The Archive of Destruction explores what happens to art after its destruction
It all started in October 2010, when the dinosaur was accidentally electrocuted.
Jes Fernie, curator and writer, was preparing to bring in the life-size sculpture of the dinosaur, titled Luna Park, in the English town of Colchester. But, before the trip, the steel and polyester artwork burned down, possibly due to a power shortage.
“When I heard that the sculpture had burned down, I wasn’t upset, I was excited,” Fernie says. Luna Park was first created by Welsh duo Heather and Ivan Morison, and had been a popular attraction in Portsmouth, where it was first installed. Fernie was inspired to organize public events around his destruction. “The response has been incredible,” she said. “I was like, ‘there’s something in there.’ It tied in beautifully with the artists’ narrative of future dystopians.”
A decade later, that “something” led to the Archive of Destruction, a website that lists modern and contemporary public works of art that have been damaged, altered, or erased over the past century or so. It defines “destruction” liberally, including works of art destroyed or modified by protest or negligence, by institutional decree or by the artist’s own hand. “Archives are two implicit challenges,” she says. “The concept of destruction as an inherently negative act and the idea of a work of art as a static thing,” she writes on the site, which launched last June. “The emphasis is on the cathartic, transformative and expansive potential of acts of destruction.”
The fifty public works of art on the site are separated into eight elements responsible for their destruction – including boredom, fear, greed and love. “It plays with the language of archives,” says Fernie, “the pompous system of categorization that is the legacy of nineteenth-century museology.”
Some of these works were built in a spirit of annihilation, like that of Alfredo Jaar Skoghall Konsthall. In 2000 Jaar was commissioned to create a piece of public art in Skoghall, a small Swedish town built around a large paper factory. Shocked to discover that the city had no cultural spaces, Jaar built an exhibition hall out of paper and wood. Twenty-four hours after opening it burned it down. Residents were outraged by the loss of this promising art center, responding to Jaar’s intention to draw attention to the absence. He was then invited to build a permanent exhibition space for the city.
Mary Ellen Carroll’s Ongoing Project Prototype 180 (1999-) covers performance, debates and activism around land use and housing policy, all centered around a house the artist bought in Houston, a city with no zoning laws. In 2010, she rotated the house 180 degrees, transforming it into a site for tours, exhibitions and conversations. In 2017, Carroll put on another performance, this time destroying the house with an excavator, encouraged by a local resident who called it “shame on the neighborhood.” “The element of slapstick embedded in the building’s rotation and its demise could be seen as a reflection of the absurd situation in which a system of entrenched neoliberalism in Houston and beyond is celebrated and perpetuated,” writes Fernie.
Some artists modify the work of others, like David Hammonds, who produced two new works based on the minimalist monument by Richard Serra STT (1980). For Irritated (1981), Hammonds urinated on Serra’s piece, a performance documented by photographer Dawoud Bey. With Shoe tree (1981), he threw several pairs of shoes on top of the art, leaving them hanging down. Hammond’s modifications engaged Serra’s work with motives of race, class, and audience.
Other interventions are anonymous, but no less poignant. During his residency in January 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio, Robert Smithson dumped 20 trucks of dirt into a shed until the center beam separated. On May 4, four students from Kent State were shot dead by the National Guard during a demonstration against the Vietnam War, sparking national outrage. Shortly after, someone scribbled “MAY 4 KENT 70” on the cracked beam, connecting Partially Buried pyre (1970) until the breaking point reached by the country. “It’s such a powerful example of how the meaning of a work of art can change and become something representative of a particular moment in American history,” Fernie said.
A disturbing example of public intervention is Sketch for a Fountain (2017) by Nicole Eisenman, a playful grouping of five androgynous figures gathered around a swimming pool which constitutes the artist’s contribution to the Skulptur Projekt Münster in Germany. Shortly after its installation, one of the figures was beheaded and a swastika was spray painted on the piece. This vandalism coincided with the election of a far-right party to the German parliament for the first time since World War II. In a show of support for the artist and rejection of rising reactionary tendencies, the city purchased the work in 2020.
And then sometimes the public’s admiration threatens a work of art. In the late 1990s, thousands of Oscar Wilde fans began leaving lipstick kisses on his Paris grave, a 1912 sculpture of a naked winged angel by Jacob Epstein. Fearing the erosion of the traces of lipstick, the authorities imposed a fine of € 9,000 and erected a glass barrier around the statue.
In keeping with her expansive nature, Fernie intends to continuously add projects to the archive, which are complemented by an online discussion program., and the launch of a newspaper planned for this winter. “Just like the Archives, these stories are ongoing,” she said. The case in point is Luna Park, whose story continued earlier this month when artists installed a smaller bronze version near the site where the original was located.
“I would like to get to a point where we’re less afraid of what we’re trying to control in the public domain,” Fernie says. “Do not see the launch date as the end of a project, but its starting point. The work of art is never finished.