Jes Fernie has been researching stories about destruction and public art over the last decade, creating an archive of sorts, made up of suspect categories, open-ended artworks and wrong-footed journeys. Spanning a hundred years and many continents, the Archive of Destruction tells cumulative stories of vulnerability, interference, desperation, fear, boredom and love. What follows is a slippery biographical tale about the process of building the archive, combined with a selection of abbreviated retellings of a selection of stories in the archive.
Oscar Wilde’s tomb, carved by Jacob Epstein, located in a Parisian graveyard, rapidly erodes due to the thousands of lipstick-covered kisses that are planted by adoring fans on the limestone.
Throughout his 61 years, Kurt Schwitters suffered from epilepsy, strokes, asthma, depression and haemorrhages. He was interned in a camp during World War II and fled Nazi persecution for his ‘degenerate art’. His four ‘total-environments’ (Merz Barns) were destroyed by bombs, fire, dispersal, and storms.
At one of Jean Tinguely’s most notorious performances, Homage to New York, the artist is presented with a citation for disturbing the peace and violating the City fire code. His self-destroying sculpture, made up of junk he found at a New Jersey dump, has burst into flames. A fire-fighter brings the event to an abrupt end; it is inscribed into MOMA’s history.
The New York administration takes umbrage at Andy Warhol’s screen-printed portraits of the FBI’s most wanted men applied to the façade of the New York World Fair pavilion. The work is called 13 Most Wanted. Is it too sexy? Too risky? Too Italian? Too criminal? Warhol obliterates the work with his trademark silver paint, a day before the fair opens.
I meet a French curator in Lisbon who tells me about Amina Menia’s project Enclosed (2012) which tells the story of a colonial monument in central Algiers. After the War of Independence it is covered up by an Algerian artist in the form of a Brutalist monolithic shroud. In 2012, during the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of Algeria’s independence, a crack appears in the outer sarcophagus which then begins to crumble, revealing sections of the original sculpture beneath.
Local residents use Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, Durham as a place to piss, have sex, and take drugs. The artist agrees to meet his detractors on site and tells the crowd that the activity and graffiti have humanised and improved on his work and suggested that the solution to the problem would be to blow up neighbouring houses.
When four students are killed by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio during a Vietnam war protest, the words ‘May 4 Kent 70’ are daubed in paint across the central beam of Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed. The action forges a powerful long-lasting association between the work of art and the ‘breaking point’ of the beam to the nation-wide shift in public support for the war.
Avita Geva unloads thousands of books onto a strip of land separating a Jewish kibbutz and an Arab village; people rifle through them, the remaining books decompose. Is this shared-knowledge, social fertiliser, a reverse land-grab, or a refusal of the concept of land-ownership?
Gordon Matta-Clark brings an air gun to the opening of an exhibition he has been invited to take part in at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York; he blows out all the windows while raging against the university authorities and architectural ideologies they support (“I hate what they stand for!” he yells).
I receive an email from an artist-curator friend who says she’d like to write a text for the archive, imagining where destroyed public artworks are now and how they feel about their new locations; whether the sites they once stood in feel less burdened or lonely. I love this idea of embodying an artwork, speaking for it in its absence.
When Michael Asher’s caravan is finally stolen after three showings at Skulptur Projekte Münster across three decades, the police ask curator Kasper König about the value of the artwork; König explains that the caravan was ‘not art when it was not parked in one of its designated spots.’
Between midnight and 4am on 27 April 1979, three Brazilian artists Hudinilson Jr, Mario Ramiro, and Rafael França, run through the streets of São Paulo placing plastic bags over the heads of the city’s public statues, fixing them in place with a cord. Within a few hours, the authorities have removed the bags but the memory of suffocation and the mass execution of revered leaders is forever fixed in the public imaginary. They become bodies whose identities have been stripped from them, echoing the lives of the ‘disappeared’ of the dictatorship. I learn that the word ‘acephalous’ means ‘without a head’.
I visit Alison Wilding in her studio to find out more about a public sculpture she made for the River Wear in Sunderland twenty years ago. It was destroyed through erosion, malfunction, over-design, the build-up of debris, bombast, and wishful thinking. At some point in our conversation she says “But that might not be true! I can’t remember exactly what happened.” I like the idea that I peddle half-truths, personal narratives, tenuous connections in the Archive of Destruction, and that this goes some way to filling the many gaps left by what remains undocumented and unspoken.
David Hammons takes a piss against a large-scale public sculpture by Richard Serra in New York; his collaborator Dawoud Bey documents the performance and ensuing conversation with a police officer. Is it staged? Does Hammons hate minimalism, Richard Serra’s art, the bullshit of the artworld, or is he just marking his own territory? It’s not clear. It’s interesting because it’s not clear.
When Katharina Fritsch’s yellow Madonna is installed in Munster town centre in 1987, her nose is broken, her eyes are scratched, she is daubed in graffiti, uprooted and decapitated – all during night-time hours. During the day, candles and flowers are laid at her feet and bundled into her arms. I wonder to what extent these acts are gendered.
I become interested in the concept of shame in relation to the destruction of public artworks and realise that this explains a lot when it comes to the lack of documentation about destroyed works. We are so desperate to tell the good story – the one with the sunlit pictures, the smiley faces, the moment of arrival – our idea of success is so wrapped up in all of this, that it becomes almost impossible to publicly accept a moment of perceived failure.
Eric Flounders, Leader of Bow Neighbourhood Council in east London, orders the premature destruction of Rachel Whiteread’s House calling it an ‘excrescence’. I later learn that Whiteread witnessed the destruction from her car, parked clandestinely nearby. Looking back, I am shocked that I hadn’t considered the emotional impact of this destruction – how it must have felt for all involved in the project when the Fiat Hitachi earth-mover took chunks out of the sculpture.
Alfredo Jaar builds a gallery in small paper-mill town in Sweden and burns it down twenty-four hours later. Outrage ensues. He wants people to see the worth of culture and fight for their right to access it. It works.
I send some of my draft texts on artworks in the archive to the artist Eloise Hawser. A few weeks later we have a conversation in which she describes the type of destruction I’m researching as ‘a kind of ascendent, a gathering action’ and the project as a whole as a mechanism to amass ‘an index of different reactions to the charge of sculpture’. We agree that it’s as if the works have a phenomenological relation to their location and the public that renders them both vulnerable and magically, generously available for new inscriptions, ways of thinking.
When far-right sentiment increases in the city of Warsaw, Joanna Rajkowska’s palm tree, located in a busy traffic intersection, becomes a sore point for the President of Warsaw who says ‘ideas of this kind will not be accepted’ and announces a plan to ‘destroy the work when possible’. He doesn’t like the fact that the palm tree alludes to the lost generation of Polish Jews in the city and the concept of ‘difference’ in Polish society in general. Eighteen years after it was installed, it’s still there, but it has been eroded through pollution; its leaves are limp and sallow. In 2019, Rajkowska establishes a project called Death of a Palm Tree which tackles the issue of the impending climate catastrophe.
Kristina Norman makes a replica of a contested statue of a Red Army soldier and instals it in central Tallinn, Estonia. A crowd gathers. Estonian nationalists view it as a symbol of occupation and repression, Russians see it as a celebration of victory over Nazi Germany. The statue and the artist are taken to the police station; the police can’t find a law to charge her under. She is released, along with her artwork.
When Mark Wallinger installs his TARDIS sculpture in the grounds of Oxford’s Natural History Museum it is dismantled over night by Doctor Who fans wanting to acquire memorabilia for their collection.
Michael Landy destroyed all of his belongings in a disused C&A department store in central London, including all the artworks he owns by other artists; I am touched to learn that when he tells artist Gary Hume about his project, Hume insists on giving him a better painting to destroy.
In 2020, a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston is torn down, dragged through the streets of Bristol, and thrown into the harbour by Black Lives Matter protestors, in the midst of a global pandemic. A few weeks later, an established, white, male London-based artist – Mark Quinn – illegally instals a statue of a female BLM activist on the empty plinth. Within twenty-four hours, the council has dismantled it and sent the bill for removal to Quinn’s studio.
When a six-part stainless steel sculpture by William Turnbull is installed in Liverpool city centre as part of City Sculpture Projects 1972, local artist Arthur Dooley joyfully proclaims: “The kids will eat this one!”
Gustav Metzger embeds twenty-one upturned willow saplings in a lump of concrete. The sculpture is installed in the garden of the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. The roots are insane, frenzied, their refusal of the natural order point towards the multiple ways that we are destroying the planet.
I draft a press release for an artwork by Nathan Coley that I’ve recently launched in the seaside town of Jaywick in Essex – England’s most ‘deprived’ ward – pre-empting its destruction. Like a parent who has let their teenager out at night for the first time, I am anxious and want to prepare myself for the worst. The work is never destroyed – it’s not even tagged – but I get a call at 5 o’clock on a Sunday morning to tell me that the neighbouring house has been burnt down.
I meet up with an old friend who reminds me that when Apollo 13 went missing for three days in 1970 after an oxygen tank blew up on board the spaceship, Nixon’s advisors wrote a pre-emptive statement lamenting the death of the astronauts. When the astronauts made it home safely, the filmed statement was quietly shelved. I love the idea that these pieces of documentary evidence – this film, my Jaywick press release – concerning acts of destruction or disasters that never took place, create an alternative history used to mislead generations to come and potentially create alternative futures.
In 1992, a much loved neo-classical sculpture of a boy disappears from a housing estate in Warsaw. Years later, Maja Bekan spends an extensive period of time working with residents to find out who has taken it and why. It is finally located in a storage unit of the National Museum of Warsaw. When the residents see it they are shocked by the homo-erotic nature of the boy’s stance which they had forgotten. Is this why it was removed? Bekan and residents stage a ‘para-theatrical event’ – a kind of detective play that positions the search for the sculpture as a sleuth narrative.
I talk to Nephertiti Oboshie Schandorf about destruction and its relation to place; how neighbourhoods change and become repositories of memories; how time folds in on itself, sliding through decades and eras, bringing about the inevitable process of mourning. Marysia Lewandowska describes the Archive of Destruction as an attempt to recall the energy residing in the past. I decide to expand the parameters of the project to include experimental texts in the Essay section, positioning the centre of the endeavour slightly off kilter, making space for what often remains unsaid.
The head of one of Nicole Eisenman’s strange, bawdy, over-sized, genderless sculptures, located in a park in central Münster, is violently severed from its body. It is never recovered. Eisenman decides to leave the destroyed sculpture in place. A few weeks later, on the night that Germany elects a far-right populist party to parliament for the first time since World War II, another sculpture in the group is sprayed with a swastika. Sadness and anger follow and a campaign is established by local people to acquire, and look after, the work.
It’s hard to believe, but when Sam Durant installed his sculpture Scaffold in the grounds of the Walker Art Centre in Minnesota, it didn’t occur to him that it would be contentious. The work was based on the design of a gallows and referenced America’s largest mass execution which took place in Minnesota in 1862, in which thirty-eight Dakota Indians died. Members of the Dakota community gather at the sculpture to protest against the installation of the work which hurts them deeply. An international furore follows; the museum director announces that the sculpture is to be dismantled and the wood burned in a private Dakota ceremony. Durant transfers the intellectual property of the work to the Dakota people and vows never to make it again.
I have a meeting with a museum director in Denmark who later emails me a link to a clunky YouTube video of a Giacometti sculpture which is lowered into the ground each night at 9pm and reappears each morning at 9am, in order to protect it from potential destruction. It is very funny – high-art meets farcical performativity. I consider how meaty the discussion is here around the subjects of vulnerability, fear, money, value, fame, paternalism (the sculpture is a very slight female figure), and the slow reveal of the female form.
I stand with a huddle of people in a wood by the sea in Arbroath, Scotland on a cold November night, sipping whiskey, stamping my feet to keep warm. A group of artists called Henry VIII’s Wives set light to one of their works: an enormous, beautifully crafted, wooden organ pipe sculpture. The flames throw shadows onto the trees; it burns for hours. The performance marks the official ending of the collective’s seventeen year partnership. In the morning there is hot ashes and mist.
The 2018 Liverpool Biennial programme includes the installation of The List, an on-going project that records the thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants who have died while seeking refuge in Europe since 1993, on billboards located in the city centre; they are torn down; speculation ensues about the perpetrators, linking the action to the current febrile atmosphere caused by Brexit. It is re-installed and destroyed for a second time, INVADERS NOT REFUGEES is scrawled across it. Biennale staff, the artist Banu Cennetoğlu and the UNITED for Intercultural Action group, elect to leave it in its destroyed state as a manifestation and reminder of systematic violence exercised against people across the world.
A curator texts me in a rush just before going to pick up her kids Did you see this!? (she writes) Trevor Paglen has just launched a satellite into space; It will burn up in the atmosphere in the future. This is future archival material! Does space art count as public art in your project? Of course it does, I think. I am delighted with this information. A few months later, the Nevada Museum announces that the satellite has been lost due to Trump’s thirty-five day government shut-down. Presumably, it’s still orbiting the earth, they say; eventually it will burn up in the atmosphere. The story gains traction.