The spectre of Cold War looms large in the Hirshhorn’s latest exhibition, Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950. The start date of its chronology points to an initial focus on the trauma of destruction in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and anxieties about the strange new world that rose from its ashes. Initial feelings of panic in the face of human fragility, when faced with documentary evidence of nuclear destruction at the exhibition’s entrance, dissipate as artists gradually reclaim control through a range of defensive gestures.
At times nihilistic and haunting or mischievous and seductive, Damage Control charts artistic responses to the theme of destruction over more than half a century. Film and photography, often incorporating imagery taken from media sources, chart the build-up of the ‘atomic age’ in the 1950s, in light of what appeared to be the very real prospect of nuclear war. Into the 1960s, a more inquisitional practice is seen as artists themselves begin to attack and destroy, from the piano deconstructions of Raphael Montañez Ortiz to the auto-destructive art pioneered by Gustav Metzger. Yet grandiose gestures and playful performances in the postmodern era are followed by a renewed psychological anguish, as foreboding about the dangers of War on Terror and environmental degradation leads artists to make new contributions to the long history of iconoclasm.
Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950 continues at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. until 26 May 2014.
Image: Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Piano Destruction Concert. Recreated at the Hirshhorn, Washington, D.C., October 2013.