In February 2001, the artist Michael Landy gathered together all his belongings, catalogued them and destroyed them. All 7,227 of his possessions - from stamps to a Saab 900 - were reduced to their basic materials and methodically shredded. He called this work ‘Break Down’. ‘Break Down’ came into being through a colossal act of destruction.
Since the 1960s artists have cut, crushed, erased, exploded, burned, shot and even chewed up their material in order to explore the limits of art. There is the famous story about the American artist Robert Rauschenberg erasing a drawing by Willem de Koonig and calling it ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’, thereby turning an act of destruction into a new act of creation.
However, there are other artists who have taken the notion of destruction even further. One of these is Gustav Metzger who in the early 1960s came up with the concept of ‘Auto-Destructive Art’. In 1960, he penned the ‘Manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art’, which reads like a kind of prose-poem:
Man in Regent Street is auto-destructive.
Rockets, nuclear weapons, are auto-destructive.
The drop drop dropping of HH bombs.
Not interested in ruins, (the picturesque).
Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected.
Auto-destructive art demonstrates man's power to accelerate disintegrative processes of nature and to order them.
Auto-destructive art mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture - polishing to destruction point.
Gordon Matta-Clark’s ‘Conical Intersect’ (1975), David Zwirner, New York
Auto-destructive art is the transformation of technology into public art. The immense productive capacity, the chaos of capitalism and of Soviet communism, the co-existence of surplus and starvation; the increasing stock-piling of nuclear weapons - more than enough to destroy technological societies; the disintegrative effect of machinery and of life in vast built-up areas on the person...
Auto-destructive art is art which contains within itself an agent which automatically leads to its destruction within a period of time not to exceed twenty years. Other forms of auto-destructive art involve manual manipulation. There are forms of auto-destructive art where the artist has a tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process, and there are other forms where the artist's control is slight.
Materials and techniques used in creating auto-destructive art include: Acid, Adhesives, Ballistics, Canvas, Clay, Combustion, Compression, Concrete, Corrosion, Cybernetics, Drop, Elasticity, Electricity, Electrolysis, Feed-Back, Glass, Heat, Human Energy, Ice, Jet, Light, Load, Mass-production, Metal, Motion Picture, Natural Forces, Nuclear Energy, Paint, Paper, Photography, Plaster, Plastics, Pressure, Radiation, Sand, Solar Energy, Sound, Steam, Stress, Terra-cotta, Vibration, Water, Welding, Wire, Wood.
Gustav Metzger’s ‘Auto-Destructive Art’, Keystone/Hulton Archive via Getty Image
The first public demonstration of ‘Auto-Destructive Art’ took place in June 1960 at the Temple Gallery in London. Metzger placed a sheet of canvas on a stand. He then applied acid to it in sweeping brushstrokes. The nylon disintegrated 15 seconds after coming into contact with the acid, so that it appeared to be destroying itself. In this performance, the artist had ‘tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process’. The performance was like a dark and perverse version of Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’. All that remained at the end were several ragged strands of canvas.
Describing his performance, the artist said: ‘I was very aggressive putting the acid onto that nylon ... it was partly me attacking the system of capitalism, but inevitably also the systems of war, the warmongers, and destroying them in a sense symbolically.’ Metzger’s parents were Polish-German Jews, who were murdered in the Nazi death camps. His self-destructive art became a metaphor for twentieth-century society’s self-destructiveness.
Metzger had initially planned to erect a public monument to ‘auto-destructive art’, made of thin sheets of steel that would degrade when installed outside. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he failed to find a sponsor for the work. However, his 1960 public performance was acquired by Tate and re-performed in 2004 and 2015. Performance, then, became the chosen platform for his self-destructive art. And indeed, ‘performance art’ is the self-destructive art form par excellence. As any performance progresses it moves towards its end. Its ephemerality is an attack against art’s perceived aspirations for eternity.
The mantle of performative destruction was taken up by the American artist, Gordon Matta-Clark, who pioneered what he called ‘anarchitecture’, the uncomfortable collision between ‘anarchy’ and ‘architecture’. Architecture, like art, holds ambitions of eternal existence and it was these ambitions that Matta-Clark attempted to question. In the mid-1970s he performed a series of ‘building cuts’ during which he went around abandoned or disused buildings in the South Bronx and carved holes and clefts into them.
The photographs of Matta-Clark’s ‘cuts’ are eerily stranded between figuration and abstraction: the suspended shapes and forms of abstract art invade the realm of reality. He deconstructs the landscape around him. And by so doing, reconstructs it. As he himself stated: ‘Undoing is just as much a democratic right as doing.’
Like Metzger’s ‘auto-destructive art’, Matta-Clark’s ‘anarchitecture’ is highly politically and socially engaged. The abandoned buildings in the South Bronx were the result of economic decline and the exodus of the middle-classes. They were urban ruins. However, unlike Metzger’s works, they captured the ‘picturesque’. The photographs are beautiful despite the aggressiveness of the act which they document. Matta-Clark’s destruction was not disintegrative but static. This is why the destructiveness of his works was only partial: an attack against his physical environment, but not against art itself. An artist whose practice is more in line with Metzger’s is the Italian-born Monica Bonvicini. In 1998 she made a work called ‘Plastered’, which upon first appearance looked like a normal gallery space. This appearance was deceptive. As soon as the visitor started walking in the space, the plaster floor would start to crumble.
Monica Bonvicini’s ‘Plastered’ (1998) © Jacques Hoepffner for Femmeuses
‘Plastered’ did not exist as an artwork until the visitor started to destroy it. This was an example of ‘auto-destructive art demonstrating man's power to accelerate disintegrative processes’. ‘Plastered’ lasted only as long as the exhibition lasted. It was as ephemeral as Metzger’s public demonstration of ‘Auto-Destructive Art’. It can only be preserved by being replicated.‘Plastered’ was an invitation not just to destroy an artwork, but also the very architecture of the gallery space. Bonvicini’s practice merges that of Metzger and Matta-Clark into one single anarchic act of auto-destruction. Bonvicini’s practice is rooted in serious social thought, most notably feminism, power and gender politics. However, her destructive artworks are also comic, as proven by the tongue-in-cheek title of ‘Plastered’. Bonvicini noted the enjoyment with which the visitors responded to the task of destruction. Bonvicini’s version of destruction is a rebellion against social norms – a kind of return to childhood. The visitor becomes complicit in Bonvicini’s revolt against the gallery and its tacit power structures.
So, what is the function of destructive art? It is a protest against the world, the art world and art. Metzger’s tattered canvases, Matta-Clark’s carved walls and Bonvicini’s crumbled floors are remnants of violent acts. They came into being through the simultaneous acts of destruction and creation. And it’s this ambivalence that makes them so compelling.