Gustav Metzger, Works
Curator Pontus Kyander
20 May - 27 August 2006
Gustav Metzger’s first Manifesto for an Auto-Destructive Art from 1959
proved directional for one of the most uncompromising artistic careers in our
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.