Look straight ahead: it looks like a jar of cookies from afar, but as you get closer, you find them to be a sickly green-blue color. To the right is a small piece of yellowing paper in a glass container—a recipe for “Corpus Wafers”: one-third cup of oil, two eggs … and one-half cup of ashes? Yes, these cookies are the 1970 creation of artist John Baldessari, and one of the many pieces in the Hirshhorn Museum’s exhibit, Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950.
On entrance, the exhibit confronts you with its main theme—the relationship between art and destruction.
The first room, dark and compact, places a short montage of nuclear bombs next to a piano that looks as if it could have been in one of the explosions. Though not the result of chemical warfare, this demolished piano is actually a relic from the opening of the exhibit in October of last year, when Raphael Montanez Ortiz performed one of his Piano Destruction Concerts.
This performative piece showcases a beautiful grand piano and its subsequent demolition in front of a live audience. By manipulating the cover of the keys and using the body of the piano itself for sound, and then more radically, hacking away at the piano with a small axe, Ortiz destroys the instrument in order to create his piece of art. This seemingly paradoxical method—that of destruction for the sake of creation—appeals to intellectual sensibilities as well as one’s inner skeptic.
Take for instance Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased. The artist requested drawings from a number of his peers, only to erase them to a faint gray shadow. At once, one is forced to look more closely and almost dare to believe that there is something still on the page. Unsure of its artistic value, you may pause, but when placed in context, the ideas within Erased begin to become clear.
Immediately after this piece, you walk once again into a black portion of the space. The alternating rooms—from bright and white-walled to dark and black-walled—compliment the exhibit, almost as if to resemble the brilliance of an explosion and the subsequent darkness that descends after the blow.
Fortunately, there are pieces that require less personal reflection and offer a more visceral experience. One of the larger white rooms houses a perfect grid of eighty small prints by Jake and Dinos Chapman, a collective piece entitled Injury to Insult. These prints are in fact re-mastered versions of Fransicso de Goya’s The Disasters of War. At first glance, they appear to be the typical portrayals of dismembered bodies and bloody priests—and then your eyes are drawn to the faces.
Chapman and Chapman have drawn over the originally troubling sketches with even more troubling faces reminiscent of aliens and ghouls. One after the other, these scenes strike a chord in our historical memories with pithy phrases such as “No se puede saber por que,” or “You cannot know why.” Not only are we forced to reckon with these historical occurrences of human destruction, but are also moved to recognize the dehumanizing effects of war by literally seeing non-human faces participating in what we know to be all too human acts of evil.
The concomitant sounds emanating throughout the exhibit produce an eerie synesthesia. You observe Chapman’s drawings it is as if they are creating the jarring noises that come from rooms before and after them.
Moving forward into another dark room, any musician attending the exhibit would be scarred. The piece aptly named “Guitar Drag” features a Fender electric guitar being dragged by a pick-up truck through grass and hay. My friend, former Voice columnist Rebecca Barr, noted that the room itself even seemed to smell of hay—though proof of this is unknown. This confluence of the senses appealed to much more than a musicians aching heart.
Through the shocking and the unexpected, one cannot help but reap a sense of hope from the exhibit. These artists were wrestling with darkness and found release in artistic expression. The collection, however, calls you to find beauty where pain once stood—and perhaps, experience the same transformative power that those who were left with no other choice, once did.
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