Gustav Metzger and Gerhard Rühm began their careers in the 1960s. In this period – one not exactly lacking in radicality and transgression – Metzger was an especially radical figure. Beginning in 1959, his engagement with issues like the nuclear arms race and environmental degradation led him to develop the concept of Auto-Destructive art. Metzger, in a 1959 manifesto, defines this as ‘a form of public art for industrial societies’ that addresses the destructive potential of the 20th century. In 1966, he then organized the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) in London, where the Vienna Actionists made their first international appearance (and where Metzger and Rühm first met).
Looking back today, it’s clear that subsequent shows of Metzger’s works, as at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, have almost turned on its head Metzger’s image as a political artist and activist. In Kassel, there were numerous vitrine tables containing relatively conventional drawings and oil sketches from his student days. As if to protect them from excess light, these vitrines were covered with lengths of felt that could be lifted to view the drawings, giving the works an added aura.
The two pieces by Metzger in this joint show, entitled Mass Media / Media Mess, returned to portraying him as a fighter. In keeping with Metzger’s political stance, neither work was for sale. Upon entering the space, one immediately came across a huge, bright yellow cloth on the floor (Historic Photographs: To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938, 1996/2013). Visitors were free to crawl under the cloth where, in this very intimate setting, they could look at an infamous scene from Vienna’s past: a Jewish man surrounded by a jeering, gawking crowd while he scrubs the street in 1938, the year Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. Here, seeing becomes a physically overtaxing and troubling experience. Perception fails: so close up, the picture cannot actually be seen.
The installation in the next room also actively involved the viewer: stacks of newspapers filled the space, creating a massive sculptural block (Mass Media: Today and Yesterday, 2013). With the provided scissors, visitors could select cuttings and pin them to the wall, as if creating some kind of alternative version of events. But in contrast to the stacked up media mass, the commentaries made by visitors in their recombined images and headlines inevitably remained powerless.
Gerhard Rühm co-founded the Vienna Group (1954–60). In his work, he has taken a stance that extends literature into the realms of both fine art and music. And he, too, is interested in the interlinking of media and politics. A former piano and composition student, he contributed several series of works on paper that could all be described as ‘media scores’. For the series zeitungsrissbilder, die woche vom 4. bis 8. Oktober 2010 (newspaper rip pictures, 4–8 October 2010) he tore the covers of the daily newspaper DIE WELT Kompakt into strips then reassembled them slightly offset. In Leseinseln (Reading Islands, 2011) he painted over the same pages with broad strokes of black paint, leaving only isolated circles uncovered, like soap bubbles. These random, deconstructed pieces convey a peculiar autonomy and presence, even if they don’t communicate a clear ‘meaning’. With no news value, the magnified individual word and image fragments become positively eerie.
In the series geistliche gesänge and deutsche volkslieder (spiritual songs, german folk songs, both 1993–4), he juxtaposes individual press photographs with lines from old songs in the form of collages mounted on black cardboard. Between segments of ‘entfalte deine Schwingen … flieg zu Feinliebchens Haus!’ (spread your wings, fly home to your sweetheart!), for example, he placed an image of a seabird killed by an oil slick (flieg’, vogel ,flieg’, fly bird fly, 1993). For all the causticity of their content, these collages are appealing in their formal elegance and rhythm. Rühm shows his wilder side when he draws directly onto the sheet music, as seen in five pieces from the series visuelle musik (visual music, 1986–99). Here, gestural notation is combined with a fiercely bitter language. The text of Ohne Titel (Aus der Serie visuelle Musik; Österreichischer Alt- und Neonazimarsch (Ära Waldheim) für Hackbrett und Vergaser) (untitled, from the visual music series; march of Austria’s old and neo-Nazis, Waldheim era, for dulcimer and carburettor, 1987) simply states: ‘Juden rrraus!!! Demonstranten nach Sibirien!!!’ (Jews Out!!! Protesters, go to Siberia!!!).
Exhibited together, in all their polemic directness, Metzger and Rühm appear today as two erratic historical vestiges. They stand the test of time remarkably well – and they do, in fact, still mean it all seriously.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell