Protest and Survive
An interview with Gustav Metzger, one of the key figures of postwar British art
An interview with Gustav Metzger, one of the key figures of postwar British art
Gustav Metzger is one of the central figures of postwar British avant-garde art. He was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Nuremberg in 1926 and arrived in London in 1939, with the help of the Refugee Children’s Movement. He is best known for his demonstrations of ‘auto-destructive art’, notably the presentation at the South Bank in London in 1961, and for his part in the organization of DIAS – the Destruction in Art Symposium – in 1966, an event that brought to London key figures associated with Fluxus and Viennese Actionism. In 1969 Metzger collaborated with rock bands including Cream and The Who, accompanying their concerts with multiple liquid crystal projections. His environmental projects and campaigns are less renowned but now appear as crucial precedents for many contemporary projects – for instance, Simon Starling’s Kartenhaus, shown at Portikus, Frankfurt in 2002. In their connection to the history of the Holocaust, Metzger’s works with cars anticipate Santiago Sierra’s 2006 project to pump exhaust fumes into a sealed disused synagogue in Stommeln, Germany. A 2006 recipient of a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Visual Arts, Metzger continues to produce new work, all the while responding to invitations to execute proposals dating from the 1960s and 1970s (for instance, from the curators of the Sharjah Biennial) – some of which have not been realized until now.
Mark Godfrey: I’ve heard you are involved in a new campaign about ecological issues, in particular about the art world’s overuse of aeroplanes and transportation.
Gustav Metzger: At last year’s Art Basel I felt that something should or could be done in relation to the flights, both of artists and gallery people, and the transportation of works of art.
MG: What was your idea?
GM: The idea is to launch a campaign called RAF. This stands for ‘reduce art flights’, but in Britain it’s also an acronym for the Royal Air Force, and in Germany for the Red Army Faction – there are a number of echoes within the title. Anyway, nothing came of it in Basel, but I thought I could do something at the Frieze Art Fair. This could have been picked up, but I did not pick it up, nor did anybody else. Then I was involved in the 24-hour talk marathon at the Serpentine Gallery, and I brought it up in the course of my statement. This was mentioned in the Artforum coverage of the event.
MG: So it’s a potential campaign that you’ve talked about but haven’t realized?
GM: Yes. I have been invited to take part in the Münster sculpture project. In connection with that, I was invited to the city for a couple of days and, going through the Stadtmuseum there, I came across a black and red Royal Air Force poster from about 1942, and it occurred to me that this could be used in relation to Münster, which was flattened during the war from about 150 air raids. And so it would be possible to have a campaign based on this particular poster that uses the colours and various combinations or meanings of RAF. It would be declared Münster’s Second Bombardment. But there are several problems I have in launching this campaign. One is that the leaflet could become a collector’s item, and the other is that I am in a state of withdrawal from publicity. I don’t like to say, ‘follow me’: I find it embarrassing and difficult. I am doing another project, though. I read that the Allied bombardment of Münster destroyed 80 to 90 percent of the city, and it was done in retaliation for the German attack in 1940 on Coventry and Coventry Cathedral. So for 109 days in Münster there will be a series of stones laid, in 109 different places in the city, in commemoration of the bombardment. A forklift truck will move around each day, depositing stones at specific points. We are also trying to get Coventry to do the same, and are working on it.
MG: Why are you using forklift trucks?
GM: I’m fascinated by them. In 2003, at T1&2 Artspace in the East End of London, I had an exhibition entitled ‘100,000 Newspapers’. During the show the gallery held the world’s first congress on forklift trucks. Ever since, I’ve wanted to use forklift trucks. They are rather aggressive and have a particular way of behaving.
MG: This summer will see an unprecedented amount of art travel, with people flying from all over the world to Venice, and then to Basel, Kassel and Münster. But travel in the art world has been increasing since the late 1960s, when you began to show your work. At what point did you begin to think that art-world tourism was worth addressing?
GM: At Basel, last year. At that point there wasn’t much discussion in the press about flights, and I don’t mind saying that at different times I have been a little ahead of events.
MG: Yet over the last 25 years institutions such as Tate Modern have become receptive to art from China, from South America and from Eastern Europe, places that were traditionally not represented in major Western museums. The expansion of the art world – which necessarily involves transport – has had a positive side. What do you think of this?
GM: There are positive benefits, yes. Communication and information are at the centre of our civilization. But my objection to flights is also an objection to the massive commercial growth of the art industry, the dealers and the auctions. I’ve talked about this since the early 1960s. This centres on my ongoing and endless opposition to capitalism and my attempt to discuss issues. I suffer from this not being recognized.
MG: But I think it’s a very obvious part of your work. In 1974 you proposed Years Without Art: 1977–1980, a three-year strike by artists. By producing no new work, you imagined that artists could cripple the market – which obviously was a heroic failure inasmuch as no one stopped making art. Similarly, the same fate may await this new project of reducing art flights: it won’t have an actual effect on the number of flights that people take; in fact, more people will go to Münster to see this very project. So what do you still believe to be the value of launching campaigns that will have a limited success?
GM: This is one reason I haven’t launched any campaigns in the last few decades. And the other aspect of this is that, when something is happening in society, I don’t see the point of me coming in and duplicating it. In my life my work has quite consciously entered areas which others have not reached, which others are not interested in reaching. For example, in 1959 I was walking through Fulham, on the edge of Chelsea, and there was this cardboard box on the street that staggered me, and which I eventually exhibited at 14 Monmouth Street in Covent Garden. And from then onwards the direction of much art of the early 1960s was all about finding niches that others hadn’t explored, finding discarded or neglected materials or ideas. Now, when everybody is speaking of global warming, I question whether this is something I should be pursuing.
MG: I think it would be interesting to see a project that did address the ecological cost of this period of exhibitions in Europe, in terms of the carbon footprint of documenta and Venice, say. Do you see ‘Reduce Art Flights’ as going beyond a poster project and becoming something that addresses practical ways in which art-world tourism could become carbon-neutral?
GM: I don’t think I would go in that direction at present. So much is happening in this area worldwide, it would simply be a drop in the ocean. I would rather spend my energy on developing as an artist, and seriously making works of art. I believe it is the duty of the artist to do that, the duty of a person who has certain capacities. Art is at the very centre of society, in my view. I’ve thought that since I started to make art at the age of 18. Yet in the last ten years art was made for me, rather than by me, by photographers, technicians and, of course, curators. So now I would very much like to spend time physically with my hands and my body and my feelings. I want to sit somewhere and do drawings, and eventually paintings – I want to make something that will then stand for me, and next to me.
MG: That’s an incredible thing to hear. For most people who have followed your work for the last ten years it would come as a surprise that you want to put your energies into a handmade art practice.
GM: Well, I need to reorganize myself, in order to pursue this. But again, I wouldn’t give up what I’ve been doing for the last ten or 30, 50 years; it can go in tandem.
MG: But to return to projects that you’ve done that relate to the environment. In the recent Sharjah Biennial you reconstructed a version of one of the projects that you first proposed in the 1970s. These projects involved lining up cars and fixing their exhausts so that they would pump into a kind of a clear plastic structure that would cloud up during the course of an exhibition. One project, Project Stockholm, June (Phase 1), was conceived for the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972; it involved 120 cars. The project was never realized. Can you say something about the invitation to make it for the first time in Sharjah?
GM: Actually my work with cars and exhausts dates back earlier. The first idea was to get a lorry with an open platform on the back. I wanted to construct a plastic structure on the lorry that would be fed by its exhaust: that concept was around 1964. Then in 1970 I realized a work called Mobbile, which comprised a small car. Its exhaust went into a plastic box, and in the box there were bits of meat hanging and flowers and green stuff. The car was driven around near the Hayward Gallery, where there was a show of kinetic art. Then in 1972 I was invited to take part in the inaugural show at Gallery House in London, which was part of the Goethe Institute, with Stuart Brisley and Marc Camille Chaimowicz. I was given an entire floor, with five or six rooms, and in the first one I exhibited the model for Stockholm; it’s this project that was realized recently at Sharjah.
MG: It’s extraordinary that you were thinking about the connection between pollution and art back in 1972. So many artists were interested in systems and in physical processes, but few addressed environmental matters in this way. There are some resonances, though, between yours and Hans Haacke’s early work.
GM: I met him at a private view at Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, when he was a very young man, in the spring of 1964, and he kindly invited me to his studio, but I couldn’t go, as I had to go to Holland early the next morning. But if I had gone, I would have seen his early kinetic works with water running down Perspex boxes. So there’s a very direct link with my work, and early Haacke.MG: But, I think your work addresses pollution in a way that, at least at that point, his work didn’t.
GM: Yes. Another aspect of this strand of my work occurred when Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah came out in 1985. It is nine hours with intervals. I was completely knocked out by a section that dealt with the origins of the concentration camp deaths. It’s documented very clearly that the first experiments involved putting Jews into sealed lorries and pumping exhaust fumes into the back. It came as a deep shock to me to realize there was a connection between the works I had been planning and the original Nazi experiments for gas chambers, but deep down I must have sensed that connection all along.
MG: I’d like to come back to this subject in a moment, but I want to finish asking you about the ‘exhaust’ pieces. As well as Mobbile and the Project Stockholm, June, you made a proposal for the famous 1972 documenta and another, in 1992, for the occasion of the UN environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro called Earth Minus Environment. Why was the documenta project never realized?
GM: I had two letters from Harald Szeemann inviting me to take part in documenta. I didn’t reply. One day I was talking with artists at the ICA in London, and in walks a man with a beard: Szeemann. We spent the rest of the day talking and eating nice Indian food. I sketched out a proposal for documenta titled KARBA. This only involved four cars positioned around a three-metre plastic cube. Szeemann said that the technicians could execute it and that I didn’t need to come to Kassel to oversee the work. Anyhow, it wasn’t made, and so I was never in documenta, except in the catalogue.
MG: And you don’t know why it wasn’t done?
GM: I had to very quickly send in a biography and bibliography and a proposal. To give an idea of the project, I sent a photo of the Stockholm model, which as you know includes 120 cars. I have a feeling that when I sent it in, Szeemann thought that I had suddenly moved from proposing a piece with four cars to something much more ambitious, and he lost interest. I can understand that: it was a very difficult situation.
MG: I was thinking perhaps that making a gas chamber in Germany might have been something that people had a problem with then.
GM: That is an important point, because when I proposed this idea, in 1972, I hadn’t seen Shoah and made the connection. This is the first time anybody has made the connection between my documenta project and the Holocaust, so I’m grateful to you for making that point.
MG: Whereas nowadays projects that address German history are obviously well exhibited in Germany, in the early 1970s there was a great repression of the memory of the Holocaust. Do you know of a recent project by the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra? I don’t know whether he knows your work, but he recently parked a number of cars outside a disused synagogue in Stommeln and had pipes connecting from their exhausts to inside the building and left the exhausts running. He wanted to provoke a discussion about the memory of the Holocaust.
GM: No, I have not come across that project.
MG: I think it’s hard not to think of the precedence of your work.
GM: It’s certainly fascinating.
MG: Anyway, as I understand, all these proposals involving cars whose exhaust pipes would lead to sealed cubes never got off the ground, except in Sharjah.
GM: No. I had an exhibition in this magnificent art gallery in Lund two years ago. The curator, Pontus Kyander, was determined to realize KARBA within the courtyard of the gallery. Every hour a motor started, and the exhaust went in and the water ran down the inside of the three-metre cube.
MG: I didn’t know about that. But Lund is a very different place from the United Arab Emirates, which is associated with petrol and the petrol economy. Were you interested in remaking the larger Stockholm work in Sharjah for that reason?
GM: It started with an invitation given by the artistic director of Sharjah to Eva Scharrer, a German critic and author living in Basel, to become one of the curators. She decided that she would try and realize the 120 car piece. So, I was happy that the organizers accepted this project, which was the biggest and most expensive to stage for the Biennial. However, the site couldn’t contain 120 cars, so the number was reduced to 100. For the first week the motors ran at certain times. Of course, exhibiting in that area is very problematic. I was invited to go, but for different reasons I did not. Now, you might say: ‘How can you talk about ecology and nature in a part of the world where there is so much anti-nature, and which is so dominated by technology, industry and advanced forms of capitalism?’ There are problems, I think, for anybody taking part in the Sharjah Biennial, but at the same time one can argue that, if any place needs to think about these issues, it’s that part of the world. So, for an artist – and I think there are about 70 artists involved – it’s surely interesting to face up to these challenges.
MG: One of the interesting things about this series of projects is that, in order to put the question of pollution into people’s minds, the work produces pollution. Do you see that as being similar to the structure of the ‘auto-destructive art’ demonstrations of the 1960s, where, in order to address the threat of nuclear war, you performed destruction by painting hydrochloric acid onto stretched nylon canvases?
GM: I’m very glad you’re entering this area. I relate this to homeopathy, which puts poison into the system in order to generate energy that could defeat the weakness, or the illness – in this case, the homeopathic dose of pollution. But doing all of this is not just a demonstration: it is a form, it’s a creation, an attempt to show a visual experience that is unavailable except through destruction or pollution. And it’s a very beautiful experience.
MG: What do you mean by ‘beautiful’?
GM: Well, beautiful because you see the water, the swirling smoke and the colours of the exhaust fumes as they enter the sealed cubes. This is, for me, very important. The Stockholm project was envisaged as having two phases. For phase one the cars were outside, but for phase two they were to be brought into the container, which by now contained all these exhaust fumes. And if the cars did not combust, small bombs would be set off to destroy them. That is the project in its entirety, but there was no question of doing the second phase in Sharjah: it remains to be done. So, hopefully, bit by bit, this work will finally be realized one day.
MG: And you locate a kind of a beauty in the visual event?
GM: Yes. It is very important for me to have this experience, and to offer the potential experience to an audience.
MG: When did you begin to think of homeopathy in connection to your work?
GM: Around 1961, as a tool that could be used. It was all to do with the term ‘in your face’, which is rather popular in England right now. The existence of danger is something that has been excluded from art, and I have felt the need to bring it in. The first reaction to the 120 cars, surely, must be revulsion. How can somebody make something so horrible, something so dangerous, when the world is already so dangerous? How dare this artist say: ‘Well, I’m going to show you that it’s even more dangerous and risky’? And the point behind it all is, I want them to face this reality. These works started by me saying it is not good enough simply to draw the horror of the world. It’s necessary to demonstrate the dangers of nuclear energy and the dangers of car exhausts. This is the driving force behind this kind of development.
MG: Earlier on you were talking about the connection that you made after seeing Shoah to works of yours such as Mobbile and the earliest forms of the gas chambers. This brings us to the subject of the memory of the Holocaust in your work. It is there most obviously in the series of works called ‘Historic Photographs’ (1995–ongoing) and also the Eichmann and the Angel installation you had at Cubitt in 2005. Why was it only in the 1990s that you began to work explicitly with imagery related to the Holocaust, when it had touched you as a child, and throughout your life?
GM: I should explain how the ‘Historic Photographs’ began. I was visiting Italy, and one day in 1990, on the front page of every newspaper, was a photograph of two Israeli policemen with guns, guarding a group of Arabs lying on the ground: it was the ‘Massacre on the Mount’, and it caused a furore worldwide; it was one of the most intensively discussed events in my lifetime, I would think. And this started me thinking of ‘Historic Photographs’. The first works in this series were paired: I hung an enlargement of the ‘Massacre on the Mount’ photograph behind a sheet, and on the floor beside it placed an image of Jews being persecuted by the Nazis after the Anschluss in 1938: the photograph shows Jews being made to scrub pavements in Vienna. This was covered by a huge sheet. I wanted to make works that would use photographs that the viewer wouldn’t initially be able to see. The ‘Massacre on the Mount’ work was called To Walk Into, and the Anschluss image To Crawl Into (both 1996). You had to walk or crawl under the cloths and scrape or feel the photographs, which was part of my point. This relates to what we were saying earlier about confronting the viewer directly with destruction. The positioning of the two photographs in the pairing was crucial. On the one hand Jews are dominating Arabs, and on the other you have Nazis dominating Jews. It’s well known that in Israel there are arguments along the lines that Jews dominate Arabs as a kind of revenge to being dominated by Nazis. So this is the topic for discussion; and from this idea I moved onto other forms. Each of the ‘Historic Photographs’ has its own theme: Vietnam, the Oklahoma City bombing …MG: I think what interests me about this series of works is how you turn photography into a tactile experience by making a viewer crawl under a sheet to come into physical contact with an image. I’m less comfortable with the connections made between the Israeli police and the Nazis, which seem crude. But I remember you saying somewhere that you felt that as a Jew it was important for you to say that Jews shouldn’t persecute other people.
GM: That’s right, yes, I stand by that. I think the discussion is so important, and I had planned to go much deeper into it than I have done. I’ve moved on with other works, but these two works are central for me, because in Israel this is a burning topic, and it will never go away. And it’s absolutely vital to what Israel is, this discussion.
MG: Did you see the works as provoking discussion, rather than making a point about the connection?
GM: Well, both. I think my art is about the offering of complex experiences to an audience. For example, the work Jerusalem, Jerusalem (1998) includes an image of the 1967 six-day war on transparent plastic; to experience it you literally scrape your whole body against the photographs, which is rather unpleasant, of course, but I want to open up possibilities for the audience to experience the difficult areas of life.
MG: You started the ‘Historic Photographs’ at a time when photography was mainly distributed on paper, but nowadays the computer screen is the main conduit for the distribution of photographs. Some of the most famous photographs of our time, such as the Abu Ghraib images, have been distributed via email. So do the new digital procedures of image distribution interest you, and have they made you think about new ways of working with photography?
GM: I don’t have a computer and have no technology, except electric light, heating and a radio. I don’t have a telephone or mobile telephone, and, of course, it’s a statement of the way I want to live. So it’s difficult to answer your question, because I almost never see photos on a screen, but the issue that you raise is an important one. I have to reflect that maybe I’m losing out by withdrawing from what is so familiar to most people in London. Maybe I’ll start to disintegrate in relation to a world that is being transformed so constantly, and consistently. I have to face up to that.
MG: At what point in your life did you decide not to use some forms of technology, such as the telephone, for instance? In the early 1970s you worked with computers and were interested in new technologies.
GM: You’re hitting on a very central point. There was a time when I was totally fascinated by technology – for example, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson talked of the ‘white heat of technology’ in 1963 – and science is, of course, a necessary, inevitable part of technology. I was interested at an early stage in computer art, and, as you know, I was editing a magazine, Page: The Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, for three years until 1972. I was also absolutely fascinated by and involved in developments to do with art and technology and science. And of course, auto-destructive art is based on science and technology. On the one hand, destructive art is a rejection of the way things are, but it’s also dependent on the way things are. But in the mid-1990s I began to withdraw from the way things were and entered the field of deep ecology. This appealed to me more and more.
MG: But before that, you had a telephone?
GM: No. I have never had a telephone.
MG: I think it’s worth saying that this interview was harder to arrange than most. You were contactable only via the regular mail, and we’re so unfamiliar with dealing with letters nowadays. Do you see these strategies as part of your project as an artist?
GM: Yes. And it’s in connection to my personal resistance to technology that, as I said before, I would like to use my body to make something in art.
MG: It’s interesting to think that there’s a connection, as you said, between rejecting technology and a return to handmade art. Some critics see handmade paintings and drawings as inherently reactionary. But you’re repositioning them as radical.
GM: This is connected to my rejection of the system of capitalism.
I don’t have the instruments that keep the system going. I’ve rejected them, I don’t want them; it’s not important, we can survive without them. In fact, I believe we would survive far better. It’s lunatic the way people behave, the way they interact and the machinery that’s in use.
It is beyond lunacy.
MG: I’m sorry if this question appears crude, but many people have thought about World War II and the Holocaust as a profoundly modern calamity, inasmuch as Nazism used technology as no previous power had used it. And the Final Solution was only possible through the use of new technologies of transportation and of killing. Your whole history is touched by these events – you lost your parents and family in the Holocaust – and I was wondering whether you consider your ongoing rejections of technology as connected to the memory of the Holocaust?
GM: It’s all connected. I experienced the Nazi terror as a child, and you can never, ever forget that. And this has shaped my entire existence, and it will always continue to do so. It’s just so big and so dominant and so widespread; it affected billions of people, and still does.
MG: It’s interesting, because a lot of my research has been on artists’ reactions to the Holocaust, mainly thinking about American art, but there are very few artists whose lives were actually personally touched by it in the way yours was. A number of survivors made works that celebrated Jewish heroism in the Warsaw Ghetto or works that concentrated on the memory of the dead, but very few have made work that politicized the memory of the Holocaust by connecting its implications to ongoing present crises as yours has.
GM: We can go back here to the origin of my involvement with art. It started with being deeply concerned with communist politics, from the age of about 17 in Leeds, when I was working in a furniture factory. At the age of 19 I moved to London and decided to give up being a political figure and become an artistic figure. I realized, though, that I would never give up a political commitment to the world, and I have maintained the feeling of responsibility that is central to left-wing politics. That’s why, when I look at the present media, I continually ask what is my responsibility, and should I respond? This connects with the horror that I had and the horror that others had around the Nazi period.
MG: I have friends in the United States who are involved with ecological Jewish campaigns and organizations, which look to sources in the Torah and the Talmud for ideas on ecology. Are any of your sensitivities to ecological disasters informed by your contact with Jewish sources? After all, you grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household.
GM: A very firm yes. The childhood experience is something that one never escapes. Certainly I haven’t escaped it, and I don’t want to escape it.
MG: Do you have an ongoing connection with Judaism now?
GM: Not directly. But what I experienced as a child will always be visible, and I welcome that. And again, responsibility is at the centre of Jewish life – responsibility and the sharing of experience and the treasuring of life. And I hadn’t thought of it, but since you are leading me in a certain direction, I would say that my concern with extinction, which has dominated my lecturing in recent years, must be connected with this Jewish emphasis on the value of life, and the value of every life.
Mark Godfrey is the author of Abstraction and the Holocaust (Yale University Press, 2007) and curator of the exhibition ‘Matthew Buckingham: Play the Story’ at Camden Arts Centre, London and other venues.