Breaking and Remaking Art

Breaking and remaking images and objects are powerful acts to experience. Some people call the current generative use of destruction in art making ‘creative iconoclasm’, and I’d like to tell you about one experience that significantly grounded my own research in the field.

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Image: Collective Self-Destroying Sculpture from Michael Landy's Workshop on Destruction, June 2012. Photograph: Author.

On 16 June 2012 I took part with twelve other participants in the artist Michael Landy’s Workshop on Destruction, an all-day workshop included in Wide Open School, the Hayward Gallery’s month-long programme of workshops, talks, and conversations led by artists. Landy and his long-time collaborator Clive Lissaman introduced the workshop by showing short films of Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York (1960), a large-scale kinetic sculpture set to self-destruct (or more correctly, to destroy itself) in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden, and Landy’s Break Down (2001), an art event comprising the destruction of all 7,227 of the artist’s material possessions through a systematic process of sorting, grouping, and dismantling them.

We had been asked to bring personal objects to destroy during the workshop, objects that would be attached to the framework of a base form, a large white motorized sculpture, so that the final collectively-made sculpture would serve as an homage to Tinguely’s Homage, Break Down, and Landy’s other projects—all of which had attracted many of the participants to the workshop. I found it remarkable that Break Down took place over a decade ago, left no original material trace, yet it continued to retain its power in the public imagination, or at least in the minds of the workshop participants.

Participants selected objects that represented painful or pleasant memories, objects they simultaneously loved and hated; others were not so emotionally attached to their objects and simply wanted to dispose of them. Other participants submitted objects that they had collected over the years, or in some cases, things they had hoarded and desperately needed to expunge from their homes. One woman brought some of her dead mother’s old reading glasses, all of which she had kept because they helped her to continue to feel close to her mother after her death. Another man decided to destroy a machine he used in his work. A newly qualified teacher brought her first classwork planner, a thing of pride that she wanted to discard in order to progress beyond her training period. My wooden penguin Christmas tree decoration and a floppy disc of my PhD dissertation were two objects that represented problematic relationships, memories, and behaviors that I wanted to leave behind. We were given a wide range of tools with which we could destroy our objects, from scissors and small saws to sledgehammers, along with advice on which tools might best suit our purposes. We were told to be aware of how we were feeling when we destroyed our objects.

Once the objects had been dismantled and rendered useless as the original objects, we attached them to the base form of the self-destroying sculpture, spray painted the whole thing white—like Tinguley’s Homage—and witnessed it eventually whir itself to oblivion, after several starts and stops. Bits broke, fell off, and flew off, with Landy smashing the sculpture and its fragments from time to time with the sledgehammer to encourage its further demolition. After the event took place, Landy and Lissaman awarded all of the participants “certificates in destruction” in a mock graduation ceremony. One participant’s blog about the workshop includes links to a film clip, and the performance was televised, but no material elements survived.

The experience of making a collective self-destroying sculpture and witnessing its destruction reminded me that it is possible and more useful to live without so much stuff. It also helped me to recognise and understand the potential value of objects as materials after their original value is lost Perhaps most importantly, it also made me reflect upon the ultimately highly conflicted attitudes we have towards material objects.

This is an extract from: Stacy Boldrick, ‘Trash as Trash as Art: Reflections on the Preservation and Destruction of Waste in Artistic Practice’, New American Notes Online (www.nanocrit.com), 2015 (7). Stacy Boldrick joined the School of Museum Studies in December 2015 as a Lecturer in Art Museum and Gallery Studies after over 8 years working at The Fruitmarket Gallery, a publicly-funded contemporary art gallery in Edinburgh, and as a freelance curator for other art institutions. Her main research interest lies in the expanded field of iconoclasm, or image breaking, which encompasses acts of historic destruction that took place during the Reformation, as well as the use of acts of destruction, or the dismantling and remaking of images, in the work of artists now.

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