“I thought one could fuse the political ideal of social change with art”
Emma Ridgway, curator of The RSA Arts & Ecology Centre, interviews Gustav Metzger
Born in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents in Nuremberg, Gustav Metzger is an artist known for his radical approach. His work responds directly to political, economic and ecological issues. Creating manifestos and events in the UK since the early 1960s, he developed the concept of Auto-Destructive Art and Art Strike movements, which addressed destructive drives both in capitalism and the art industry. He still makes challenging work and his ideas continue to be influential.
Before we recorded this interview, we watched the short film, Unfolding the Aryan Papers (2009), by artists Jane and Louise Wilson. "That, was brilliant", he said afterwards. The film is a sensitive portrayal of the actress that Stanley Kubrick intended to use in a 1990s film about the holocaust. After his rigorous research, Kubrick felt emotionally unable to make his film. For Gustav Metzger, a holocaust survivor, work by younger artists addressing events of political importance is vital — it adds to the ways we understand contemporary society and each other. We also discussed the successes of Jeremy Deller’s provocative project It is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq (2009), for which he toured a bombed car from Iraq around the USA.
This interview focuses on Gustav Metzger’s "appeals" to artists to engage with contemporary political developments.
Emma Ridgway: It’d be good to start with a quick overview of some of your recent projects. Flailing Trees is a large commission for the Manchester International Festival in July. And in the autumn, the Serpentine Gallery will hold a substantial survey exhibition of your work. Our last interview focused on your Reduce Art Flights project (RAF, 2008) – could you give a brief description of that project please?
Gustav Metzger: Well, that is connected with the art world. It came out of a concern that I felt with the transportation of artworks and people all over the world. And in particular with the art fair, which is held in Basel but also in Miami in the United States. A similar organisation organises these two fairs. And in the Basel fair it was announced that people who want to attend the Miami fair would get half price aeroplane tickets. And that really upset me and got me started with the proposal to appeal, (as that’s all you can do), to "appeals" to the art community not to travel too much and not to go from place to place as they tend to do. It was two years ago that I made this proposal.
There are other "appeals" in your work to the artistic community. One was Years Without Art, suggesting that people should give up making art for a period.
For three years, 1977 - 1980, that was the term I proposed. And that was put forward in the ICA catalogue, Art Into Society — Society Into Art: Seven German Artists, in an exhibition that took place in 1974.
Your Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto (1959) proposed a new way of making art. Art that would de-materialise through its making, so the art object would be destroyed as it was being created; the intention was that nothing would remain that could contribute to the art market economy. Is that account about right?
Yes, that’s a good summary, yes.
A while ago we watched a re-creation of the light projections of the Acid Action Paintings (1963 onwards). It was at the Self-Cancellation event held at Beaconsfield Gallery, London (2008), which was in response to your Auto-Destructive Art Manifestos. The projection showed acid being painted on nylon slides and included amplified sounds of the disintegration process. You commented on the beauty of it, comparing it to a Rothko painting, so it wasn’t just the concept of the work you found compelling.
Yes, it was astonishing because colour came through. When I originally projected acid on nylon, beginning in February 1963, all the images on the screen were black and white — and here, for some reason or other that I could never understand - they had colour on the screen and it was indeed breath-taking and startling and a completely fresh experience for me and for the audience.
Yes it was very striking. And would you talk specifically about your appeals to artists to be more open about the personal position, as regards ethics and politics?
In the broadest sense it is a question of artists being part of a much wider community — a world community — and facing up to the world-wide conditions that may make future life impossible. To oppose those world developments that are extremely destructive. Taking moral standpoints and from there moving into political activities, however modest, to affect the world.
And we have talked about doing an informal event with artists on UN World Environment Day on 5 June at the Whitechapel Gallery [photo above from left: Jeremy Deller, Emma Ridgway, Gustav Metzger, Cornelia Parker - Whitechapel Gallery, London, 5 June 2009] to discuss this question of responsibility. As part of the brilliant re-opening of the Whitechapel gallery there is a beautiful David Bomberg work from the beginning of the 20th century — he taught you didn't he?
Yes, I was in his class in the autumn of 1945 until the summer of 1953 when Bomberg retired from teaching and then planned to go to Spain. Of course, I wasn’t there all the time, I would also be going to other classes, I spent one year at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. But Bomberg, throughout those study years, was the central figure whom influenced me and encouraged me and taught me a great deal.
He was counted as part of the Vorticists group at some points — is that right?
Well he was on the edge of the group; he never joined and he never wanted to be part of it. He specially refused to sign the Vorticists manifesto, which Wyndham Lewis urged him to do, to sign. So it's a complex relationship. Certainly Vorticism and Bomberg’s work at a certain time, around 1914 or so, was going in a similar direction.
You were an activist before you were an artist. Was there a particular moment, or was it through Bomberg, that you decided that contemporary politics was going to be a core part of your work?
Yes, my interest in politics was there from the age of around 17. That was in wartime, around 1942 – 43, when I was living in Leeds and there I almost completely converted to the idea of becoming some sort of revolutionary figure –art at that point had no place in my conception of the future. It was only in the late summer of 1944, when I felt I would move away from the ideal of becoming a political activist to becoming an artist. So moving into art was a way of moving forward without giving up the political interest; because I thought one could fuse the political ideal of social change with art. For example, the writing of Eric Gill who was both an artist and a craftsman and politically involved was a kind of inspiration to me. I could see this possibility of using the ideas of social change within art, with art and not simply through political, economic activity.
Sometimes we visit exhibitions together and discuss the work. On a number of occasions you have been disinterested in the work because it lacked any political bite or ethical aspect. Is this something you feel artists work must contain?
Yes, I think that is inescapable and the more the world changes, is changing, in the direction of more speed and more activities. And the more that happens the more necessary it is for people to stand back and, not merely in the art sphere but in every sphere of intellectual activity, to stand back and distance oneself and come up with alternative ways of dealing with reality than going along with a direction that is essentially catastrophic and consuming itself and turning itself into a numbers game. Where the technology, especially the technology of the mobile phones and this endless sound machinery that people force into their biological mechanism, seems to be unstoppable; and the more it goes on, the more we need to stand aside and distance ourselves from this rush towards destruction.
I know you’ve spoken many times about the rush to destruction; the destructive drive that’s part of people. But there’s also, in the 40s, Erich Fromm’s writing, such as his "Humanist Credo" and his writing on the love of life. I’m thinking of his concept of "Biophilia", the love of living things, of ecology (be it people or plants, for example), which creates and generates in people a great positive surge in life and love in a very profound way. Do you think that the positive living drive is as big as the destructive drive?
I would imagine that if it is in terms of numbers I would think it would be bigger than that destructive drive. Otherwise we would have gone by now. And so I think the drive towards life is overwhelming, yes, I would say that.
An area that repeatedly comes up in contemporary culture and in the field of art is a particular form of cynicism toward politics and ethics; an inverted attitude towards social change and the idea that you could have any impact. Would you talk about your position on this trend of cynicism and disinterest regarding politics?
Well is it a great problem. And that people adapt to the general direction, that is driven by politics, by the current political parties, and by the system in which we live — which is all about producing and consuming and making and keeping on making. The term growth is at the centre of it all and growth is all to do with numbers rather than values.
Growth leads towards self-destruction and towards machinery breaking down, and towards machinery made to break down so that you can replace it so that you can go on borrowing money, spending it, and accumulating. That is what we know as the capitalist system. This system is inherently cynical, it is inherently throwaway — and damaging in all conceivable directions — in the production of food and transport systems. And artists go along with it, reflect it and that means they then support it — and this is what I have been criticising now and all my life: that people should bow down to the main direction of society, which is crippling. Only recently we have seen how capitalism can be extremely self destructive, barely surviving – but I would like to add to this current discussion: I believe capitalism will come out of this crisis and will actually be stronger than before because they will have learnt lessons, and they will apply these lessons in order to maintain the system and maintain their power. So the idea that because of this so called credit crunch, and because the weakness of capitalism has been so damagingly exposed, that’s not going to stop the system. It will learn new tricks and I would suggest that in 10 years time capitalism will flourish as never before.
But do you hope that within that there will have been lessons learnt?
Yes, lessons learnt on how to protect the system how to make it work even better, that is what they are going to do. They are intelligent enough and determined enough and they have so much at stake, to make it survive.
But in terms of state systems of governance, for example within the UK, public services like the NHS, clean water, education — infrastructures that are set out to provide a better quality of life for the largest number of people,these are within the capitalist system. Erm, what point am I making? Oh yeah — any governance system should set out to do that, to my mind. So are you fundamentally against the idea of centralised government?
No I’m not, I think one has to have centralised government, and the police to protect people, so it’s a question of a government that is wiser and that is prepared to stand up for people rather than for financial systems.
And we were talking before about Raymond Williams, and this beautiful quote "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing."
Yes, I think that art, if it is practiced genuinely, is certainly away from the destruction that is in us and away from the destructivity in society. And so I remain certain that the drive towards art, the possibility of art is of the utmost importance, and is inherently sound. The criticism that one has of a certain type of art of today is that is that there is not enough inner energy towards life in that art. That is one of my concerns that the art and the artists don’t give themselves sufficient opportunity to drift into the depths of humanity, the depths of nature, and from those depths come out like a swimmer, coming out from the depths and breathing deeply. Art, I believe, needs to sink into the centre of a human being, come up, and that will be hope - the art will be hope. The art will have the energy and the wisdom out of the deep entering into oneself and into nature.
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