Gustav Metzger

Although to some extent invisible in the ’80s, Gustav Metzger was a vital art-world presence throughout the ’60s and ’70s, a period of manifestos, lectures, actions, events, and festivals on the theme of “auto-destructive art” culminating, in Metzger’s case, with his call for a three-year art strike: “Years Without Art, 1977–1980”—no work, no shows, no sales, nothing. It was necessary, he felt, in order to give artists time to reflect on their activity and to become more theoretically engaged. Thus his decade of comparative invisibility began, during which younger artists gradually became aware of Metzger’s rigorous, critical attitude to artmaking.

Oxford’s engaging show of Metzger’s work had a concentrated historical core, collecting documentation, maquettes, and proposals from the artist’s early career, an interview on video, and a recording of the 1981 auto-destructive action South Bank Demonstration, as restaged for LA MoCA’s “Out of Actions” exhibition. A pair of adjoining galleries displayed two very different kinds of work. One of these rooms had its walls covered with projections of liquid crystal. Slowly but ceaselessly shifting shape and color, Liquid Crystal Environment, 1966/98, re-created the light shows Metzger staged for Cream, The Who, and other bands in 1966. Fixed to a darkened wall, a Perspex box, Mica and Air Cube, 1968/98, lit up when you approached it, while the mica flakes inside were blown around by a blast of compressed air.

The other gallery contained samples of Metzger’s work from the ’90s. This was the real meat of the exhibition. The “Historic Photographs” series, 1995–98, is a prolonged inquiry into the media’s framing and editing of events for mass consumption, and a set of strategies for addressing those images in a critical and skeptical manner. The images Metzger uses are well known or of well-known events—the Intifada, the Anschluss, the Oklahoma City bombing, and so on. We have seen them before. Metzger, however, re-presents these photographs within framing structures that make it difficult, if not actually physically impossible, to lookat them again. We are forced into a physical awareness of ourselves as we attempt to peer around, push aside, or otherwise penetrate bamboo screens, curtains, sheet metal, and other material barriers. In Historic Photographs No. I: Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, 19 April (28 days) 1943, 1995, for example, a photograph of the Jews whom the Nazis had rounded up is hidden behind a shuttered wall made from planks of wood reminiscent of the sides of railway cars. In another work, To Crawl Into—Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938, 1996–98, the image of Jews being made to scrub the street while onlookers laugh and jeer can be viewed only if we adopt the position of the victims. Laid on the floor, the enlarged photograph is covered with a cloth that we can push aside only if we are kneeling.

As an introduction to the ideological, historical, and political work that Metzger expects the viewer to perform when confronting the “Historic Photographs,” two screen walls were erected at the gallery entrance. These formed a funnel-like passageway into the space, and a false floor of untreated wood planks became increasingly dirtied by the museum traffic. An enormous photograph of prisoners passing up the ramp into Auschwitz covered one of the walls. By the time you were shuffling along the passageway, you remembered (too late) that there had been another doorway, which you didn’t take because it was covered by those thick plastic strips used in warehouses and further veiled with a translucent sheet of cloth. From that point on, necessity and unavailability were thrown into question as moral and historical factors inextricably linked to one’s own actions and responsibilities. Getting to see some of the other images could be seen as something of a game—crawling into Anschluss; jumping in front of an image of the napalm-smeared children of Trang Bang, children fleeing, South Vietnam, April 1972, 1998—but it wasn’t.

Michael Archer