Gustav Metzger Decades: 1959 - 2009
The Serpentine Gallery
London W2 3XA
29 September through 8 November, 2009
Metzger and the outside.
Where do you start with an artist such as Gustav Metzger? What angle do you propose to come in at, and how to build a cohesive argument for or against his practice? The Serpentine gallery based in the luscious grounds of Kensington Gardens sets the stanza for Metzger’s most recent retrospective. Decades: 1959 - 2009, is a complex exhibition which speaks on a host of proliferations; new work alongside older and more famous pieces, re-associating the audience with the varied authorial narratives deep within Metzger’s on-going relationship between art and politics. Each statement an investigation taken by Metzger, serves to form an interwoven almost gestural stab at the very build and systemization of our current condition.
It is the kinetic energy in Metzgers practice which is so astounding. The way the artist produces work with such political vibrance, while maintaining an informed and often terrifying rigor remains ever impressive. Metzger is an artist not for the faint-hearted and his practice is often misunderstood as intimidating. His politicization is radical even today, thus, when it first came to light that Metzger would be showing at the Serpentine the first thought was, 'had the artist gotten soft in his old age?'. Had the strident backed down for a comfortable life, situating himself amongst his most valued and adoring fans? Well, the answer, like Metzger himself, is not at all straight forward. His politicization is not a feverish moment of what could be consumed as institutional critique. Far from it, the inventor of auto-destructive art is beyond the avid, and sometimes scarily rhetorical moment which situates institutional critique, as dramatically inward-looking. In light of this, Metzger’s work is confident and difficult. His subject matters move from the Holocaust, to his hatred of cars, the fierce anti-art-production mooted through his many re-worked ‘auto-destructive’ manifestos. As well as a 3 year art strike, and last but not least, his suggestion that our undoing is the expanse of our own production and consumption, in light of mass media excess. By nature Metzger’s practice stretches beyond the mere art factory and into a critique far more deeply inherent; a sideways slice into the very structures we inherently rely on and abide by.
As soon as you walk into the Serpentine, you are fronted with a new piece of work, Mass Media; Today and Yesterday, 2009, is a mix media piece asking gallery visitors to choose an extract from one of the many newspapers collected and piled high by Metzger. The viewer is then asked, with assistance from gallery staff, to place it on the magnetic wall behind. It’s a fine line between subjectivity and objectivity; a relationship between Metzger’s choice of the specific newspapers on offer and the viewers choice of extract. Sublime and alluring, this kind of extraction serves to almost make a fetish of our relationship to the media, highlighting the contradiction between the need to know and the way to obtain information. A difficult and often counterproductive discipline between ignorance and actual understanding, themes which often seem to cross the vast expanse of Metzger’s practice.
This show hints subtly at the many different approaches adopted and re-worked by Metzger. His most famous piece of work to date, Liquid Crystal Environment, 1965 is also featured in this retrospective, and will no doubt send the critics reeling. Erstwhile Metzger tributes will flood in, congratulating the Serpentine for yet again curating a seminal artist into displaying a critics-choice-cut. With this in mind, I’d like to step through the black curtains sheltering this work from the rest of the gallery, and gather my thoughts on the other remarkable works within the curatorial belly of this show. It has to be remembered that this is a show of an artist born in Nuremberg, Germany and from Polish-Jewish decent, who as a child was sent over to England, stateless and nomadic, who spent many years striking from the art world at what could have been perceived as being the height of his career. That toys performatively with suggestion as much with declaration. Metzger’s work revels in the communication we attribute to history, politics and the decisions we make in our day to day life. Ontologically methodological, his desires sweep through the enclaves of his ability to still disturb the viewer by teasing the actual possibility of objectivity.
His altercations with the Holocaust are amongst his most valued contributions to the art and politics debate. As part of his Historic Photographs series, Metzger has appropriated a wide variety of documentation substantiating the ever-present reality of the second world war. In the left hand gallery the viewer is confronted with photographs depicting moments of degradation and humiliation felt by the Jewish community in the build up and abandon of the Holocaust. Metzger’s mis en scène is to stage the event of such photography through obstruction. In his work Historic Photographs: No 1: Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto: April 19 - 28 days, 1943 1995/ 2009, Metzger has piled bricks and rubble covering half of the photograph, equally two other images are covered with fabric, with the viewer finding themselves either crawling hands and knees over the image or craning their neck to get a glance into the other. Metzger makes the transition between accessibility and access to knowledge intrinsically difficult on purpose. Not to shelter the viewer from the darkness these glimpses into the past hold, but to strike a cord that what is actually at stake when coming across such reminders is not as simple as mere reminder; that by forcing the viewer into a corner where-by the image needs work to figure out, the actual will and interrogation, the actual understanding of the image becomes one more thorough and thought provoking; that history is often glanced at through pages in books, googled or obtusely scanned and copied from wikipedia entries, never painstakingly stared at or forced, the photograph a momentary slip between what we think we understand and the attention we give to trying to actually comprehend.
This kind of demolition of substance gathers more and more momentum as the viewer paces into the right hand gallery of the Serpentine. Again, part of the Historic Photographs series, Metzger’s almost sardonic slant towards the performative is highlighted in his installation Historic Photographs: Kill the Cars, Camden Town, London 1996 1996 / 2009, a black and white photograph of children jumping mercilessly above a beaten up car, the image itself impaired by the presence of an actual beaten and battered vehicle in front, the sound of a child's voice sings out intermittently ‘Kill the car! Kill the car!’ It’s a sorrowful reflection on the state of society, not through the vein of riot or protest, far from it, but from the aspect that the passenger is diluted and dilapidated, surrendering to the promise of consumption, shackled to possession. Metzger's artistic infrastructure is one which uses tropes such as manifestos and cars to ultimately underpin an on-going fascination with the often-seductive madness of humanities will and intention. The blindsightedness that it could be humanly possible to suggest something ‘other’ whilst at the same time applauding the fact that we ever do question.
What is so impressive about this study of Metzger’s work and achievements is that the artist himself feels so present, his work is movingly auto-biographical, but not in a romantic or distant way. His journey through life is more than interesting, it’s impressive by rote of Metzger’s very own position, a view point which for most of the artists life time remained objectively outside, looking in. This gives the work its character and imagination, its emotion and constructive rebellion. Which brings me to my favourite piece in the show. An up turned tree rooted in a block of concrete sits silently, a nod towards Metzger’s contribution to the Manchester International Festival earlier this year, which saw the artist contributing 21 inverted willow trees, entitled Flailing Trees. The trees roots exposed and stretching from the trunk buried deep into grey cement. What is so remarkable about this work is the complex up-turned narrative, the back to front nature, the obtuse angle. The incorrect perspective, as supposed to the obvious one. Thus, when faced with a question such as how best to unpick Metzger the only possible answer could be; the hardest way. The artist whose very life has been an up hill struggle maintains through his work that very opulence, lifes broken difficulty. Thus when Metzger uproots the tree he doesn’t suppose you suggest that either the task of uprooting it was easy, or that you should turn your head to see it correctly, supposing the need to form a true version of events. The perspective of reality is as dark as the suggestion we throuw about trying to grasp hold of it. Metzger reminds the viewer that history isn’t basic, politics is more abstract than obvious, and the essence Metzger triumphs over many others is the injustice embedded within the very complicity of life itself.
Sophie Risner is a freelance art writer and critic living in London. "I am less art critic and more art writer - I find the idea of critiquing art through writing difficult in a purely formalist fashion. I often lean towards the difficulty of language as a way into the inherent difficulty of art. Embracing all aspects which observe and inspire artist practice as a way to create a more fruitful and less didactic approach."view all articles from this author