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“Damage Control” is a show with a big art-historical scope that feels curiously small and idiosyncratic, despite featuring 90 works created over 65 years. Maybe it’s because of all of the giant mushroom clouds.
In the show’s darkened first room, Harold Edgerton’s 1950s-era silent films of nuclear bomb tests fill a single wall with images of terrifying destructive force. One explosion resembles some sort of massive red and black jellyfish, slowly turning itself inside out as it rises through the atmosphere, spreading smoky tentacles across the desert; another looks like a strange, bright sun, swelling on the horizon, then fading, leaving a constellation of floating, glowing debris in its wake. As ubiquitous as mushroom cloud images are, they still take all of the oxygen out of the room—and make the artworks that follow them feel more like a denouement than the main event. After the end of the world, what’s left to say?
The bomb blasts are accompanied by an article on Hiroshima, an image of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, and a magazine cover by illustrator Chesley Bonestell imagining what New York City might look like ravaged by atomic bombs—all underlining armageddon panic at midcentury.
In 1949, philosopher Theodor Adorno declared that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Similarly, “Damage Control” argues that the threat of nuclear destruction casts a long, traumatic shadow on art in the second half of the 20th century. The show highlights modern and contemporary artists blowing stuff up, destroying their own work, and ruminating on or raging against violence, destruction, and death.
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Curated by the Hirshhorn’s acting director and chief curator, Kerry Brougher, and UCLA professor Russell Ferguson, “Damage Control” offers a string of creepy and disconcerting images and actions with flashes of lacerating wit. It’s smart, strange, and a memorable affair overall. Yet the show’s inconsistencies, curious juxtapositions, and reliance on loose-knit thematic affinities instead of solid art-historical arguments seem more appropriate to a permanent-collection exercise than a big research project.
First there’s the question of how and why the curators choose to deploy documentation and non-fine arts imagery within the show. Brougher and Ferguson start the exhibit with the atomic kick-in-the-pants, showing viewers how the threat of nuclear war pervaded American consciousness and visual culture inside and outside of the art world.
Yet arguably much of the destruction in the show has more to do with good old-fashioned iconoclasm and patricide—killing your idols so that you can start fresh.
Robert Rauschenberg certainly did it with his “Erased DeKooning Drawing” (1953). For that piece, Rauschenberg dropped by ab-exer Willem DeKooning’s studio with a bottle of Jack Daniels and persuaded the older artist to surrender a drawing for the younger man to efface completely—an act that took several weeks and 15 erasers. The result is a framed, abused piece of paper with the barest ghostly hints of the drawing it once contained. The nature of the act and the actual work produced may not have been possible in an earlier decade’s art world, but the idea of surpassing your artistic elders goes at least as far back as Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550.
In addition, many artworks in the show respond directly not to A-bombs, but to a complex tangle of subjects and events: from the American cult of celebrity to the destruction of Chinese cultural treasures to the Battle of Ramadi in 2006.
In Christian Marclay’s video piece, “Guitar Drag” (2000), for example, the artist straps an amplifier to the back of a pickup truck, lashes a rope around the neck of a cherry red fender Stratocaster, and takes the guitar on- and off-road, dragging it across dirt, rocks, and asphalt. It’s partly a send-up of iconic images of rock stars smashing their guitars in paroxysms of excess, but it’s also a reference to a modern-day lynching: the murder of James Byrd in Texas in 1998.
In other words, the artworks in “Damage Control” emerge from a multivalent cultural soup, only one aspect of which is glimpsed in the first two rooms. The rest of the show is designed with the typical clean, clinical, modernist museum display vibe, albeit with a little more dark grey on the walls than usual, thanks to all the video work. It’s all a little funereal.
One wonders what the show might’ve looked like if it had woven in more illustrations, film stills, or documentary material—especially given Brougher’s smart, digressive essay in the catalog, which touches on everything from Godzilla to books by novelist Don DeLillo to George Romero’s epic 1978 zombie flick, Dawn of the Dead. The show and the book that accompanies it seem to come from different worlds.
While “Damage Control” may skimp on context, it does nicely foreground how the same artist can approach violence both with nihilistic humor and honest vulnerability. Yoko Ono’s “Instructions” (1964), for example, are short proposals for conceptual art actions that read like a series of impossible dares: “Steal all of the clocks and watches in the world,” one reads. “Destroy them.” Another asks the gallery-goer to possibly destroy something in the museum itself: “Cut out any portion of a painting you like or a piece of paper and throw it off a high building.”
In contrast with these invitations to mayhem is Ono’s “Cut Piece” (1965), a performance in which the artist offered her body and a pair of scissors to her audience. Kneeling onstage, Ono asks people she does not know to cut her clothing away piece by piece. They begin timidly, but gradually become more aggressive. While she stares passively straight ahead, one joker moves in and snips her bra straps, almost revealing her breasts. In the written pieces, Ono invokes violence with her tongue firmly in her cheek—but when her body enters the picture, she’s courting real danger.
Ultimately it’s this dance between real and simulated danger—violence in art, violence in the world, and the curious space between—that should be the star here. Laurel Nakadate, for example, seeks out lonely, older men and persuades them to act out suggestive yet sexless scenarios with her on camera. One such action appears in “Greater New York” (2005): An older man drags a wrihing Nakadate around the beach by her legs, appearing to assault her as he moves her into and out of the frame. This footage is intercut with shots of the artist dressed as a Girl Scout, standing on the roof of an apartment building on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with her back to the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. It’s an immediate response to an unfolding tragedy, albeit in character, in costume. In art, contrived drama and real tragedy get mixed up, and both can make you feel like it’s the end of the world.