HaggBridge.com

01 Oct, 2009

The liquid crystal revolutionary

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

On the eve of a major show, the reclusive ‘auto-destructive artist’ grants a rare interview

A car has been parked inside the Serpentine Gallery in London, its blue paint mirroring the trees outside. The room is peaceful, with technicians quietly installing works of art by the 83-year-old troublemaker Gustav Metzger; but soon, a curator tells me, they will be taking sledgehammers to the car. Technicians will pound it until it resembles the crushed husk in a news photograph of a street demonstration Metzger once witnessed. He shows me this photograph, two kids standing on the roof of the smashed car. “They were shouting, ‘Kill the car, kill the car!’, until they were exhausted,” he says.

This is, I suppose, a very literal manifestation of auto-destructive art, the movement Metzger founded in Britain at the end of the 1950s. Of course, auto-destructive art doesn’t always mean destroying a car; rather, it means a work of art that contains the seeds of its own destruction, or that is destroyed by its creator. It is also pointedly political: Metzger’s new exhibition Decades, a survey of a life’s work, will seethe with passionate denunciations of nuclear weapons, climate change and capitalism. A poster calling for an end to flights to international art biennales will be one of the uneasier works for the cognoscenti to view; this really is biting the hand that feeds him. It betrays the same mischief that makes Metzger tell me, as people labour in the gallery behind him to recreate his work, that “auto-destructive art doesn’t exist except in the mind”.

Over the last 15 years, this veteran activist has been shown at one biennale after another. An artist who wilfully marginalised himself has been resurrected by a younger generation of curators and artists. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine – and co-curator of this retrospective – has been one of Metzger’s most consistent champions, but there are many others. Metzger has lived in Britain since 1939, but now Decades will bring him before a mainstream British public. An underground hero will arrive blinking into the daylight of Kensington Gardens.

And what will people see? A steel plate fixed to the wall of the gallery hides a photograph of a Nazi rally. An upturned tree splays its roots, like unkempt hair or crazy fingers. There is a cloth on the floor that you crawl beneath, only to find yourself staring with uncomfortable immediacy at a hugely enlarged picture of Jews being forced to scrub the streets of Vienna in 1938. There is a film of Metzger in gas mask and tweed jacket, hurling acid at a sheet of nylon on London’s South Bank in 1961.

Earlier this year, Metzger’s work was shown alongside artists a quarter of his age in the Tate Triennial; even now, he seems to speak directly to young artists. In 1959, he rejected his own training as a painter and sculptor (under no less a teacher than the futurist painter David Bomberg), choosing instead to demolish art and then remake it as something else: as science, for instance, in works such as his Liquid Crystal light projections, now bubbling at the heart of this show.

In the 1960s, his argument that destruction is a form of last-chance creativity in a terminal world had a subterranean influence – not least on Pete Townshend, who was Metzger’s student at art college and credits him with inspiring the Who to destroy their instruments. Metzger was also an activist in the Committee of 100, the CND breakaway group that believed in direct action. He has been a Marxist “since I was 16, 17”, and still sides with “the opponents of capitalist systems”. He will be exhibiting his own archive of newspapers, witness to a lifetime’s anger at the daily news.

In 1974, Metzger called an Art Strike: for three years, from 1977 to 1980, he refused to make, sell or exhibit art, or to promote himself as an artist in any way. That left him, in the 1980s, a forgotten figure, ripe for rediscovery by fans such as Obrist. When I first interviewed him, in the mid-1990s, he was a small, wizened, harshly articulate figure bearing a carrier bag full of notes and an unwashed jacket. He hasn’t changed.

Today, at the Serpentine, I ask him why he invented auto-destructive art, what he meant by it. “It was a summing up of my entire life until that period,” he says, in the German accent he has never lost. “It was my childhood in Nazi Germany, coming to this country as a refugee, as a survivor. And then when we had peace, the entire planet being transformed by nuclear weapons. That is at the centre of my life.”

The first time I interviewed Metzger, he took me to the Wiener Library in London, a Holocaust research centre, to show me an album of photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto. He was born to Polish-Jewish parents in Nuremberg in 1926. From 1933 onwards, the annual rally of the Nazi Party was held in a specially constructed stadium outside this old town. Before being addressed by Hitler, the massed ranks paraded through the picturesque city; you can see them in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will.

A child in Nuremberg

Metzger and I spoke earlier in the summer, one soggy weekday in a remote corner of the National Theatre, and I asked him about his childhood then. I was taken aback by his belief that it says everything about him. “I recently had this clear thought,” he said, “that those 12 years totally dominate my life, and will do to the last moment of my life. A central part of my childhood was my experience of Nuremberg. Nuremberg must have been one of the greatest medieval and Renaissance cities in the world, and I would go in again and again.” Every year, from the age of six or seven, he saw the Nazis parading, the uniforms getting smarter, the strides more confident, the martial display more darkly seductive. As he described it, I seemed to see it: there was a quality of total recall to his childhood memory.

We talked more recently about Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. He acknowledges its brilliance as cinema and says that as a film-loving child he saw Riefenstahl’s other masterpiece Olympia, a Nazi hymn to the athletic body, “five or six times” in a Nuremberg cinema. Of watching the parades, he says now: “Certainly the brutality of seeing 10,000 people marching like machines – as a child I must have rejected it.” Did it make him the artist he is? “It could be that I saw so much power that I needed to get rid of it in myself. That’s one way to understand the origins of auto-destructive art. In Judaism there is a tradition of rejecting power: the Prophets rejected power. That was part of my childhood, giving up rather than acquiring.”

In 1939, Metzger and his brother came to Britain under the auspices of the Refugee Children’s Movement; he is one of about 10,000 children saved by the Kindertransport. The rest of his family stayed in Germany. His two sisters eventually got out via Sweden. In 1943 his father was deported to Poland as the systematic extermination of Germany’s Jews went ahead; his mother followed. They died. “Died,” Metzger repeats softly.

You could say that Metzger is the Kindertransport’s greatest failure: instead of building a constructive life for himself in postwar Britain, he invented a destructive life – or a destructive art. His art is a refusal to forget, to assimilate, to move on. His anger at the world is almost that of an alienated child: he tells me that, in a photograph he once showed me – of a child holding his hands up during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto – he sees himself: “I identify with this child.”

Violent art is Metzger’s response to a violent world. In his exhibition, that same Warsaw photograph will be shown concealed behind a barrier, like the other images in his series Historic Photographs. These are his most enduring and remarkable works: you crawl on your hands and knees across the images as a way of remembering what happened.

“It just occurs to me now,” he says of this work, “that the holiest relics in Judaism are the Torah scrolls, and they are hidden and only shown occasionally.” This, too, is a memory of childhood: he stopped going to synagogue when he left Germany.

Miracles happen. Gustav Metzger is someone who has spent much of his life on the outside – “in the cold”, as he puts it. What an extraordinary thing that, in 2009, his work is the subject of so much renewed attention. But the real miracle is that his art lives up to the claims made for it: it is at once playful and aggressive, plainly sincere, and powerfully, brutally direct.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Read the original post on Guardian Arts & Architecture

No Responses to "The liquid crystal revolutionary"

Comment Form

Advertising

Flickr PhotoStream

    2fev.2014Dark Horizons: Free Art PieceBluebird Dawn1592Key / Giltza bat / una Llave - BilbaoMucho verde, nuevo rojo / Solarpies Mad / urban gardenMucho verde, nuevo rojo / Solarpies Mad / urban gardenKey / Giltza bat / una Llave - BilbaoPutin on the Ritz# 2314 ShoesLate.Bild_1273_interniteo_140_100_2_cm_mixed_media_on_canvas_2014Bild_1272_serenity_120_100_4_cm_mixed_media_on_canvas_2014_NOT_AVAILABLEabstract paintingabstract painting

About

HaggBridge.com brings you a daily update of news from art world, focused on UK based artists, exhibitions, and galleries.