IT WAS THE CULTURAL COMMENTATOR FRED KAPLAN who observed that many of the great epiphanies of the 1960s were set in motion in 1959. This is certainly true in the case of Gustav Metzger—1959 was the year he wrote his first manifesto on “auto-destructive art,” a public art form that held up a mirror to a social and political system that Metzger felt was progressing toward total obliteration. Auto-destruction, he wrote, was “an attempt to deal rationally with a society that appears to be lunatic.”
I heard of Gustav years later. I was on an eight-city lecture tour of the UK with not much to lecture about because I was only twenty-three. To avoid embarrassment, ten minutes into my talk I would always put on a Fischli & Weiss video while I went out for coffee and a cigarette to gather my thoughts. It was quite an exhausting trip but one that ended in Glasgow with a moment of total ecstasy: I discovered the amazing Scottish arts scene. Roddy Buchanan, Jonathan Monk, Christine Borland, David Shrigley: I met them all in one night. And Douglas Gordon too, of course, which was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. I was reading about Robert Rauschenberg at the time and was taken with his idea that paintings could be clocks. Douglas told me of two British artists just as relevant to my interests: John Latham—whose time-based art we are currently showing at the Serpentine—and Gustav Metzger.
Gustav and I met in person when he came to my Serpentine show “Take Me (I’m Yours).” It was a participatory exhibition where visitors could touch and take home the works of art on view. That appealed to Gustav, who had his own exhibition at Gallery House with Sigi Krauss at the time. So began our collaboration, which continued on for twenty years. First there was “Life/Live” at the Musée D’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris, which included Gustav’s Earth Minus Environment as well as two of his “Historic Photographs” that asked the audience to walk—or crawl—into direct confrontation with history. Then came his Serpentine survey exhibition “Decades: 1959–2009” and the all-night “Extinction Marathon” that we curated together. Crucially, that marathon was subtitled “Visions of the Future.”
On the subject of extinction, Gustav used to say: The work is never done. This is what led to Remember Nature, the education project and worldwide day of action that began with a single piece of paper torn from his notebook. “This appeal is for the widest possible participation from the world of the arts,” read his call to arms in agnès b’s publication Le Pointe d’Ironie. “The aim is to create a mass movement to ward off extinction.” He wanted to do something with the Royal Institution too, but they did not pursue it, perhaps because of Gustav’s anti-institutional stance. No matter. He was fighting extinction in other ways instead, inventing a new extinction handwriting for my ongoing Instagram project.
Gustav was involved in anticapitalist, anticonsumerist movements all his life. In 1961, he was even imprisoned briefly for encouraging mass nonviolent civil disobedience as part of the Committee of 100, the prominent British antiwar group. But what brings so many younger artists to Gustav besides his radical politics? I think it goes back to the transdisciplinarity that existed in the 1960s—that freedom to navigate between different fields. The more I read of contemporary science, the more I see interesting parallels with Gustav’s early writings and time-based work, all of which gain new meaning when we talk about the end of certainty, the dilemmas surrounding determinism, and the idea that there is no such thing as a secure or given future.
In the catalogue for “Art into Society, Society into Art,” Norman Rosenthal’s 1974 group exhibition of seven German artists at the ICA in London, Gustav put forward his argument for a universal three-year art strike: “The use of art for social change is bedevilled by the close integration of art and society. The state supports art, it needs art as a cosmetic cloak to its horrifying reality, and uses art to confuse, divert and entertain large numbers of people. Even when deployed against the interests of the state, art cannot cut loose from the umbilical cord of the state. Art in the service of revolution is unsatisfactory and mistrusted because of the numerous links of art with the state and capitalism. Despite these problems, artists will go on using art to change society.”
Gustav was unwell for the last few months of his life, yet still he worked until the very end. I visited him the week before he died, and during our conversation he encouraged me never to stop the fight. Then he asked for a piece of paper, which he crumpled into his palm and for fifteen minutes moulded with his hands until it became this strange, beautiful sculpture, the very last work he created. Watching him work, it could have been 1959.
A contributing editor of Artforum, Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, London.
For additional Gustav Metzger Passages, see the forthcoming summer issue of Artforum.