Critique : GUSTAV METZGER, WORKS

GUSTAV METZGER, WORKS

Lund Konsthall, Lund, Sweden
Date: Till 27 August 2006

Written by Pontus Kyander (Curator of the exhibition)

Gustav Metzger’s first Manifesto for an Auto-Destructive Art from1959 proved directional for one of the most uncompromising artistic careers in our time. Auto-destructive art is made to be self-destroyed. The act of destruction is crucial to the work.

In London in the 1960s one could see Metzger’s actions (such as his painting performance involving acid and nylon canvases) or hear his lectures. In 1966 he gathered large parts of the avant-garde of the time for the legendary Destruction In Art Symposium (DIAS). At the first Fluxus exhibition in London his work was censored, since the organisers didn’t understand his project of plastering a wall with all sheets of a newspaper. In a later reconstruction the work reveals itself as strongly historically charged. It coincided in time with the revelations about Soviet nuclear bases in Cuba and the most serious political crisis of the post-war period, when the world was at the brink of nuclear war.

The boundary between art and political activism has always been kept open in Gustav Metzger’s art. He was among the pioneers of the struggle against nuclear weapons, and he protested already in the 1950s against new motorways and increased pollution in London. His auto-destructive art is best understood against this background, as an answer to and an attack on the destruction that happens around us all the time. Destruction, however, is not all negative. It is also a precondition for change and creation. Metzger has spoken of both auto-destructive and auto-creative art.

Many of Gustav Metzger’s projects have remained unrealised and exist only as proposals and models. His practice is more to do with today’s art than with the period when it was created. In 1972 he was supposed to participate in Documenta 5 in Kassel with the work Karba, consisting of four cars whose exhaust fumes fill up a large plastic cube. For unknown reasons the work was never realised. This also happened with Stockholm, June, a proposal for the UN Environmental Conference in Stockholm the same year, for which 120 cars were to be encased in plastic, overheat and self-combust. It is only now that Karba, the work for Documenta, is realised for the exhibition in Lund. It is both sculpture and process, a protest as well as an ambiguous monument.

Gustav Metzger’s art reveals a strong interest in processes. His works are at the same time art and investigation. Technology and science have clearly influenced him, for instance his experiments with chemical and physical processes, his automatic art and his early interest in the possibilities of the computer. Sometimes this open-endedness has spawned unforeseeable results. His experiments with projected images of heated liquid crystals that create short-lived, ever-changing colour fields were integrated into the psychedelic aesthetic of the 1960s by bands such as Cream and The Who. In addition, it was Gustav Metzger's lectures that inspired Pete Townsend to end The Who's concerts with the destruction of all the instruments.

Metzger’s practice is founded in a dark vision of Man and History. Born 1926 to a Polish-Jewish family in the German city of Nuremberg, he was fascinated as a child by the spectacular Party Days that the Nazis organised there every year. He had an early interest in German art and culture, and has remained attached to the German language. Most of his family, including both parents and an older sister, perished in the Holocaust, while he and his brother Mendel escaped to England in 1939.

Throughout the 1990s Gustav Metzger has continuously elaborated the series Historical Photographs, in which images relating to difficult moments in history are made hard to access or altogether hidden to he viewer. Several of the works deal with Nazism and the Holocaust, but the artist also addresses topics such as the massacre on Temple Mount in Jerusalem and violence against the environment.

During the last decade a series of exhibitions have highlighted Gustav Metzger, making his importance for post-war developments in art ever more obvious. The exhibitions have also given him the possibility to realise several new projects, such as Eichmann and the Angel (2005) and In Memoriam (2006). Both these works reflect on memory, history, the Holocaust and in particular the fate of the philosopher and writer Walter Benjamin.

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