London

Gustav Metzger, Historic Photographs: No. 1: Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, April 19—28 days, 1943, 1995/2009, black-and-white photograph mounted on Foamex board, rubble. From the series “Historic Photographs,” 1990–. Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones.

Gustav Metzger, Historic Photographs: No. 1: Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, April 19—28 days, 1943, 1995/2009, black-and-white photograph mounted on Foamex board, rubble. From the series “Historic Photographs,” 1990–. Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones.

Gustav Metzger

Serpentine Galleries

Gustav Metzger, Historic Photographs: No. 1: Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, April 19—28 days, 1943, 1995/2009, black-and-white photograph mounted on Foamex board, rubble. From the series “Historic Photographs,” 1990–. Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones.

AFTER A DECADE of producing abstract paintings, Gustav Metzger began a new phase of his career when, in 1959, he wrote his manifestos of “auto-destructive art,” aiming to harness the destructive powers of modernity for aesthetic experimentation. Importantly, such writings were from the start presented alongside formal pronouncements of intent: for instance, Cardboards, 1959, a group of found, flattened boxes; and Bag, 1959, a clear plastic bag, also found, filled with cast-off packing materials and fabric. The ancillary quality of these objects highlighted the processes in industrialized capitalism whereby things (and people) are deemed either valuable or disposable. Through object lessons placed in the gallery context, Metzger’s purpose was thus shown to be twofold: While focusing on the destruction wrought by society, he also sought to relentlessly engender debate, hoping to cultivate and address a public sphere where the contradictions he saw attending modernity could be discussed and its perils and cruelties fought. It is in this spirit that his first manifesto describes auto-destructive art as “primarily a form of public art for industrial societies.”

The Serpentine Gallery’s “Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959–2009,” curated by Julia Peyton-Jones, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Sophie O’Brien, was the first large-scale overview of Metzger’s work in London—the first in the UK in more than a decade—and it presented these first articulations of auto-destructive art. (Like many of the works on view, Bag was newly remade for the exhibition, while Cardboards was on view as a small documentary photograph.) Appropriately for a retrospective of a living artist, however, the exhibition opened with a work from 2009, MASS MEDIA: Today and Yesterday, a large, tidy stack of newspapers, published between 1995 and the present, borrowed from Metzger’s own vast trove, a few of which can be browsed for articles relating to three topical themes (“the credit crunch,” “extinction,” and “the way we live now”). Newspapers have featured prominently in Metzger’s oeuvre since the early 1960s. The very disposable nature of the daily paper echoes the impermanence of auto-destructive art. Yet if the constant newness of newspapers incarnates the adage “Time marches on,” then to preserve them, and to ask audiences to engage them again, is to protect their historical contents against the amnesiac world.

This melancholy compulsion to stockpile a shared history brings the artist’s concerns with the ephemeral to bear on a broader social existence. Metzger’s intriguing early maquettes and plans for disintegrating public sculptures make this particularly explicit, but unfortunately these were excluded from the exhibition. For instance, Five Screens with Computer—an automated sculpture, proposed in the mid-’60s, that would violently expel fragments of itself into the housing project surrounding it—comprised an attempt, in the artist’s words, to “initiate a series of controversies that can become a kind of mass-therapy as well as educational program.” (Put another way, Metzger sought to bring together destruction and the public sphere to create a third element: therapeutic social confrontation.) In the absence of such key auto-destructive projects here, Harold Liversidge’s documentary film Auto-Destructive Art—The Activities of G. Metzger (1963) brought the artist’s public art to life most vividly. In the film, Metzger reenacts for the camera an earlier public “lecture/demonstration” in which he sprayed stretched nylon canvases with acid, “painting” absence into the surface by giving corrosion itself an uncanny agency. Even as he intended to reject and circumvent the conventional art system—his dematerialization of the art object could not have been more literal—this work applies auto-destructive processes, and their attendant political charge, directly to aesthetic material.

Metzger’s still-provocative auto-destructive works were, however, mostly overlooked here in favor of work emphasizing ecological issues, historical violence, and visual pleasure. Liquid Crystal Environment, 2005–2009, provided much of the latter; this re-creation of 1960s experiments consists of a five-screen slide projection whose abstract, psychedelic compositions are generated by liquid crystal as it is heated and cooled. The exhibition also presented several works that reveal the polluting effects of cars—e.g., by showing stains left by their accumulated fumes—but their proffer of empirical facts, while motivated by strong conviction, comes across as simplistic, particularly compared with his auto-destructive art’s nuanced ambivalence toward technology and its radical synthesis of formal process and political action. Metzger’s well-known “Historic Photographs” series, 1990–, presents disturbing, iconic imagery of the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict half or fully concealed—for instance, the famous photograph of children running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War is hidden by a bamboo mat until a light is turned on behind it—but by now such defamiliarizing tactics feel all too familiar.

Metzger has frequently organized symposia, lectures, and discussions, and in connection with this exhibition he is planning a conference on mass extinction. Given that fostering political knowledge, debate, and action has been a central aim of his practice, it is important to ask what role art currently plays. Is art in fact now better equipped to facilitate a synthesis of the public and private spheres than to inspire confrontation and debate? In light of these questions, another absence becomes conspicuous: The exhibition lacked any documentation of The Years Without Art 1977–80, Metzger’s three-year abstinence from art production, or of much of the distinctly anti-capitalist, anti–art establishment aspect of his approach—the side of Metzger that regarded art as a system to challenge, or even abolish, while he simultaneously sought to reconfigure its common language.

Travels to the Musée Départemental d’Art Contemporain de Rochechouart, France, Mar. 1–June 15; Fondazione Galleria Civica–Centro di Ricerca Sulla Contemporaneità di Trento, Italy, Sept.–Dec.

Melanie Gilligan, an artist and writer, is completing a film that will be featured in solo exhibitions at Chisenhale Gallery, London and the Kölnischer Kunstverein.