Foreign Policy In Focus
In 2006, a visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England accidentally became an artwork. Let’s call him Dude Descending a Staircase
in honor of that merry prankster Marcel Duchamp. This particular
visitor tripped over his feet as he was going down the museum stairs. As
he fell, he knocked into three large Qing Dynasty vases that rested on
their mounts in a recess.
All three vases fell to the ground and smashed into countless pieces.
In a current exhibit on violence and art in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima—“Damage Control”
at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC—the German artist Thomas Demand has
turned this act of destruction into a work of art. It is a single photograph
of the fragments of the vase on the landing, with a hint of orderly
English landscaping visible through the window. The work, “Landing,” is a
recreation of the damage, a reminder that sometimes all that remains of
Humpty Dumpty when he falls from the wall is the forensic
As I stood in front of this photograph, I thought about Colin Powell
and Iraq. You might remember Powell’s famous quip about Pottery Barn. In
his advice to President George W. Bush prior to the Iraq invasion,
Powell warned the president of the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you
own it. The United States would be responsible, Powell implied, for
whatever wreckage the military incurred in its headlong dash to unseat
Pottery Barn actually has no such a rule, and it was Thomas Friedman who “made up the whole thing.” But Powell, who apologized to Pottery Barn, still embraces the message.