For decades, musicians have been smashing guitars and hurling drum sets during concerts in what some consider to be a gross attempt to shock audiences and gain a fan base out of sheer brutality. The USF Contemporary Art Museum’s (CAM) latest exhibit, MashUp, honors these so-called “shock rockers” as innovators who blur the line between audio and visual art.
MashUp is a compilation of works that trace the history of destruction in visual art, specifically in popular music. The destructive works in the exhibit are atypical of what you might expect from a museum.
Some pieces include “The Perils of Re-Deconstruction” by Ted Riederer, in which he chops up and reconstructs a Les Paul guitar back to working condition, “Untitled Compositions” by The Art Guys, featuring sheet music that is destroyed or damaged in a way that makes it a new, readable composition, and “Guitar Drag” by Christian Marclay, in which a guitar tethered to a truck by a rope is dragged through dirt and rock.
Acquiring such a variety of pieces from around the globe took some effort, said guest curator Jade Dellinger, but MashUp is an exhibit he’s wanted to do for years.
“I started kicking the idea around six or seven years ago with a curator friend named Chris Bruce,” he said. “Chris was the director of exhibitions for the Experience Music Project (EMP) at the time, and I was interested in the notion that not only a significant museum collection but also an architecture could be based on trashed guitars.”
EMP was an effort by Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, to create a museum dedicated to his favorite guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. Architect Frank Gehry was commissioned by Allen for $100 million to create the building based on the curves and surfaces of one of the world’s most recognizable guitars, the Fender Stratocaster. Gehry asked assistants to demolish instruments as inspiration for the project.
Dellinger said this sparked his interest in the force of destruction in contemporary art.
“Around this time, I acquired a guitar that had been chainsawed in half on stage in the early ‘80s by Wendy O. Williams of the punk/shock metal band the Plasmatics and promptly donated it to EMP,” he said. “Chris and I discussed the possibility of organizing an exhibition from their collection that focused on rock ‘n roll relics from Hendrix, The Who, Nirvana and others, but, as The Who’s Pete Townshend always credited his interest in destroying instruments to a lecture he heard by Gustav Metzger at the Ealing School of Art in 1962 — it seemed fitting to bring this idea full-circle.”
Metzger’s concept of auto-destructive art, a term he coined in the 1960s, sets the tone for MashUp. Auto-destructive art reveals the raw emotion and detail that goes into seemingly reckless acts of demolition. One of MashUp’s featured artists, Pedro Reyes, tries to capture all of this in “Instant Rocker.”
Reyes’ “Instant Rocker,” part of a series he calls New Group Therapies, is a compilation film of average Joes jamming to rock ‘n’ roll classics. Everyday people were selected to perform a sort of air-guitar karaoke. Each rocker chose their song along with a fake wooden guitar, which was constructed by Reyes’ team for the sole purpose of being smashed. While on stage, they were filmed as they danced, played around, and, at the time of their choosing, smashed their guitars.
“Instant Rocker” participant Ariel Baron-Robbins said there was more to her performance than utter destruction.
“I picked ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols for my father,” she said. “My family is from London originally, and I used to love dancing around to the Sex Pistols as a kid. I haven’t seen my father since February, but he’s here tonight, and I wanted to do this for him. Plus, smashing a guitar was a blast in itself!”
MashUp tries to bring messages like this to the surface. The screeching vocals of a punk song could hold a different meaning for everyone, but it’s how artists destroy that allows us to sneak a peek at exactly what that meaning is, the reasoning goes. Whether it’s the meticulous rebuilding, sawing in half or dragging of a guitar by the fender of a car at 40 plus miles per hour, MashUp shows us that destruction can also be art.
MashUp will be on display 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through Oct. 5 at CAM, and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.