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