You could argue that almost everything we've looked at in this series so far has been about rebellion. Performance in the twentieth century has questioned society's accepted moral codes, rejected accepted mainstream culture, fuelled and reflected protest movements and challenged what art could and can be. But this week, we'll be looking at some of the most extreme manifestations of rebellion, through destruction, both physical and conceptual.

After the horrors of two world wars and under the shadow of nuclear mutually assured destruction, many mid-twentieth-century artists were drawn to the idea of the ‘clean sheet’. Rather than accepting the status quo, perhaps remaking society from first principles and destroying what had gone before was the way to go forward and change things. Destruction was a potent way of bringing attention to issues or ideas, and seemed to be culturally prevalent – violent street riots asscoiated with protest movements or the post-war British slum clearances were sweeping away the bad old ways and potentially paving the way for new ways of living. As the burgeoning consumer society promoted constant accumulation (and discarding) throughout the decades, artists also sought ways of subverting the market and commenting on the waste of mainstream society.

General Overview of DIAS symposium, London, 9-11 September 1966
General overview of the Destruction in Art Symposium

In the late 1950s, Gustav Metzger proposed Auto-Destructive Art, artworks that had within them the seeds of their own destruction. A political activist and committed anti-capitalist, rather than creating works in traditional art forms like painting and sculpture (and contributing to societal accumulation), Meztger was interested in the creative possibilities of disintegration and destruction, as he laid out in his 1959 Manifesto for Auto Destructive Art:

Auto-destructive art is primarily a form of public art for industrial societies.

Self-destructive painting, sculpture and construction is a total unity of idea, site, form, colour, method, and timing of the disintegrative process.

Auto-destructive art can be created with natural forces, traditional art techniques and technological techniques.

The amplified sound of the auto-destructive process can be an element of the total conception.

The artist may collaborate with scientists, engineers.

Self-destructive art can be machine produced and factory assembled.

Auto-destructive paintings, sculptures and constructions have a life time varying from a few moments to twenty years. When the disintegrative process is complete the work is to be removed from the site and scrapped.

In 1966 he set up the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) in London, ‘to focus attention on the element of destruction in Happenings and other art forms, and to relate this destruction in society.’ Held at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, the symposium brought together artists, poets and scientists to speak on the theme of destruction in art. It launched a series of events across London that took place over the following month: happenings, poetry readings, and performances. Well-publicised by the organising committee, the programme gained considerable coverage in national and international media. Metzger himself had been performing his Auto Destructive Art works for some time, such as his 1961 event where he set up a series of nylon canvases on London’s South Bank and sprayed them with hydrochloric acid, disintegrating the material on contact.

Gustav Metzger, 'Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art' 1960, remade 2004
Gustav Metzger
Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art 1960, remade 2004
© Gustav Metzger

One of the other artists that took part in DIAS was John Latham. His Skoob Tower Ceremonies, mostly made between 1964 and 1966, were some of the most controversial works included in the programme. Latham created tall towers of reference books (Skoob is ‘books’ backwards) in public spaces representing seats of learning, and set fire to them. With memories of the Nazi book burnings still very recent, the sight of these burning chimney-like structures was deeply appalling. Latham’s complex and radical views were not protesting against the content of the books however, more trying to redefine the way books were revered and treated as what he called ‘a fixed mode of knowledge’: that they were the only source or repository of human knowledge.

Latham and Metzger were part of what influential poet and polymath Jeff Nuttall termed ‘Bomb Culture’ in his 1968 book. Bomb Culture was characterised by Nuttall as the British counter-culture of the 1960s. Nuttall felt that the world was totally influenced by the shadow of nuclear war, and now that war could irrevocably destroy everything it was impossible to live within a state and culture that not only sanctioned that as a way of life, but grew from it. Artists, writers, musicians and film-makers met in underground book shops such as Charing Cross Road’s Better Books, and shared their ideas and works in happening-style events, united by idealist ideas that art might sow the seeds of dissent and rebellion, and create a new disarmed world culture. Pioneering experimental film-maker Jeff Keen can also be seen as if not part of, an illustration of this ‘movement’. His collaged films, which took pop culture iconography from comics, car culture and B-movies and spliced them with experimental animations, often presented in multi-screen projections animated by live performers, were a visual cacophony of ‘violently disconnected and overlapping patterns’ twentieth-century culture in staccato jumpcuts and frenzied energy. 

Jeff Keen White Dust
Jeff Keen
White Dust
Film still

Music and Dance also played their part in the destructive tendencies in art. British experimental musician Cornelius Cardew warned in 1964, following the DIAS in London: ‘Experimental music is the most DEADLY form of TOTAL ABSTRACTION ever devised… INSTANTLY you will see how to DESTROY ILLUSION AND DRAW ATTENTION TO THE FACTS.’, while Robert Rauschenberg’s lighting design for Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch 1964 was another controversial and potentially destructive action. Rauschenberg set the stage lights to flash on and off, illuminating the stage and dancers in discrete shafts which often dazzled the audience, or obscured the full choreography as dancers cast shadows on each other, or even danced in near total darkness. Cunningham’s troupe often danced without seeing the set design before the dress rehearsals – though the two elements were conceived to be performed together, there was no hierarchy of art forms, where one responded to the other (the set to the choreography, or the movement to the music). However, audiences were baffled to find that they often could not see the dancers, or experience each part of the performance.

Rauschenberg was no stranger to the idea of ‘destruction’ of another artist’s work. He had been working on monochromatic white paintings since the early 1950s, making paintings by ‘non-marking’, in direct opposition to the gestural work of the abstract expressionist painters. While trying to find a way to bring drawing into this body of work, Rauschenberg had erased a number of his own drawings, reducing them down to the white paper. But, he felt that for the reduction to have true resonance, he needed to start with a real piece of art, something important. He asked Willem de Kooning (then the agreed master of the abstract expressionists) for a work, explaining what his plans were. De Kooning said he understood what Rauschenberg was doing, though he wasn’t for it, and gave him a drawing, saying it had to be something he’d miss and something difficult to erase. Incorporating pencil, oils, charcoal crayon, it took Rauschenberg a month to erase it. Erased de Kooning 1953, a piece of paper with a few marks still faintly visible, was carefully documented and framed with its provenance – ensuring the conceptual weight of the gesture remained with the work. It caused a stir in the art world and beyond – did anyone have the right to destroy a piece of art? Even an artist who had the permission of the other artist involved?

In the theatre, destruction took a slightly different track – one that led to extreme and visceral responses. Rather than physical destruction, there was a focus on destruction of societal taboos. French playwright and director Antonin Artaud’s idea of the Theatre of Cruelty (published in his collection of essays The Theatre and its Double in 1938), advocated stripping away artifice in performance and exposing the audience to the truth and ‘cruelty’ of human experience – even (or perhaps especially) when that truth was barbaric, painful, shocking or taboo. Images and gestures, sensory experiences and dramatic lighting and scenery, should be used to enhance the experience to its very extreme. The ‘cruelty’ was not necessarily violence or sadism, but everything that could happen to the human, in a primal sense. Artaud aimed to break the limits of action in performance and therefore provoke an extreme emotional response in audiences:

I employ the word ‘cruelty’ in the sense of an appetite for life, a cosmic rigor, an implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness; it is the consequence of an act. Everything that acts is a cruelty. It is upon this idea of extreme action, pushed beyond all limits, that theatre must be rebuilt.

In the early 1950s, Living Theatre, founded in New York by Judith Malina and Julian Beck took The Theatre and its Double as its starting point, creating experimental theatre works that depicted visceral life and brought the audience in as participants. In the late 1960s they toured Paradise Now where performers called out social taboos while disrobing – Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones remembered seeing them in Rome:

The Living Theatre, the famous anarchist-pacifist troupe run by Judith Malina and Julian Beck, which had been around for years but was coming into its own in this period of activism and street demos. The Living Theatre was particularly insane, hard-core, its players often getting arrested on indecency charges—they had a play [Paradise Now] in which they recited lists of social taboos at the audience, for which they usually got a night in the slammer. Their main actor, a handsome black man named Rufus Collins, was a friend of Robert Fraser, and they were a part of the Andy Warhol and Gerard Malanga connection. And so it all went round in a little avant-garde elite, as often as not drawn together by a taste for drugs, of which the LT was a center. And drugs were not copious in those days.

Also in the 1950s, Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch founded Das Orgien Mysterien Theater (Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries), which as Nitsch explained, explored much of what Artaud suggested: ‘a total work of art [where] reality is staged and all five senses of the participants [and audience] are claimed.’ The performances incorporated ritualistic actions, fake crucifixions, disembowelling of animal carcasses and sexual acts. Nitsch envisaged the performances as primal and life-affirming, breaking down barriers and taboos about sex, death and violence, but for many their taboo acts and the visceral responses they elicit remain shocking and distressing.

Hermann Nitsch Action 1968 Documentation of performance
Hermann Nitsch
Action 1968
Documentation of performance

Other artists were also influenced by shamanic ritual, visually if not conceptually. Pain as a tool for enlightenment or at least for breaking the barrier between body and mind was used by artist Stelarc in the 1980s in his Suspension works. Inserting large meathooks into his flesh, Stelarc suspended his body in galleries and public spaces, including Street Suspension in New York where he was hoisted 30 metres above E.11th Street

Although the suspensions deal with the physical difficulty of the body strung up they have neither religious intent (transcending the body), the yearning for shamanistic empowering nor as yogic displays of control. They are realised with neither the intention of initiation rites nor the S&M exploration of pain and pleasure. What can be admitted though is that a painful experience does collapse the convenient distinction between the mind and body. When overwhelmed with pain you perceive and experience yourself as a physical body, rather than a self that thinks and objectively evaluates in some kind of disconnected and objectified way.

The suspensions were a body sculpture installed in a space of other objects. The stretched skin is a kind of gravitational landscape. The penalty you pay for being suspended in a 1G gravitational field. Suspended and in stress the anonymous body realises its obsolescence.

This personal experience performed for others was a feature of much of what came to be known as Body Art. These performances often involved self-mutilation or invited the audience to interact with the artist’s body, often with the opportunity to choose a violent action. 

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece 1964 saw the artist sitting motionless on the floor while the audience were invited to cut away a part of her clothing until she was naked: 

Instead of giving the audience what the artist chooses to give, the artist gives what the audience chooses to take. That is to say, you cut and take whatever part you want; that was my feeling about its purpose. I went onto the stage wearing the best suit I had. To think that it would be OK to use the cheapest clothes because it was going to be cut anyway would be wrong; it’s against my intentions.

The audience was quiet and still, and I felt that everyone was holding their breath. While I was doing it, I was staring into space. I felt kind of like I was praying. I also felt that I was willingly sacrificing myself.

Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 1974 took the passive performer one step further.  A reaction against some of the agressive performance acts, and an inquiry into the boundaries between audience and performer, Abramovic provided a table with number of tools with which audience members could use to interact with her and remained impassive and immobile behind the table during the six-hour performance, regardless of what happened during that time. The objects she had provided included some that could be used for pleasure (including roses, feathers and honey) and some that could be used for pain (as far as a knife, a whip and a gun with a bullet beside it). By the end of the six hours, Abramovic said the performance that had started relatively playfully had become more and more violent with someone even loading the gun and pressing it to Abramovic’s head.

Chris Burden’s Shoot 1971 was an action where he asked a friend to shoot him in the arm with a rifle, while for his Trans-Fixed 1974, he was ‘crucified’ with nails hammered through his palms to the back of a VW Beetle and the car’s engine was revved for two minutes. Many of his other works from this time also explored the idea of danger to the artist, and the sense of powerlessness it created in an audience. Burden’s work (as did Rhythm 0) forced viewers to confront real danger and harm to a person, but within the confines of the artwork – where traditionally the audience do not intervene in the work. French artist Gina Pane also incorporated personal harm into her works to comment on what she saw as repressive social conditions, wounding herself with razorblades, climbing a sharp-runged ladder in her bare feet, or in 1972’s Sentimental Action sticking the thorns from a bundle of roses into her forearm.

Vito Acconcci’s notorious work Seedbed 1972 aimed to bring the private world of sexual fantasy into the public space of the gallery. At the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, Acconci positioned himself in the confined space underneath the floor of the gallery and repeatedly masturbated, using the sound of visitors walking above him to fuel his sexual fantasies. Visitors could hear Acconci’s voice but not see him, and he could hear their footsteps, but not see them. This aggressive and dissociated work commented on voyeurism and repression of sexual experience as well as sexual violence and fantasy.

These works and many others that followed them presented audiences with the taboos of seeing and inflicting harm on others, and challenged the sanitised version of life that was presented by mainstream culture: oddly free of blood, flesh, sex, pain and even death. The violence of these works in some cases aimed to destroy what they saw as socially constructed taboos, successfully or not. While the idealistic views of the Bomb Culture or the US counter-culture might not have brought about a new demilitarised disarmed world, the fact that much of the art, music and literature made in the mid to late twentieth century stil feels shocking, daring, exciting and appalling says much about the power of the work and its continuing resonance today. 

As always, this is a surface-skim of some key works or moments in the huge area of destruction and taboo in performance. Add your own thoughts and links in the comments below - I have added the customary link library below for you to explore further.

More information

Metzger, Latham, the DIAS and Bomb Culture

Interview with Gustav Metzger including a discussion of  his early life (text)
Gustav Metzger Manifesto Auto Destructive Art (text)
Pete Townshend of The Who on Gustav Metzger and destruction in art (text)
Gustav Metzger on actvism (moving image)
The Destruction in Art Symposium (text)
John Latham on destruction and the Skoob Towers (text)
John Latham’s Skoob Towers (text and image)
Interview with Jeff Nuttall on Bomb Culture (text)
Jeff Keen biography (text)
Jeff Keen Archive (website)

Cardew and Rauschenberg

Cornelius Cardew and his links to the visual art world (audio)
Robert Rauschenberg on Erased de Kooning (moving image)

Theatre of Cruelty

Antonin Artaud biography (text)
Living Theatre Paradise Now (moving image)
Keith Richards on Living Theatre (text)
Hermann Nitsch biography (text)
Hermann Nitsch Maria - Conception - Action 1969 (moving image) (and not for the faint-hearted)

Body Art and taboo breaking

Stelarc biography (text)
Stelarc Suspensions (text and image)
Yoko Ono Cut Piece 1964
Chris Burden documentation of works including Shoot 1971 at 7.38 (moving image)
Marina Abramovic on Rhythm 0 1974 (audio)
Vito Acconci Seedbed 1972 (moving image)
Vito Acconci Seedbed 1972 in the Tate collection

You can see work by Jeff Keen from 18 September to 23 September 2012 as part of The Tanks: Art in Action at Tate Modern