Critics’ Picks

Gustav Metzger, Liquid Crystal Environment, 2005–2009, five slide projectors, liquid crystals, dimensions variable. Installation view.


Gustav Metzger

Serpentine Galleries
Kensington Gardens
September 29–November 8

In a BBC interview earlier this fall, Pete Townshend credited Gustav Metzger with teaching him the concept of an environment, the set of conditions under which Townshend, while playing with the Who, would end a song with a screeching riff and then destroy his guitar. Many avant-garde artists were aligned with Metzger’s practice of destruction in the 1960s, which situated the binary of creation and demolition of art as an intertwined objective. A number of them (including Yoko Ono, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, and the Viennese Actionists) attended Metzger’s September 1966 conference in London, aptly titled the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS). Beginning with the film of some of his early actions—Auto-Destructive Art, the Activities of G. Metzger, 1963, installed adjacent to his manifestos—this exhibition uses the historical relevance of DIAS as a starting point to survey Metzger’s practice to date.

Despite Metzger’s association with the performative aspect of destruction, some of his early works are kinetic installations. Drop on Hot Plate, 1968/2009, for example, is an experiment with water condensation in which water descends from an IV bag through a tube onto a hot plate. Here, a fully formed drop of water rests on the metal surface before evaporating. The evaporation is a seamless process, invisible to the human eye. The artist’s well-known light projections also convey his deep interest in science. The exhibition gives an entire room over to Liquid Crystal Environment, 2005–2009, a five-screen projection of light shot through liquid crystals (compressed between slides) whose colors and viscous forms slowly mutate with the temperature fluctuation caused by a fan on top of the projector. Where Drop on Hot Plate might be clinical, this light show is warmly emotive, giving balance to the remainder of the exhibition, which deals with Metzger’s interest in historic atrocities, specifically the Holocaust, from which he escaped via the Kindertransport to Britain.

A few of the works are participatory. Viewers crawl, one at a time, on the floor under a sheet to view Historic Photographs: To Crawl into; Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938, 1996, or shuffle awkwardly sideways down the raw linen curtain placed over Historic Photographs: To Walk into Massacre on the Mount, Jerusalem, 8 November 1990, 1996. In both cases, one’s bodily movements call attention to the gravity of the images. So, too, do the works suggest Metzger’s ongoing search for interventions into crisis. Not surprisingly, he is staging another conference next year, on the subject of extinction.