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Burn, break, bulldoze: is it ever okay to destroy a piece of art?

The fate of US artist Sam Durant’s piece, Scaffold, is currently in the balance. The art piece, a two-story wooden structure, which draws its form from gallows used in 1862 to kill 38 Dakota Indians, has been removed from Minnesota’s Walker Art Centre after protests from the Native American Dakota Sioux community.

The artist, as a form of apology, has given over the rights of Scaffold to the Dakota people, who plan to have it ceremoniously burnt, overseen by Dakota tribal elders.

The work was created by the artist with the idea of “creating a zone of discomfort” for white people – not to trivialise or mock the history of the community. Because of this, some feel the work’s destruction is an undeserved fate and a form of censorship.

If Durant’s piece is burnt, it will be another in a long history of destruction that form part of an artefact’s story.

Sam Durant’s Scaffold, which is based on the gallows used in high-profile executions has caused outcry in the US. Via

Art under attack

There have been many recent and historical examples of pieces of art being destroyed by people – whether deliberately or by accident. A relatively recent exhibition, Art under Attack at the Tate Britain in London, drew attention to the theme of sacred and secular image destruction in the UK over a 500 year period.

It included artefacts like a 16th century statue of a dead Christ which had been brutally attacked by religious reformers. Declared “too topical almost” by then director Penelope Curtis, the exhibition drew attention to how confusion between the “real” and the “represented” can manifest itself as artefact destruction.

The Statue of the Dead Christ was found damaged and hidden. The Mercers' company

The Art under Attack exhibition also showed how artists use destruction as part of the artistic process. The exhibition drew attention to an international group of artists, collectors and curators who attended the Destruction in Art Symposium, initiated by the artist and political activist Gustav Metzger, in London in 1966.

Metzger, himself a refugee from Nazi occupied Poland, thought destruction should be given a proper role – directed by artists themselves – rather than it acting as a suppression of artistic freedoms.

The Tate exhibition also showed more recent works like the Chapman Brothers’ One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved II, where the artists painted over another artist’s work to change the image and its meaning.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz and accomplice destroying a piano during the Destruction In Art Symposium, London, 1966. Wire

Breaking to innovate

But destruction as part of a process is not just the preserve of artists. At the University of Bradford we are working on a collaborative project between archaeologists and artists which has been underway since 2014. The project is simultaneously an art piece – conceived by myself – as well as a vehicle for scientific discovery.

The art piece takes the form of a story which involves the creation, destruction and reconstruction of a monumental sculpture of a human figure almost ten feet high. The figure is currently being completed in clay after three years in the making with the intention of it being cast in a specially engineered cement material.

Once complete, the sculpture will then be transported to a site where it will be deliberately broken, and the resulting fragments will be collected by the university’s archaeologists.

The aim is for the piece to require no inner metal framework – as this would affect the way it breaks. Archaeologists will then be able to use digital technologies to create a manual reconstruction, using the fragments they have been able to retrieve. The process will be filmed at each stage and presented in partnership with Bradford UNESCO City of Film.

Music by Jeremy Bradford and film photography by Jimi Lund.

An act of creation

In this way, the act of destruction will simultaneously become an act of creation. The resulting work will bear witness to the action and illustrate a certain aesthetic of ruin. But given the ease with which the “real” can be confused with the “represented”, in the current climate of Brexit and the breaking down of both trade boundaries and country ties, it is with some trepidation that the project moves to the next stage.

The process also echoes the evolution of humankind’s story of technology – which is both brutal and wonderful. It begins with the artist manually grappling with one of the earliest materials to be used by the human hand, then moves on to the limestone based cement for manufacture, and finally, use of the latest digital innovations to inform reconstruction.

It is hoped the project will help to engage people both old and young with the varied conservation methods that are used to document, reconstruct and interpret fragmented objects. Beyond that, as a piece of art, it is hoped it will promote thought on what it is to be human in relation to the objects we make and destroy.

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