To Die For

A brief history of deadly art

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971 ‘At 7:45pm I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper  jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about 15 feet from me.’ Courtesy Gagosian Gallery and the artist © Chris Burden

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971 ‘At 7:45pm I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper  jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about 15 feet from me.’ Courtesy Gagosian Gallery and the artist © Chris Burden

The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, located on the banks of the Susquehanna Flats in Maryland, usa, is a light and airy building with white walls and a glass elevator overlooking the water. More than 1,200 wooden replicas of waterfowl – from buffleheads and canvasbacks to Canada geese and white swans – sit quietly on their shelves. Curiously, some of the famed decoy carvers of the past are depicted in remarkably lifelike waxworks alongside the birds they created. Pretend ducks and pretend duck-makers stare beadily at the viewer. One half-expects to tap the walls and have them fall down, revealing the Decoy Museum to be a decoy museum designed to ensnare one of its rare visitors. There is something sinister about it. It is a static aviary, devoid of flight and feather, of song and squawk, and the silence that pervades the building lends it the air of a mausoleum, which is of course entirely appropriate.

The singular characteristic that sets the decoy apart from, say, the waxwork, is that it seeks to replicate a living thing in order to destroy it. For all its rotund docility, the decoy is a weapon of slaughter: those sitting on the Decoy Museum’s shelves have been responsible for literally millions of bird deaths. So as well as being a major folk art indigenous to the us, and, perhaps, the fullest exploration of the floating sculpture, it is also conceivable to view the decoy as one of the rare examples of an art object causing real, violent change in the world.

Following 9/11, Karlheinz Stockhausen described the attack on the World Trade Center as ‘the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos’, something ‘we couldn’t even dream of in music’. However deplorable the composer’s comments may have been, they admitted to a fundamental frustration at the limits of art which, for all its braggadocio, never kills anyone. This is not through lack of trying. Images of violence pervade contemporary art. From Andy Warhol’s Shot Marilyns (1964) to Nate Lowman’s ‘Bullet Hole’ prints, death is talked about endlessly but rarely turns up to the party. It is true that Gustav Metzger’s and Jean Tinguely’s auto-destructive art provided a semblance of death but, while conceptually potent, it is not actually lethal. While Christo and Jeanne Claude’s The Umbrellas (1984–91) and Richard Serra’s Sculpture No.3 (1971) were both responsible for killing people in accidents, these were by no means the primary intentions of the artist.

A few artists have flirted directly with creating deadly works of art or even engaging in terrorist attacks. Between 1995 and 1998, the Dutch collective Atelier Van Lieshout fabricated a series of guns and mortars as part of their creation of an autonomous free state. The guns were not operational, but the displayed blueprints seemed to want to facilitate some kind of Internet-fuelled, cabin-born militia. Even more provocatively, Philippe Meste attacked the flagship of the French navy, the aircraft carrier Foch, with flare rockets launched from a boat in the harbour of Toulon in his Attaque Du Port de Guerre de Toulon, 13 Novembre 1993 (Toulon Harbour Attack, 13 November 1993). Nevertheless, it was not an attack intended to mete out real harm, merely the semblance of it. Perhaps the artist who has come closest to Stockhausen’s violent yearnings is Chris Burden, with his 1970s performance pieces 747 (1973), when Burden fired several pistol shots at a passing Boeing 747, and Shoot (1971), for which the artist had himself shot in the arm with a rifle. Nevertheless one has to go back to the era of Leonardo da Vinci and his working designs of siege weapons, ballistas and cannons to find an artist who created beautiful and intentionally deadly works of art.

Leonardo operated in a time when the distance between the military-industrial complex and the artist’s studio was not so vast. Even when the two groups have been purposively brought together, as in the notorious ‘Art and Technology’ exhibition at LACMA (1970–01), the results have been like oil and water. At that show, corporations such as Lockheed and the RAND Corporation were cajoled into providing residencies for artists so they could study advanced technologies and, in return, infuse the corporations with an artist’s ‘sensitivity’. Unfortunately many of the corporations taking part in the show were directly involved in providing munitions for the Vietnam War which gave the exhibition a quisling air it could never quite shake off.

But while contemporary artists have failed to create an object half as deadly as the decoy duck, the decoy has itself grown less lethal. Hand-crafted wooden decoys are rarely made for hunting any longer but for the mantle of collectors. And the more they have become separated from their violent past the more they have filled that bloody gap with the trappings of an art world in which they have, hitherto, been tangential players. In a conceptual gag worthy of any Chelsea gallery, the Decoy Museum sells pots of sawdust swept from the decoy-makers workshops. In 2007, a decoy of a Red Breasted Merganser Hen, sculpted by Lothrop Holmes, sold at Christie’s for us $856,000. Killing is all very well, but the definition of soft power can be found in hard dollar bills.  

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA. 

Issue 148

First published in Issue 148

Jun - Aug 2012

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