What value does destruction bring to the artwork?

Nam June Paik’s Robot K 456 was one of the first non-human performance art performers. A rudimentary robot made of a mish-mash of electronic parts and odd objects, Robot K-456 could talk via tape recorder, walk via remote controlled wheels and defecate dried beans.

In one of his street performances, First Accident of the Twenty-First Century, Nam June Paik drove Robot K-456 onto the street where the robot was promptly hit by a car driven by artist William Anastasi. The performance ended as Robot K-456’s “body” was wheeled back into the museum.

On this performance, Nam June Paik playfully commented that he was practicing how to how to cope with the catastrophe of technology in the 21st century.

The destruction of Robot K-456 brilliantly highlights the fragility and in-humanity of robots. It warns us against empathising with technology. However, as technology becomes increasingly intelligent, it seems that we have not heeded such sage advice and have more often than not, gone beyond empathy for our technology—we read robots as social actors and as personalities rather than machines driven by code.

DESU 100 is Robot K-456’s successor. It examines the relationship we have with our technology and as with First Accident of the Twenty-First Century, it utilizes the element of destruction to examine to what degree our empathy for our robots goes.

DESU 100 is a metal cube with an arm and an implied face by the short range sensor. The robot can drive around and move its arm autonomously–a short melody plays as it moves to indicate the current ‘health’ of the robot. Besides its behaviour, the robot seemed to have no obvious function. A pushing of a button on a nearby pedestal forces the robot to hit itself with its arm, denting the shiny metallic body of the robot.

The more damaged the robot is, the more destructive it behaves: from waving, to hitting the floor, and eventually hitting itself. Furthermore, as it becomes more damaged, the melody gets less harmonic, and the driving behaviour becomes less fluent, which strengthens the impression of destruction.


The destruction of DESU 100 reveals our irrational impulse to destroy and to a lesser extent–reveals humanity’s compulsion to play God.


Freud hypothesised that humans are controlled by two drives: The life drive and the death drive. The life drive manifests itself in creation, while the death drive manifests itself in destructive impulses. A fulfilment of these drives leads to the feeling of satisfaction. With the death drive, it is theorised to manifest itself subconsciously in ways such as self-sabotage or over-aggression.

In Emmanuel Le Cerf’s CAUTION : NEVER TOUCH THE VELVET, the artist presents us with an uncovered velvet ‘painting’, tempting the viewer to reach out, disturb the fabric and ruin the painting.

As with CAUTION : NEVER TOUCH THE VELVET, DESU 100 forces these drives to manifest in the irrational impulse to destroy and then forces participants to question their actions.

“Why do I want to see DESU 100 destroy itself? Why do I want to destroy DESU 100? Why do I want to destroy in the first place?”

DESU 100’s destruction reflects our actions back at us, prompting us to question: “Why did I press that button?”


In Media equation, Nass and Reeves demonstrated that on the one hand, while humans perceive robots as social actors with a personality like other humans, the executed violence against robots is higher than violence towards human beings.

This violence rises as perceived intelligence of the robot falls and therefore an associated trend of animacy equalling violence arises.

Like children squishing ants on the sidewalk, Helena by Marco Evaristti challenges our need to be ‘gods’. To what extent will we exert our power over the goldfish swimming in liquidisers? Will we be benevolent gods or silent voyeurs? Or will we press the button to extinguish a life?

With DESU 100, participants indicated that they felt sympathy for the robot, giving the robot a level of animacy below that of humans but a level of animacy nonetheless. As such, the impulse to destroy goes beyond the irrationality of the aforementioned death drive because of our empathy towards DESU 100 indicates that DESU 100 is not a mere object.

As with ants on the sidewalk or goldfish in blenders, it is not a stretch to say that making DESU 100 destroy itself on command creates a certain level of ‘god’-play.


As I established in my previous points, destruction is often a product of impulses and innate human desires. However, humans beings are not creatures purely driven by instinct. We have the power to make decisions and to assess the morality of those decisions. The choice to destroy and create in art often addresses our morality. With Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, participants could engage with her body in creative or destructive ways. While some participants adorned her with roses and kisses, others cut her skin and tore away her clothes.

However, with DESU 100, it fails to capture this aspect of morality from destruction because of the lack of given choices. DESU 100 does not actually give participants a chance to engage in the morally right or morally wrong. There is only the one morally grey option of pressing the button–not wrong because the robot functions to destroy itself and not entirely right either because the destruction of the robot is inherently chaotic.


So, in the end, doe s pressing the button in DESU 100 really mean anything?


What effect does irreversible consequences have on the participants of the artwork?

Irreversible consequences in destructive games is so effective  because it transforms the viewer from a passive spectator to an active participant.

As stated in the essay “Destructive Games: Creating Value by Destroying Valuable Physical Objects”, one of the elements needed in an effective destructive game is real life and irreversible consequences for participants. Consequences from destruction like defaced money or destroyed belongings makes people pay attention to the art­–they are both materially and emotionally vested in the work. And with the destruction of their items being irreversible, the impact is made all the more visceral to them.


What is the main purpose of the concept of destruction in the arts?

Destruction is a visceral sight in an art world that is so obsessed the with creation and preservation of sculptures and paintings. Because destruction is inherently taboo, the use of destruction in art is extremely impactful and profound, often producing provocative Avant Garde art.

Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing utilises the taboo of destroying art to generate art. The artwork challenged our notion of image aesthetics–can a destroyed image still be beautiful? Is an erased de Kooning still valuable?

Ai Wei Wei’s Destroying a Han Dynasty Vase show Ai dropping an antique Han Vase and smashing it. Through this piece, Ai questions our value of heritage and criticises his government’s regime of destroying culture to make new culture.

As The Arts has too broad a spectrum for me to accurately describe how destruction is used in all aspects of art, I will address the use of destruction in these well-known artworks I have identified.

Both artists use destruction as a transformative process to turn an object into another entirely new artwork. Not only has the visual aesthetics of the artworks changed but through destruction, a whole new layer of cultural meaning and connotations is added to the artwork.

To sum it up simply, in art, to destroy is simply another way to create.