Gustav Metzger

Gustav Metzger


The Serpentine Gallery is presenting the largest exhibition ever in the U.K. of Gustav Metzgers work. The originator of auto-destructive art in the 1960s, the 83-year-old German-born, London-based Metzger continues to produce politically aggressive works, such as his recent installation Flailing Trees, 15 upturned willow trees embedded in a block of concrete, a metaphor for a world turned upside down. In his 60 years of critiquing waste, commercialization, environmental exploitation, and social injustice, he has employed trash, old newspapers, liquid crystals, and industrial materials, and he has evenpainted with acid.

Since Metzger is known for his work’s philosophical dimension, sometimes penning essays related to his art’s themes, it is fitting that the Serpentine will hold a conference in November on the theme of extinction, in conjunction with the show. Earlier works, such as his liquid crystal projections from the 1960s, will be displayed alongside a new participative installation using an archive of old newspapers, as well as his "Historic Photographs" series from the 1990s. Metzger spoke with Jocelyn Hanamirian about the upcoming show.

The exhibition will feature a collaborative work that involves your collection of newspapers. How does work with newspapers figure into your philosophy and aesthetic?

The work with newspapers has been ongoing since 1960, and so has my criticism of systems, from the age of 17 on. And, in fact, I was thinking of becoming a kind of revolutionary before becoming an artist. I decided to turn towards art without giving up my desire to change. What we plan to do here will be the biggest demonstration of newspapers. We started collecting in 1995. The visitor will be invited to go to the pile, take out a single paper, and, if they see a page relating to the credit crunch or extinction, they are asked to put it on a stand. At the end, the selected pieces of newspaper will be returned to the original newspaper. So we are using the content of this archive without destroying it. It should not be defaced by tearing pages out. Nothing will be torn; everything will be maintained.

What is the significance of viewer participation in your work?

It has to do with kinetic art. Kinetic art has very much to do with the interaction between spectator and art. In the second half of the ’50s, this became a big international movement. When I moved from painting to connections within media, this came through in the first work, which was an exhibition of found cardboard pieces. It was a turning point for me. The world itself, the industrial fabricated world, could stand for the man-made world of art.

How do you feel the theme of extinction relates to your work?

My interest in this subject goes back to the beginning of this decade, but is also much deeper. If you remember my past, my parents were forced to move to Poland before World War II, and they disappeared. I managed to escape from all of that. Then over the years I just kept looking at newspaper stories. What I am arguing is that global warming is something that people are prepared to adjust to and are willing to adjust to. But when [something] is extinct, it is gone forever. And in the last 30 years there has been an enormous increase in extinction.

So the conference will highlight these issues. Artists are particularly threatened by extinction because we rely on nature. If nature disappears, artists have lost their inspiration. So artists have a special part to play in opposing extinction, if only on a theoretical, intellectual basis.

How will the show work chronologically and thematically through the more than 60 years of your art?

We have more or less agreed the exhibition will start with a series of furniture called "utility furniture," which was devised by the British government during the war to improve the quality of British furniture. I was in a factory in Leeds making this utility furniture. Then on a table there will be half a dozen books, the books that inspired me to go forward with my ideas on society. Eric Gills book will be there, and Edmond Szekelys, whose books I read with great fascination. He was interested in nature and was a very extreme figure. And people will be invited to go through these books.

What is the significance of furniture-making to your work?

I first began to study cabinetmaking in school, a Jewish technical school, and we were trained to become craftsmen. After the war, the school closed down, so I went into a furniture factory to earn money. After about half a year, the British government gave instructions that only utility furniture could be made, and utility furniture would be made much better than under the capitalist order. I observed the owner of this factory having to give up what for him was a very profitable business, and this was a turning point in my life. I could see this was a man only concerned with his money, only concerned with himself, and it turned me toward communist thinking.

So the furniture-making, and the switch from one kind to another — that I hope will come through with the books. So this is central: the awareness of egotism, and the blind pursuit of the interest of oneself. And, of course, you in America can see it in the Madoff issue.

"Gustav Metzger" originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' September 2009 Table of Contents.