Ai, if he is to be believed, destroyed an actual vase, perhaps made more than 2,000 years ago, documenting its release from his outstretched hands, its free fall and finally its shattered form lying on the ground as the artist stares impassively at the camera. Demand was doing something very different, meticulously reconstructing the scene of an accident at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, in which three Qing Dynasty vases were broken by a visitor who tripped on a staircase. Demand’s photograph replicates a forensic image taken by the museum immediately after the accident to document the unintentional wreckage.
So while one work captures actual, irrevocable loss, the other is in fact creative, inscribing an image of destruction within a deliberate act of re-creation. But more than that divides these two works: One is stupid and infantile while the other is, if not great art, at least defiant in its insistence that art be about making, organizing or imitating. At the very least, “Landing” adds to, more than subtracts from, our sense of the visual world.
The best parts of “Damage Control,” curated by Hirshhorn interim director Kerry Brougher and scholar Russell Ferguson from UCLA, are its moments of ethical clarity, when the allure of destruction as an idea or praxis pushes artists beyond the bounds of decency. Occasionally, perhaps without intending to, “Damage Control” reveals some of the silly, provincial, narcissistic currents within contemporary art and, in so doing, also reveals what distinguishes substantial art from an adolescent lack of impulse control.
The exhibition begins with the defining event of the 20th century, the explosion of the first nuclear bombs and the lasting impact they had on culture and art. Films made by Harold Edgerton of nuclear detonations in the 1950s demonstrate both the terrifying power and hypnotic visual beauty of the mushroom cloud, the great white flash of blinding light, the shock waves and the scorching of earth and sea. Most visitors, conventionally secure in the magical belief that these weapons will never again be used, will find them beautiful in a limited, purely visual way. And that isn’t particularly strange: Since the 18th century, we have had an aesthetic category for this — the sublime — into which we place and contain things that are awesome, boundless, incomprehensible and beyond imagining. There is even a measure of old-fashioned pride in our love of the sublime: Look what man has wrought.