The exhibition then takes up destruction in more focused, constructive ways: How accidental events can produce beauty; the use of destruction to move forward and create anew; and the sometimes indistinguishable line between creating and destroying, when both involve transformation or metamorphosis of the existing world. That last idea leads many artists astray, into a conceit that there is no line at all between creation and destruction and that anything the artist does — e.g., photographing wanton destruction — is therefore creative by definition.
Among the wonderful moments in this first chapter of the exhibition are the photographs by Arnold Odermatt, a policeman who spent 40 years documenting car crashes along rural roads in Switzerland. They are astounding, technically flawless images. Odermatt is to car wrecks what Weegee was to human wrecks, but Odermatt was a better photographer, and his images paradoxically have more humanity in them than many of Weegee’s corrosive caricatures. These cars seem to be having trysts on wet highways beneath lowering clouds, or taking a dipin a placid lake on a foggy morning.
Odermatt wasn’t photographing destruction in action but the aftermath, the wreckage, which puts him in a long line of artists who have focused on things like ruins and the beauty of decay. But it also puts him politely to the side of the main thrust of this exhibition, which is about the dynamics of destruction and how close we can get to seeing it in action. In the 1960s, Jean Tinguely, also from Switzerland, created complex Rube-Goldberg-like devices that spun and whirred and ground themselves into smoking wreckage, sometimes exploding with the help of a little dynamite. The material complexity of the work, its elaborate confection of wheels, springs and motors, seemed to reflect a society that grew ever more complex, ever more fragile and potentially self-destructive even as it embraced bromides about progress and the future.
The atom and hydrogen bombs changed the way artists related to ideas of violence and destruction. One of the central figures in this show, Gustav Metzger, declared that “The atomic bomb is really the starting point of my own work,” and he emerged in the 1960s as one of the sharpest and most productive theoreticians of destruction. In 1966 he helped organize a conclave in London called the Destruction in Art Symposium, which had a lasting impact on artists struggling to create new conceptual ways to force audiences into a confrontation with the raw and real power of destruction lurking throughout modern society.
Unlike Odermatt, Metzger wasn’t interested in the ruins or the beautiful aftermath; rather, he was seeking ways to enact or represent destruction, driven by the age-old idea that art should somehow reflect society. A self-destructive society required what he termed “auto-destructive” art.
One of Metzger’s contributions to that dialogue is particularly beautiful, a form of action painting in which he sprayed nylon sheets with hydrochloric acid. A 1961 film of one of these performances, known as the South Bank Demonstration, shows an opaque scrim beginning to dissolve, at first seemingly torn by squirts of acid, then falling to pieces as it disintegrates. Behind the “painting,” however, is a view of London, including the iconic dome of St. Paul’s, which Metzger’s street art reveals bit by bit, as if he is removing a veil that hides reality rather than destroying a nylon sheet.