Picasso used to say his work was a “sum of destructions.” You might say the same, more literally, about Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose adventures in creative destruction have run up a total he couldn’t have foreseen when he first got the idea of making art by messing up old pots.
Ai made his international reputation in part through breaking or painting over ancient urns, as if to throw off the weight of the past, or to acknowledge the transience of hallowed things. Last weekend, a Miami painter took Ai’s iconoclasm one step further by smashing one of 16 brightly repainted vessels in Colored Vases, an Ai installation at the Perez Art Museum Miami.
A cellphone video of the act shows Maximo Caminero picking up the vase, turning toward Ai’s large-scale photographic triptych, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, and doing exactly what Ai did in those photos. Caminero said at the scene that he was protesting a lack of museum space for local artists, but after he was charged with criminal mischief, said he had merely interpreted the photos as “a provocation by Weiwei to join him in an act of performance protest.”
Way to double down! Except that that had already been done, in 2012, by Swiss artist Manuel Salvisberg, who photographed collector Uli Sigg dropping Ai’s Coca-Cola Urn. The resulting triptych, entitled Fragments of History, exactly mimics Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. Nobody was charged that time, because Sigg owned the thing he smashed for the sake of creating a new photographic work.
Destroying art is always a complicated, galvanizing gesture, tinged with a barbarism that a clever artist can use as a tool to scrape against accepted notions of respect and creativity – as well as to get noticed even by people who seldom notice art. Artists have always been the most interesting art destroyers, though the less creative forms keep cropping up, including some infamous Canadian demolitions, as if to keep the game real.
Marcel Duchamp played at creative destruction in 1919 when he exhibited a postcard copy of the Mona Lisa marked up with a mustache and a schoolboy joke. That may be relevant to the Miami case, since there’s some question about whether Ai’s Colored Vases actually uses ancient pieces, or recent copies. At any rate, Ai described the $1-million (U.S.) value placed on the vase broken by Caminero as “a very ridiculous number.”
Robert Rauschenberg staged a famous negative breakthrough in 1953, by offering Willem de Kooning, then the most celebrated American abstractionist, a bottle of bourbon in exchange for a drawing he could erase. Rauschenberg later said he was just trying to find a way to bring drawing into all-white abstraction, but de Kooning heard the Oedipal note in the younger artist’s request. “I want to give you something really hard to erase,” he said, before handing over a drawing whose layers of pencil, charcoal, crayon and oil took Rauschenberg a month to remove.
Malicious acts of art destruction have a way of clinging to the artists’ reputation, sometimes reshaping it entirely. Graham Sutherland was a perfectly respectable English painter when Britain’s Parliament commissioned him to paint a full-sized portrait of Winston Churchill. The 80-year-old warrior was so dismayed by the result that his wife Clementine destroyed the canvas. That act made Sutherland internationally famous, as his art had not, and remains the one thing that many people know about him.
Montreal artist and architect Melvin Charney spent a year in the mid-1970s organizing Corridart, a large-scale temporary art project funded by the Quebec ministry of culture as the main official art component of the 1976 Summer Olympics.
Dozens of site-specific works were arrayed along a 5.5-kilometre stretch of Sherbrooke Street, at a cost to the province of $386,000. Days before the Games opened, Montreal then-mayor Jean Drapeau viewed what he later described as a “pollution” of the venerable avenue, and got his executive committee to order the exhibition dismantled by city workers, in the night, with no notice given to the artists or the province.
The resulting scandal became such a marker of Charney’s career that even his friends at the Canadian Centre for Architecture noted his passing in 2012 by rehashing the whole affair on the CCA website.
Twelve of the Corridart artists sued claiming their “moral rights” had been damaged. Moral right protects attribution – the right to be acknowledged as the author of your own work – and integrity, meaning that no one can damage or significantly alter art you have made, even if they own it.
Moral right adheres to the artist personally and acts a brake on property rights, as Lambton College in Sarnia, Ont., discovered in 2004, after it ran a back hoe over Homage, a 30-year-old wooden installation by artist Haydn Davies. The college thought it could simply dispose of the dilapidated structure; Davies sued, and his family settled out of court.
Ai Weiwei, who described Caminero’s vase-smashing as “vandalism, and disrespectful to another artist and his work,” could pursue his moral right in court. The result would almost certainly be one of the most entertaining art trials of our time, with the artists and their expert supporters arguing about why one kind of art destruction differs, or does not, from another that looks almost exactly the same. Ai didn’t act against Salvisberg and Sigg, but may be tempted to do so this time, if only to shut the door on more smashing displays of solidarity by other artists. Colored Vases still has 15 pots to go.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article about the destruction of artworks said artists involved in the Quebec art project Corridart unsuccessfully sued the city of Montreal after the project was ordered dismantled days before the Olympic Games. The artists did receive a small cash settlement from the city 12 years later.