In her action video 'Fuck it up and Start Again' Sofia Hulten enters a bare white space and smashes up an acoustic guitar. Seven times. The same guitar. During intervals that take as little or as long as a change of clothes the guitar gets repaired for another deconstructive fuck-up. With each performance the guitar breaks a little easier. For the seventh time all Hulten has to do is throw the instrument in the air and let gravity work its mysterious creativity.
No, I didn't see it on MTV . . . it was at The Spitz gallery in London. Part of a brief exhibition of moving images titled 'My Blood is Electric' that ended last month and is now looking for a new home. Hulten's piece made me think about the trajectory taken by the smashed guitar as a rock 'n' roll art form.
Let's drift back to September 11th, 1966. The last day of an event that intersects with evolving macho rock theatrics. (Wait, I know you're right, that show was important, but this is not about manufacturing The Monkees.) Picture those pictures of swinging London. The World Cup safely under Bobby Moore's pillow. Everybody in Carnaby Street whistling Yellow Submarine. This was the trip where Yoko met John, sans guitar, at the Indica Gallery. Although - and here I'd like to welcome you to the intersection - Yoko's main motive for visiting the city was to attend the Destruction In Art Symposium (DIAS) at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden.
Chaos DIAS! The three-day symposium was hosted by Gustav Metzger and John Latham as part of a month long exploration of art and destruction. In Covent Garden new uses were found for old acid. Books were tortured. Canvases melted. Pianos punctured. Sheep slaughtered. Metzger's disintegrating art work merged with the flow of blood, shit and rumours from the Vienna Actionists (and he got fined #100 for letting Hermann Nitsch project images of male genitalia upon a mutilated lamb carcass).
Yoko was there to perform her 'Cut' piece, where the audience were invited to take a pair of scissors and snip away at her clothing. Alongside her and other swells from the international avant-garde, Pete Townsend also claimed to be present. He declared Metzger to be his 'mentor' for the multiple guitar wrecks that would soon accompany The Who's live act. (A more prosaic version traces the origin back to a gig where Townsend's power-chord gymnastics accidentally collided with the low ceiling of a small club. The fans subsequently demanded more breakages and the band were forced to programme the destruction into their act. Either way, the smashed guitar legacy began in earnest ...)
Back in the Spitz gallery any music buff glancing at 'Fuck it up and Start Again' might mistake Hulten for Meg White role-playing some kind of Kali of the Kumbaya, sublimating some looped revenge on lupine lover/brother Jack's sojourns into solo acoustics. The scene plays like a stripped down work-in-progress for a White Stripes bonus DVD, probably directed by Michel 'Eternal Sunshine' Gondry. Yet, linger for the length it takes the serial performance to unfold and Hulten's disarming coolness becomes increasingly apparent. There's no rock rage to witness here. No solid-bodied electric sacrifice. No phallic axe buried into the black hole of a Marshall amp. It's a calculated rather than a violent performance. An experiment into the material processes and conditions of destruction.
And yeah, she breaks the guitar like a girl.but this is not just about guitars, right? There is an iconoclastic cultural geneaology to this kind of wreckage. Any art buff shuffling through the gallery might visualize fragments of a Fluxus violin smashed by Nam June Paik or conjure up the Surrealists and the fiddle being kicked down the street in L'Age d'orD. But then the music buff mentions Jimi Hendrix and Sid Vicious et al.
Perhaps wilfully, with deliberate irony, Hulten's powerfully simple and liberating fuck-it-up-and-start-again metaphor is haunted by a series of such ghosts.No, this wasn't what I was going to say.
I've fucked it up.
Can I start again?
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London