These two photographs offer visitors to the Hirshhorn Museum’s exhibition Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950, two poles of argument. What are the permissible limits of destruction in the name of art? How do we balance what is created with what is lost when destruction is the means of making an artistic statement? One has to have a very grandiose sense of Ai’s importance to believe that he has materially added anything to the world through his destruction of an irreplaceable historic object (if indeed he dropped a genuine Han Dynasty urn). His act is transgressive, but not in a good way. There is, unquestionably, a powerful visual fascination with these images, with seeing destruction in action. But it is a primitive, even pornographic appeal. Anybody can drop a vase and anybody can create an elegant justification for why it is permissible. Demand, on the other hand, invites the viewer to do more work, and without the loss of anything tangible in the world. He achieves something paradoxical: Creation through destruction, without destroying anything of importance. It may not have the immediate lurid appeal of Ai’s photographs—indeed, it has a very different, almost classical kind of beauty—but it is more productive and more memorable.
This photograph by Chinese artists Ai Weiwei apparently depicts exactly what the title says: “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.” Which means the vase we see in the process of destruction was perhaps some 2000 years old. Ai has made something of a specialty of treating ancient objects with what seems insufferable contemporary disdain, including painting a Coca-Cola logo on a Neolithic pot. It is a very brutal form of iconoclasm, the deliberate destruction of objects held by many people to be sacred, for their historical importance and rarity. The purpose seems to be one of confrontation, forcing people question why they so highly value these objects, and also forcing people to consider the vast destruction of cultural heritage perpetrated by the authoritarian government in Beijing. But the loss can’t possibly be worth the transmission of that message, which might well be sent in many other far less destructive ways. The act feels narcissistic, and adolescent, and it greatly diminishes the Ai’s stature as an artist—even given his admirable resistance and persecution by the Chinese government. (Photo courtesy Ai Weiwei)
This 2006 photograph (seen here in detail) by artist Thomas Demand appears to show shattered ceramic pieces on a stairway landing, and so it does. But the photograph is a meticulous recreation of an accident that happened at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, when a visitor accidently stumbled and broke three Qing Dynasty vases. Demand’s photograph reproduces an image made by the museum, to document the accident. The museum’s purpose was essentially documentary and forensic. Demand, on the other hand, is using an image of destruction to document his own defiant act of recreation, in a sense, throwing into the void of loss and wreckage a work of art that insists upon the necessity of moving forward and reconstituting the world. (Copyright Thomas Demand, VG Bild Kunst, Bonn/ARS, New York. Photo courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery/Esther Schipper, Berlin/Spruth Magers, Berlin and London)
SOURCE: Philip Kennicott.