What happens to art after it's destroyed?

After a sculpture in her care accidentally burnt to the ground, Jes Fernie decided to explore how the "meaning of an artwork can change" through the Archive of Destruction

The artist Alfredo Jaar build an exhibition space out of paper and wood in Skoghall, Sweden, a small town that had no cultural spaces. Twenty four hours after it opened, he burned it down. 

Alfredo Jaar ,The Skoghall Konsthall, 2000, Courtesy the artist

The artist Alfredo Jaar build an exhibition space out of paper and wood in Skoghall, Sweden, a small town that had no cultural spaces. Twenty four hours after it opened, he burned it down.

Alfredo Jaar ,The Skoghall Konsthall, 2000, Courtesy the artist

It all began in October 2010, when the dinosaur was accidentally electrocuted.

Jes Fernie, a curator and writer, was preparing to bring the life-size sculpture of the dinosaur, titled Luna Park, to the English town of Colchester. But, before the journey took place, the steel and polyester artwork burned to the ground, likely due to an electrical shortage.

“When I got the news the sculpture had burnt down, I wasn’t upset, I was excited," Fernie says. Luna Park was first created by the Welsh duo Heather and Ivan Morison, and had been a popular attraction in Portsmouth, where it was first installed. Fernie was inspired to organise public events around its destruction. “The response was incredible,” she says. "I thought: 'there’s something in this'. It linked beautifully with the artists’ narrative about dystopian futures.”

A decade later, that “something” has led to the Archive of Destruction, a website that catalogues Modern and contemporary public artworks that have been damaged, altered, or obliterated over roughly the past century. She defines “destruction” liberally, including artworks destroyed or modified through protest or neglect, by institutional decree or by the artist’s own hand. “Embedded within the archive are two implicit challenges," she says. "The concept of destruction as an inherently negative act, and the idea of an artwork as a static thing,” she writes on the site, which launched this past June. “The focus is on the cathartic, transformative and expansive potential of acts of destruction.”

The fifty public artworks on the site are separated into the eight things that were responsible for their destruction—including boredom, fear, greed, and love. “It plays with the language of archives,” Fernie says, “the pompous system of categorisation that is the legacy of 19th century museology.”

Some of these artworks were built with annihilation in mind, like Alfredo Jaar’s Skoghall Konsthall. In 2000, Jaar was commissioned to create a piece of public art in Skoghall, a small Swedish town built around a large paper mill. Shocked to discover that the town had no cultural spaces, Jaar built an exhibition hall from paper and wood. Twenty-four hours after it opened, he burned it down. Locals were outraged at the loss of this promising art centre, fulfilling Jaar’s intention to draw attention to this absence. He was later invited to build a permanent exhibition space for the town.

Mary Ellen Carroll’s ongoing project Prototype 180 (1999–) spans performance, debates and activism around land use and housing policy, all centred on a home the artist purchased in Houston, a city without zoning laws. In 2010, she rotated the house 180 degrees, turning it into a site for tours, exhibitions, and conversations. In 2017, Carroll staged another performance, this time destroying the house with an excavator, egged on by a local resident who called it a “disgrace to the neighbourhood”. “The element of slapstick embedded within the building’s rotation and its demise could be seen to mirror the absurd situation in which a system of entrenched neoliberalism in Houston and beyond is celebrated and perpetuated,” Fernie writes.

Some artists modify the work of others, like David Hammonds, who made two new works from Richard Serra’s minimalist monument TWU (1980). For Pissed Off (1981), Hammonds urinated on Serra’s piece, a performance documented by photographer Dawoud Bey. With Shoe Tree (1981), he threw several pairs of shoes over the top of the art, leaving them to hang. Hammond’s modifications engaged Serra’s work with motifs of race, class, and audience.

Other interventions are anonymous, but no less poignant. During his January 1970 residency at Kent State University in Ohio, Robert Smithson dumped 20 truckloads of dirt onto a shed until the central beam split. On 4 May, four Kent State students were shot and killed by the National Guard during an anti-Vietnam war protest, sparking national outrage. Shortly thereafter, someone scrawled “MAY 4 KENT 70” on the cracked beam, connecting Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) to the breaking point the country had reached. “It’s such a powerful example of how the meaning of artwork can change and become something representative of a particular moment in American history,” Fernie says.

A troubling example of public intervention is Nicole Eisenman’s Sketch for a Fountain (2017), a playful grouping of five androgynous figures assembled around a pool which constitutes the artist's contribution to Skulptur Projekt Münster in Germany. Shortly after it was installed, one of the figures was decapitated and a swastika spray-painted on the piece. This vandalism coincided with the election of a far-right party to Germany’s parliament for the first time since World War II. In a show of support for the artist and a rejection of rising reactionary tendencies, the town purchased the work in 2020.

And then sometimes public admiration threatens an artwork. In the late 1990s, thousands of Oscar Wilde fans began leaving lipstick kisses on his Paris tomb, a 1912 sculpture of a nude, winged angel by Jacob Epstein. Fearing erosion from the lipstick traces, authorities instituted a €9,000 fine and erected a glass barrier around the statue.

In keeping with its expansive nature, Fernie intends to continuously add projects to the archive, which is augmented by a programme of online talks, and a planned newspaper launching this winter. “Just like the archive, these stories are ongoing,” she says. Case in point is Luna Park, whose story continued earlier this month when the artists installed a smaller bronze version near the site where the original stood.

“I’d like to get to a point where we’re less fearful about what we try to commission in the public realm,” Fernie says. “Not to think about the launch date as the end of a project, but its starting point. The artwork is never finished.”