Sunday 11 October 2009


 ’Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959–2009’, Serpentine Gallery, 29 September ~ 8 November

i) Like a Photograph of a Glass Half Standing

”We take art out of the art galleries and museums. The artist must destroy art galleries. Capitalist institutions. Boxes of deceit.”

With those words, from an Auto-Destructive Art manifesto Metzger wrote in 1962, this retrospective gets off to a less than promising start. We are after all in an art gallery, one even located in a leafy park – a long way from the world where came these smashed cars and boxes of rubbish we see on show. Worse, it seems redundant to even criticise something from this angle, about as pointless as Metzger’s railing against the “fucking cigar-chomping bastards” of the art circuit. It’s not like this is information we didn’t have before we set out. Why not go into a bank and complain that they’re making money?

If Auto-Destruction is dead, if all we have here is its detritus, we should simply ignore it and move on. It’s like digging tunnels out of a prison camp, if one is found and filled in you don’t waste time lamenting the fact – you start digging faster at another. But worse, such criticism can suggest that these works are vital totems now captured by the enemy and paraded in ‘their’ galleries like prisoners paraded in a glasshouse. Such veneration of the past will simply blind you to it. People seem to like to pretend radical art movements are pure and unsullied, until the villainous cigar-chomping bastards move in to corrupt them. But corruption enters movements the way it enters anything else, through internal weaknesses. Venerate the past and you will find yourself repeating it.

The first of Metzger’s ‘historic photographs’ further punctures any sense of promise. A wall-size blow-up from the first Reclaim The Streets party in Camden Town (in 1995), where kids dance atop a smashed car, has an actual smashed-up car stuck in the foreground.  It’s true that this piece makes a formal error, in duplicating something already inside the picture. (A later ‘historic photo’ of the Warsaw Ghetto is stuck behind a pile of rubble, an element not in the photograph, and works much better.) But behind this error is a more systematic failing.

Incorporating the real car is obviously supposed to grant the photo a vivacity, literally and metaphorically bringing it out at you. Yet even if the ‘real’ car had been the one in the photo (which it isn’t), the real car would still be the one out in the street – even if it only enters the gallery via a photograph of it. That car blocked an actual street, fulfilled a function for a political event. The car in the gallery is just a token, a context-free copy. Metzger needed the event to unfold in order to create his artwork, but what do the participants need him for? As he says himself (from the same manifesto as above) “the appropriation by the artist of an object is in many ways a bourgeois activity.”

At such points you feel thrown back upon your worst prejudices about ‘agit-prop’ art. As you wander the gallery you find yourself muttering the old Tankie slogans; “all art is inherently part of the commodity production system” and the like.

Worse, there is a problem with the tone of many of the pieces. In the trees planted upside-down and chanting children’s voices, there is a genuine playfulness in evidence. But there’s also a sense of high-minded seriousness, the numerous pieces which just collect discarded packaging are more sanctimonious than a ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ poster. As the notation tells us, Metzger “fervently encourages us to take ethical responsibility in a world that is under permanent creation.” So, a big hit at parties then.

One Historic Photograph epitomises this paradox; laid out across the floor, you have to venture beneath a giant sheet to see it. Not catering to the gallery-goers but forcing them to crawl around to see the work is charmingly absurd. But it also thrusts the picture in your face, as if screaming “look at it!”

ii) Like a Film of a Glass Half-Smashing

And yet destruction is always a process. As soon as we get past the photographs to the moving pieces, a transformation occurs - we find them as exhilarating as the static works were staid. (Disclaimer: the videos were actually threaded through the exhibition, I separate them out here for schematic reasons.) Two pieces in particular stand out; the 1963 video ‘Auto-Destructive Art’ where, instead of painting on canvases, he scorched through sheets of nylon with acid. (A process he called “acid painting.”) The artist leaves the frame and we’re left with a beautiful, abstract film of the sheets corroding.

Second, in what is in both senses the centrepiece of the exhibition, is the 1965 instillation work ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’ (pictured up top). At first the five projector screens changed states so slowly I almost failed to notice them doing it, but they would also suddenly break into phases of rapid switching. The full effect was so mesmerising that I felt I had stumbled into a bewitching room from a folk tale, and I would never actually be able to leave.

This ‘environment’ was apparently used as a backdrop for bands at the Roundhouse, and the version we see here a recreation for a Tate Liverpool exhibition of ‘Art of the Psychedelic Era’. Nevertheless, I contend that we best appreciate this work by distinguishing it from the psychedelic light shows of Sixties ‘happenings’. Those shows were designed to simulate the disintegration of form, as part of a concerted attempt to stimulate a ‘loss of self’ in the participants. Metzger’s ‘Environment’, conversely, is about the impossibility of permanence. He spoke of it himself in terms of “perpetual flux”. Shapes do not necessarily blur into one another, but fade in and out, or even flicker colour. (Think of a Pollock painting then try to add animation to it.)

The musical analogue here would not be acid rock but the minimalism of Reich and Glass, where the smallest changes can become transfixing. Indeed, the piece even had it’s own inadvertent minimalist accompaniment. As tempos changed the sounds of the projectors would change with them, building up to a whirring frenzy then settling into steadiness again, creating an uber-minimalist click track.

Ironically, as soon as he stopped trying to mimic or duplicate political action, Metzger comes up with a fresh perspective upon it. The gallery lobby had been looping a video of anti-war protests by schoolchildren. As you watched their fluid movements escaping the rigid Police lines, teeming but then suddenly moving as one, you realised that it was not just the content but the very form of their protests which inspired - suggesting the roots of a self-organised society. Metzger’s endlessly shifting video works displays this very same form, merely in the abstract. We didn’t need that surplus packaging after all...

iii) Choose Your Own Conclusion

The glass, then, is both half-smashed and half-standing. But what does this tell us? I’m actually torn between two responses to Metzger’s work as shown here, so I shall set down both and let you the reader choose between them. In the first, Metzger’s process-bound works cannot easily be made to fit inside the freeze-frame of the gallery system. One piece shows a dead plant in a glass case, attached to a pipe. A label explains that Metzger had stuck this tank atop a car, then fed exhaust into it as the car was put to its regular use. But the work as it stands shows only the inevitable result, what we needed to see was the process - either a fast-motion display of the plant withering or a series of snapshots.

Secondly, and a little more radically, it’s arguable that its Metzger himself who fails to understand his own work. There were perhaps two dimensions to his conception of auto-destructive art. In the first, he attacks the concept of permanence in art. Just as John Cage’s 4’33” exposed the impossibility of the insisted-up silence in the auditorium, Metzger ridiculed the idea that art could withstand time. Art is assigned a special category in capitalism, with its permanence as one indication of this. We would be shocked to hear, for example, that the Mona Lisa was decaying, yet we expect cars and washing machines to break down and be discarded as soon as the extended warranty expires. By exposing the myth of art’s intransience, he punctures its aura and reconnects it to our society.

But Metzger also associated the (then ever-present) threat of nuclear war with the built-in obsolescence inherent to capitalism. For him, litter in the street and the threat of nuclear fallout were two manifestations of the same problem – a destructive society will end up destroying itself (As he said in ’61, “Man in Regent Street is auto-destructive.”) Auto-destructive art merely exposes this truth.

There are two obvious rejoinders here. First, confronting society with it’s own suicidal nature seems less effective now Hollywood churns out further entries in the ‘apocalypse porn’ genre, with films such as The Day After Tomorrow.  Today we see the spectacle of our own destruction, but it doesn’t get us up out of our seats. But also, like many forms of ‘anti-art’ this approach may comment more easily on art than on wider social matters. Metzger’s commitment to anti-capitalism was quite genuine, even seeing him arrested as part of the Committee of 100. But was it effective? Was his art at root less a critique of commodity production, and more concerned with entropy?

This is partly confused because people tend to misconceive his work, as soon as they hear he coined the term ‘Auto-Destructive Art’. They then tend to think of an art which is dynamic and explosive, a style more associated with his successor Jean Tinguely. Worse, they know Pete Townsend’s claim that it was studying under Metzger that inspired his guitar-smashing antics. (A claim I’ve always suspected to be spurious.)

But the form of destruction which fascinates Metzger is always decay, never dynamite. He tended to dream up grand plans for giant sculptures, too grandiose to ever be realised, which would then corrode and decompose over the successive years. Even his Acid Paintings are merely decay speeded up. Metzger may not have even believed in destruction at all, seeing entropy as but a change in state – not an end.

It may be that entropy was actually his rosebud, and it was sheer co-incidence that he was born into a capitalist era. Justifiably sickened by the society he then saw, he attempted to turn his art against it. But he was only ever able to unleash the acid against the privileged role of art in society, not that society itself.

Perhaps tellingly, Metzger divided the two key works here into the “auto-destructive” acid paintings and the “auto-creative” Liquid Crystal Environment. Yet this does his own work a disservice. The Liquid Crystal Environment is, of necessity, destructive, each new state ‘destroying’ the last in order to supplant it. And the acid paintings are creative, transforming some old sheets of nylon into something exquisite. (As Wikipedia comments “the work was simultaneously auto-creative and auto-destructive”.) Destructiveness is not a feature unique to capitalism. In Bakhunin’s famous dictum, “the urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”

Gallery information here

Wednesday 7 October 2009


John Merriman, the Charles Seymour professor of history at Yale University, and author of The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-De-Siecle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror has this to say on the BBC website:

"Where before it was policemen or heads of state who were the targets of violent anarchists, now it was ordinary people. The bourgeois."

When, back in the Nineties, John Major claimed “we are all middle class now” it seemed to reach a new height in risibility. Now it seems that by 1894 everybody was already stinking rich!!! (Albeit with the exception of one or two grudge-nursing, bomb-tossing “down and outs.”)

He also teaches us that the plural of ‘bourgeois’ isn’t ‘bourgeioisie’ after all, as dictionary compilers have long but erroneously supposed. (Perhaps in 1894 everyone in France suddenly agglomerated into one vast, super-rich guy – causing Emile Henry to feel left out.)

”Both share a fervent belief in ideology, and confidence that eventually they will win.”

It is not actually common to believe in ideology, as an ideology is in itself a belief system. Demonstrators do not usually chant "What do we want? Ideology!" This would be like ‘seeing vision’ or ‘hearing audibility’, and is what tends to be called a ‘tautology’.

”Indeed, one theory has it that 'terrorism' began with the state, during the radical phase of the French Revolution.”

Oh do you think so? Maybe Mr. Merriman is onto something! However one theory has it that, for example, Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland preceded the French Revolution and did not proceed along the basis of asking the natives nicely if they minded being taken over.

If anyone doubts the continual existence of the class system, which Mr. Merriman is so keen to claim ended in 1894, consider this. While you and I work for a living, this guy is paid good money to come up with these wretched imbecilities, which show a lack of understanding of basic English, let alone politics or history. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

Tuesday 6 October 2009


We demand a slow-down in the pace of consumption!

We demand the rationing of art!
We demand the right of return!
We want to move off Quantity Boulevard, and back onto Quality Street where we were happier!

We hereby announce the world’s first consumer strike!

”Here's what I want: I want to be told what to read, watch and listen to. I want my hands tied. I want a cultural diet. I want a government employee to turn up on my doorstep once a month, carrying a single book for me to read. I want all my TV channels removed and replaced by a single electro-pipe delivering one programme or movie a day. If I don't watch it, it gets replaced by the following day's selection.”

Great minds think alike, they say. And right now what they’re thinking of is getting less clogged.

Friday 2 October 2009


Brushing the cobwebs off another Seventies British girls’ comic...

“As they told George the grey nun’s story, he felt a chill creep like clammy fingers down his spine...”

Following my recent foray into the Seventies girls comic Tammy, courtesy of a Guardian giveaway, I decided to sample the sister publication Misty. (Tipped off about a Egmont reprint by the ever-informative Down The Tubes. They were even right to warn about Smiths’ eccentric racking system– it took me a good ten minutes to find it!)

Launched seven years after Tammy in 1978, it can be best compared via the mascot characters. (Check previous entry for Tammy.) They were as different as day from night! Tammy was a freckled, beaming blonde, while Misty was the classic brunette, all allure and mascara. The tagline, “filled with chills and thrills”, and the quote above should give you a flavour of goings-on around her place. Wintry settings lend themselves to spectral events, leading to a shivery ending.

The artwork is if anything higher quality than Tammy, at times it’s almost ravishing! However, and somewhat paradoxically, this rise in drawing quality magnifies many of the flaws of the big sister comic. With their shorter length, British comics of this era tend to compress events - which can reduce the role of the art to merely illustrational. Unable to keep up with the headlong pace of events, the pictures’ role fell to adding atmosphere and diluting down the text a little. But as Misty tends to have less panels on the page than Tammy, (Tammy rarely falling to less than nine panels per page, Misty averaging around seven) the result is more compression and with it less dramatisation. A strip like ‘So You Want To Be A Star’, while exquisitely drawn, is relatively static in execution.

There’s an associated emphasis on decoration above storytelling, on looks over content. In one way this makes girls comics of this era stand out, they can look captivating where boys comics could get away with just being functional. But the decorativeness often takes precedence over the storytelling. ‘Wolfsbane’ may well be the best-drawn strip in the collection, but take the panel below. The character is expressing horror, at least through her speech balloon, yet her pose is one of arranged nonchalance. Whether or not this particular panel came from snaps of a model, you can see the route down which girls’ comics degenerated into photostrips.

While Tammy featured Jim Baikie art, Misty has (on ‘Mrs. Grundy’s Guest House’ and ‘The Pig People’) some early Ian Gibson. Gibson of course went on to be one of the top 200AD artists, drawing Alan Moore’s celebrated ‘Halo Jones’. Unfortunately (unlike Baikie) his work here is early and unformed, characters lacking the solidity he would later give them. The askew layouts of the first strip are adventurous, and obviously aimed at adding some much-needed sense of off-kilter, but Gibson isn’t quite yet able to pull them off. Though his handiwork may be the one you recognise, other artwork here is superior. [STOP PRESS! PaulHD writes in to re-attribute these pages to John Richardson and, judging by the sample he links to, he may well be right! See the Comments section for more...]

Despite one time travel story, Tammy mostly set itself in this familiar world – a world Misty sought to corrode. Bringing the supernatural to the closeted world of girls’ comics... that might sound a bold step. But what really lay behind those mists? The problem isn’t that the stories are perfunctory and predictable (which we might expect) but that they’re tainted by moralism. A girl will exhibit some vice, for which she’ll then be made to suffer by some deus ex machina figure. For example in ‘So You Want To Be A Star’, Angie insists to her friends she’ll be a pop star rather than a secretary. One famous, she ditches those friends but finds her record deal was... well, we all know the Robert Johnson story.

However, this schema is probably at its most hilarious in ‘What Did You Say?’, where Sandra’s heinous transgression is... wait for it... to play loud pop music on her radio! “Wakened up to your selfishness at last?” “I – I won’t ever play my radio too loud again!” (Admittedly, the story does compensate for the pettiness of this vice – it’s the only one where the supernatural forces are merely imaginary.) Behind the mascara, Misty was actually telling you something suspiciously similar to your parents – turn the radio down, stop daydreaming and get on with your homework.

If Tammy took the once-hermetic girls-school world of these comics and added father figures, Misty even discovers boys! But their presence only adds to the conservatism, in ‘Wolfsbane’ Sara’s “punishment” comes about because she wanted to spend a night down the disco instead of at home on the farm. (The text feature ‘Find A Future Boyfriend’ puts the emphasis firmly on that future tense – “Do you sometimes wonder if you will have a boyfriend next week or next year?”)

Admittedly there’s not necessarily anything wrong with telling teenagers to respect others, especially when they’re at the age where they’re least likely to do so of their own accord. But the conservatism comes with the idea of ‘natural justice’, as if there’s some divine order outside of human society which will always compensate such wrongs. Rather than feature girl protagonists whose actions affect the world, for good or ill, Misty’s world is one where human agency is almost absent. On two occasions (‘The Treatment’ and ‘Crowning Glory’) nature itself rises up to restore order.

This conservatism is also compounded by a rather restrained notion of “chills and thrills”. Okay, this comic aims to run its clammy fingers down your spine rather than bludgeon you with an axe! But it’s refined without being sophisticated. There’s neither enough intrinsic interest in the stories to carry them, nor any of the lurid abandon or recklessly black humour that transform the EC horrors into morbid delights.

However, these problems may stem from this collection reprinting only one-off strips. Like most comics of its day, Misty seems to have chiefly run continuing stories. Such stories didn’t normally progress so much as perpetuate themselves, like a ball being kept up in the air, yet the perpetual deferment became the very thing which held the reader’s interest. As mentioned over the Bunty story ‘Lydia and the Little People’, they essentially suspend time to become like a dream-state, stretching moods out to an impossible degree.

Girls comics fan Jenni Scott has also suggested that the single strips were a later arrival: “at... around issue 60, it’s much noticeably more bitty, more short stories, more ‘Future-Shock’ type twist endings.” (This would also match the general publishing dates Egmont give the collection, 1979 to 82, bypassing the comic’s first year.) We may be looking at a situation where administrative convenience won out over product quality - the chop-to-fit single strips were chosen simply as something more anthology-friendly, despite their content being more lacklustre.

If so, such an argument ultimately lacks even its own logic. To take up the ‘Future Shock’ analogy, you might get little from a 2000AD collection that reprinted one random episode of ‘Halo Jones’. But, as mentioned above, the point of these continued stories wasn’t that they ever went anywhere but that they came back week after week. As writer Pat Mills commented in reply to Jenni Scott: “girls, female readers, love mystery stories, say a school where there’s a mysterious headmistress, and girls are disappearing... this gets them going! And the explanation can be complete crap, and it usually was, and it doesn’t matter!” These were classic cases of journey not destination. Sample episodes of the continuing stories, however randomly chosen, would have lost little in translation.

On the strength of this collection, Misty is the brunette who might look mysterious and alluring, seen in the half-light, but buy her a drink and you soon discover all she actually wants to talk about is Home and Contents Insurance. Tammy, conversely, is the girl-next-door who got up one day and decided to hitch-hike across Asia. However, this low impression may well come from the collection not drawing from the longer strips, which may contain less in the way of small talk.

Postscripts: A dedicated website has more information on Misty, plus many of the old strips. (Though not, it must be said, in a particularly reader-friendly format.)

Jenni Scott has written about the final comic in this Seventies triumvirate, Jinty, here, and made a quite compelling case it was the craziest of the bunch!