood blockbuster. Instead it reiterated a careful optimism, wherein potential reveals itself repeatedly, even under the guise of annihilation.