Letter from LONDON
Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959 -2009
The Serpentine Gallery
September 29 – 8 November 8, 2009
The Frieze team has really reshaped the British art world’s calendar. Along with gearing up into social overdrive, the scene benefits from the efforts of museums large and small to capitalize on the moment and put on first-rate exhibitions. This year is no different. The Serpentine’s compact survey of Gustav Metzger is the first show dedicated to an older artist since Hans-Ulrich Obrist arrived as the gallery’s co-director. However, the biggest endorsement of Metzger’s art and thought has come from a rock star—Pete Townshend of The Who. When he began destroying his guitars onstage, Townsend claims to have been influenced by Metzger’s ideas of Auto-Destructive Art, which he absorbed while at art school; perhaps only the Velvet Underground can lay claim to a greater art-related heritage. For those of us who have spent time circulating around the London art world, Metzger is one of its distinctive characters with his “bag-lady chic” and erudite questions. He is a cult figure amongst artists young and old, and Obrist—to be fair—has been a champion for years.
Metzger’s art, in fact, springs from a singular cataclysmic event: the Holocaust. Born in Nuremberg in 1926, he lost his Polish-Jewish parents during the war. Hence the most poignant work on display is a group of large archival photographs, the Historic Photographs series, that have been covered by fabric, wood, or bricks with a very narrow gap, if any, between the image and its barrier. Therefore, viewers must confront the images close up if at all. One famous photograph from the Vietnam War is completely “censored” or denied to us. In To Crawl Into—Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938 (1996), a fine, silky fabric lies on the floor, covering a large photograph. In order to see the image, we must crawl under the fabric, and as we take it in bit by bit on our hands and knees, we realize that it depicts Jews forced to scrub the streets of Vienna. The simplicity of the fabric, which resembles a minimalist floor work, is confounded by the charged historical memory that the photo evokes. There is a mortuary feel to this particular group of works, yet Metzger nudges gloom into an elegant despair.
His is a sensibility, not an aesthetic, determined by the destruction wrought upon his life. It is summed up in his twin manifestos of Auto-Destructive Art and Auto-Creative Art. The Auto-Destructive is probably best demonstrated by his acid painting performances from the 60s, in which he applied acid to sheets of coloured stretched nylon, as if he were making an action painting. The acid dissolved the sheets in a process of destruction that led to creation, one that it “re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected.” The Auto-Creative, on the other hand, is probably best exemplified by his liquid crystal projection pieces, which became famous as light shows for concerts by The Who, Cream, and other 60s rock groups. These same works were part of the recent Tate Triennial selected by Nicolas Bourriaud. Auto-Creative art, Metzger says, is an “art of change, growth movement.” Seen in this light, his manifestos of the Auto-Destructive and Auto-Creative very much touches upon Adorno’s notion of the impossibility of writing poetry after the Holocaust. Like Adorno, Metzger’s work offers a critical model of how to approach such a tragic memory and unromantically move forward.
Metzger’s combination of negativity and austerity engender a kind of poetry. The work in general is obviously not the most beautiful; there is in fact nothing pretty or visually engaging about this show. Rather, Metzger’s objects and installations hark back to an era when political art was sharp and direct. It is noncommercial in its taste for the spare and thrown away, cardboard being a favoured material. Perhaps today Santiago Sierra’s performances and interventions are the best exemplar of this mode of agitprop. The appeal of Metzger’s work can be compared to that of Joseph Beuys, which was also informed and determined by politics bred by the Second World War. But unlike Beuys, there is no appeal to a mythopoetic shamanism; rather, Metzger favors a more direct approach to his audience. For example, our destruction of the environment is another theme he took up early on. One piece in particular, a small pamphlet simply stating, “Reduce Art Flights, Torino.” (“RAF”) is self-explanatory; it is an ongoing leafleting campaign, begun in 2008, to make art travelers more environmentally aware—a project he deems a failure but nonetheless one that should carry on. The real difference, however, between Beuys and Metzger is that Beuys served in the German Luftwaffe while Metzger escaped the Holocaust. An encounter between the two artists led Metzger to query Beuys’ stance about everyone being an artist by asking if “Himmler too [was] an artist.”
Metzger’s appeal is obvious; he is both direct and passionate, his politics are straightforward, and his art is neither aestheticized nor anesthetized. I suspect that his attraction for today’s audience also comes from the fact that he has seemingly eschewed any commercial interest in his work by staying on the periphery, working with non-profit spaces and thus keeping his idealism intact. He is anti-capitalist and anti-globalist. He urges direct action from everyone who sees his work. Perhaps the art world is not quite the forum for this form of agitation, but then again, I think it is a better place with Metzger around.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.