Gustav Metzger

Kunsthalle Basel

Gustav Metzger has always worked against the art market, rather than for it. In 1959, he articulated his concept of autodestructive art in a manifesto—an adaptation of Theodor Adorno’s argument that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” to the field of visual art in the era of nuclear weapons. By 1974, his radical approach led to the call for an “art strike.” Though he initiated and participated in many groundbreaking events, like the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) in London in 1966, it took decades for Metzger’s art to find its way into museums (and a very few private collections). A retrospective at the Generali Foundation in Vienna last year highlighted Metzger’s importance for critical politically—and economically—engaged art practices and ephemeral aesthetics.

For his recent solo show in Basel, Metzger showed two new installations: Eichmann and the Angel, 2005, was originally commissioned by the Cubitt gallery in London, while In Memoriam, 2006, was specially conceived for two rooms in the Kunsthalle. Both works are closely related to the artist’s own biography. Metzger was born in Nuremberg in 1926, the son of Polish Orthodox Jews. At thirteen he escaped Nazi Germany for England, where he has lived and worked since. Both of his parents died in the Holocaust. Eichmann and the Angel conflates three historical biographies into a haunting installation evoking multiple references. Its central figure is Walter Benjamin, a refugee as well, but one whose journey ended abruptly at the border between France and Spain, where he committed suicide in 1940. Then there is Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann and analyzed it in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Arendt also edited and wrote the introduction for Illuminations, the first collection of Benjamin’s writings in English, including the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” with his famous interpretation of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, 1920 (a print of which hangs in the gallery). On the wall facing the Klee reproduction, black letters indicate on a map the places of death of Arendt, Benjamin, and Eichmann: New York, Port-Bou, Jerusalem. In the middle of the gallery stands a replica of the bulletproof cage used in Eichmann’s trial. We are invited to enter and slip into the role of the person whose most disquieting attribute, according to Arendt, was his normality. From inside, one faces a wall of tightly stacked bunches of newspapers (The Guardian, aptly). An industrial conveyer belt runs toward the wall, and we’re again encouraged to participate—this time by putting single pages of newspaper on the belt, hurling the catastrophes of a day to the feet of Benjamin’s horrified “Angel of History,” piling up wreckage upon wreckage. The belt’s incessant movement alarmingly calls to mind the mills of bureaucracy and the wagons of deportation.

It took only a day to outline a “final solution to the Jewish question in Europe” at Wannsee in 1942; but to build a Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) in Berlin took until 2005, when Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial was inaugurated after years of controversy. Formally refer- ring to the Berlin memorial, In Memoriam deconstructs Eisenman’s grid and replaces its concrete stelae with man-high cardboard boxes—like newspapers, a recurrent element in Metzger’s palette of materials. While in its first room the stelae stand in a neat and still passable order, in the second they become a claustrophobic labyrinth prohibiting any passage: a dead end (the very place in which Benjamin and so many others found themselves). Metzger’s sharp take on history cuts deep.

Eva Scharrer