The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Auto-Destruction

October 1, 2009

Gustav Metzger, pioneer of Auto-Destructive art, is the focus of a current retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery. A retrospective that’s actually rather good. I went along yesterday and was pleasantly surprised to see Gustav Metzger – now 84, and looking it – propped up against a wall in the East room of the gallery. Suspecting it was him, but not being sure, it became apparent when watching a video of his activities from the 60s – making his acid paintings, destroying buildings – that it was indeed him, and that a man who’s spent a life investigating the destructive contradictions of technological and mechanical progress, was not immune to the rather prosaic unfolding of nature’s auto-destruction.

Early on it becomes apparent that Metzger is an artist of displacement. Born in Germany, and moved as part of the Kindertransport child refugee scheme that relocated thousands of, predominantly Jewish children, prior to the Second World War, his work is concerned with the analysis of the destructive power of technology. There is his collection of newspapers – the centre of an interactive exhibit where visitors are asked to select articles that fit into topics of extinction, the way we live now, and the credit crunch – a mood of reflection on the current state of the global economy, the impact of recession and the underlying destructive nature of capitalism that confronts nature, to its detriment, on a daily basis. Again this is reflected in Metzger’s upturned trees, a response to Global Warming, and his Stockholm Project that concentrated the effects of pollution into a plastic construction over the course of seven days.

What underpins Metzger’s work is a sense of astonishment at the cultural superstructure. Adorno, writing in California during the Second World War, issued a number of often scathing attacks on American culture, the ersatz nature of Los Angeles, and the invasive urban and suburban planning that he equates to a a rape of nature. Adorno’s writing from this period should not be dismissed as a dismissal of American culture, but as an analysis of Western culture as a whole. There is a studied disbelief in a man who was witnessed the effects of concentration camps on the populations of Europe, and sees the same prefabricated structures used in huge housing tracts in suburban Los Angeles.

It’s this same disbelief in the inherent contradictions of capitalism that Metzger studies in his work. The most affecting aspect of the exhibit are his historical photographs, hidden from view by steel, bamboo screen, or part obscured by a mound of rubble. The large-scale photographs obscured by cloth, one hanging on the wall of the gallery, and one on the floor, forces visitors to confront the images with out the mediation of distance. In crawling under the cloth that covers the photo – an image of the ghetto with Jews being forced to clean the floors on hands and knees while others stand around watching – the scope and subject of the image is only revealed incrementally. To talk of empathy would perhaps be crass – being that crawling across the floor of the gallery would appear to bear little in relation to the situation of those in a similar bodily position in the image – but the impact is stronger for proximity and mode of the viewing.

Just a final note on a couple of the descriptions that Metzger offers for larger installations here. It’s a shame that the larger projects remained conceptual as opposed to concrete, hampered, I imagine, by a lack of funding available for expensive works that will destroy themselves and yield no return on investment. It would certainly have made my one-time commute to work more interesting to see Metzger’s monolithic cube engaged in the silent process of destruction from inside out.

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