Artists have experimented with ephemeral art throughout much of the 20th century and beyond, crafting performances or objects that occur only for a finite period of time—works that offer a temporary experience and leave little trace of their existence, save perhaps for documentary images.
Works such as these—as in the performances of Dada or Fluxus, or works that disappear into the natural world, like Andy Goldsworthy’s or Ana Mendieta’s interventions into the landscape—sometimes function as a rebuke to the commercial art world. Artworks that ultimately vanish can’t be housed in an institution or hung on a wall.
Often playful and fun, though sometimes dark and harrowing, the self-destructing works below at times make sharp, pointed statements about the human condition, as in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy pile, which serves as a commentary on AIDS. Other times, they pay tribute to fleeting moments or individuals that are no longer with us, such as Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, or Cai Guo-Qiang’s Sky Ladder, which honors the artist’s grandmother.
Jean Tinguely, Homage to New York, 1960
In 1960, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely was commissioned to create a performative work in the sculpture garden at New York’s MoMA. He produced a 27-foot-tall towering tangle of discarded iron fragments; remnants of a piano, go-kart, and bathtub; motors; wheels. Titled Homage to New York, the work was intended to transfer kinetic energy from one part to the next before destroying itself entirely. But an errant spark foiled Tinguely’s plans: The sculpture caught fire and was ended preemptively by the New York Fire Department a mere 27 minutes into the performance.
Cai Guo-Qiang, Sky Ladder, 2015
Cai Guo-Qiang, Sky Ladder, June 2015. Courtesy of Cai Studio.
Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang works with the unlikely choice of gunpowder to create his massive, ephemeral works. After a few thwarted attempts, the artist quietly staged Sky Ladder in 2015—a free-floating sculpture in the sky that connects earth to the universe. The piece emerged in the middle of the night above China’s Huiyu Island Harbour, with the artist using a combination of gunpowder, firework fuses, a hot air balloon, and a fair amount of moxie to bring the work to life without permission.
More than 20 years in the making, Sky Ladder took just 150 seconds to complete. The flames crawled up each side of the ladder, alternating in tandem like two cars in a drag race, ultimately creating the effect of painted latticework in the sky.
Andy Goldsworthy, “Ice Sculptures,” 1980–ongoing
When the temperature in Britain falls below freezing, artist Andy Goldsworthy works quickly in collaboration with nature’s elements to produce geometric sculptures from ice and snow. Using warm water to fuse the pieces together, he crafts spheres, arches, and other figures from blocks of snow and delicate sheets of ice, preserving his works through photographs before the environment takes hold. In other meditations on ecology and the passing of time, Goldsworthy has used stones, tree trunks, and leaves to create his subtle and evocative imprints on the organic world.
Urs Fischer, candle portraits, 2001–ongoing
Swiss artist Urs Fischer poignantly captures the passage of time in his remarkably life-like candle portraits. Made from 3D body scans, Fischer’s sculptures closely resemble their muses: He has crafted candles of artist Julian Schnabel, restaurateur Mr. Chow, and art collectors Bruno and Yoyo Bischofberger, among other figures, carving out their features and rendering their clothing in colored wax.
Fischer’s candles burn progressively over the course of a few months, prompting the viewer to confront life’s slow decay and the march towards mortality. As the sculptures burn from the head down, they become disfigured, parts of their physical form dripping down in long, thin strips of wax—until all that is left is a puddle on the floor.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled", 1992. Candies individually wrapped in variously colored cellophane, endless supply. Overall dimensions vary with installation. Original size: 2 x 48 x 48 in. Installation view: A Day Without Art. St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO. 29 Nov. – 3 Dec. 2002. Photographer: Robert Pettus. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (USA Today), 1990. Candies individually wrapped in red, silver, and blue cellophane, endless supply. Overall dimensions vary with installation. Ideal weight: 300 lbs. Installation view: Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Specific Objects without Specific Form. Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, Belgium. 16 Jan. – 28 Feb. 2010. Cur. Elena Filipovic; 5 Mar. – 2 May 2010. Cur. Danh Vo. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.
At first glance, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1991 work “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) appears to be nothing more than a 175-pound glistening pile of candy. But the work’s allure effectively causes its own destruction: viewers may pluck from the heap of sweets, which could be seen as a metaphor for the impact on the human body of the devastating AIDS epidemic that swept through the ’80s and ’90s, when the piece was first staged.
Though the artist left his work open to interpretation, Gonzalez-Torres is thought by some to have created the piece in tribute to his late lover, Ross Laycock, who fought a long battle against the devastating syndrome. The artist stipulated that exhibition staff could replenish the pile at their discretion, to maintain a weight of175 pounds.
Judy Chicago, “Atmospheres,” 1968–74
Judy Chicago, A Butterfly for Pomona, 2012. © Judy Chicago. Photo © Donald Woodman.
In her series “Atmospheres,” Judy Chicago set out to inject feminism into the male-dominated California art landscape—to “feminize the atmosphere,” as she’s said. Using fireworks and vibrant pigments, she created an aerial display in the sky, replete with colored smoke that curled up in soft hues of tangerine, lavender, deep reds, magenta, and forest green.
In some instances of the work, women painted their bodies to match or contrast with the smoke’s colors. Though she produced “Atmospheres” in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the series only achieved prominence relatively recently, perhaps most notably when it was recreated for L.A.’s first iteration of the city-wide art festival Pacific Standard Time.
Jonathan Schipper, Slow Motion Car Crash, 2012–16
In his 2012 performative work staged over the course of a month, Jonathan Schipper’s Slow Motion Car Crash sees a white Volkswagen destroy itself by slowly crashing into a wall—propelled forward by a pneumatic mechanism beneath the vehicle that moves at a rate of seven millimeters per hour. The car’s movement is almost undetectable to the human eye, and barely evidenced in a time-lapse video of the event. But the car’s form gradually degrades, becoming a metaphor for human mortality.
Fischli & Weiss, The Way Things Go, 1987
Calling to mind a Rube Goldberg machine, Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go was a witty and imaginative 30-minute-long, self-destructing reactionary chain involving fire, gravity, water, air pressure, dry ice, explosions, and tires, among other common supplies. The sequences, which were recorded in a hypnotic film, get progressively more elaborate as objects burst, topple, and burn, transferring kinetic energy from one piece to the next—and ultimately imploding altogether as the piece runs out of steam.