Explore Washington D.C.

Damage Control: Provocative Art at the Hirshhorn

At D.C.'s contemporary art museum, destruction as a means of creation

The exhibition Damage Control opened with a “piano destruction concert” on the plaza of the Hirshhorn Museum. Raphael Montañez Ortiz took an axe to a black lacquer piano, pausing only to scrape and pluck sounds from its metal strings and keyboard. 

Fortunately, except for that piano, the art here documents (rather than executes) moments of destruction. Works by 40-plus artists range from photographs (for example, Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei’s dropping of a 2,000-year-old Han urn) to videos (feminist Pipilotti Rist’s Ever is Over All, 1997, her slow-mo stroll along a sidewalk, smiling as she smashes car windows with a flower-shaped club). Also here: Ed Ruscha’s painting The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire plus Yoshitomo Nara’s paint and pencil on paper No Fun! (in the floating world) and Jeff Wall’s lightbox tableau The Destroyed Room.

Often the art—physical and performance-based—exists only as a film record, for example, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece in which audience members, invited to the stage, take turns with scissors snipping away at her clothing. Yet sometimes an actual object appears, case in point, one history-making “drawing” by Robert Rauschenberg—his audacious obliteration of a pencil/charcoal/oil/crayon work lent him by a more famous artist, the Erased de Kooning

Can destruction, in fact, generate creation? Does spectacle carry a social message? Decide what it all means through May 26 at this city’s only museum dedicated to contemporary art.

Yoshitomo Nara, "No Nukes (in the floating world)," 1999
Yoshitomo Nara, "No Nukes (in the floating world)," 1999 (Photo by Joshua White, Courtesy Eileen Harris Norton)