Zofia Ce: Until August 2015 the Centre of Contemporary Art in Toruń will showcase a retrospective of Gustav Metzger, “Act or Perish!”, then in November 2015 it will be presented in a slightly different version in Kunsthall and Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo. The first impression is that, as viewers, we are moving through a clear historical narration; it starts with paintings and drawings from the 50s – which are presented here for the very first time and I’m really glad to see them. Then we move to the more recognized Auto-Destructive and Auto-Creative works, inter alia: “Historic Photographs, Eichmann and an Angel” (2005-2015), “Liquid Crystals” (1966-2011), “Kill the Cars” (1996-2011) etc. What was the main key to organize this exhibition?
Pontus Kyander: First of all, I must say it was a unique opportunity to make this exhibition. Especially, I would like to draw attention to the first part with drawings, paintings and documents, because – as you said – it is really the first time when they are being presented to the audience. Some of the works have been newly discovered. Obviously, it was possible to see more fragmentary shows of Gustav Metzger’s works, e.g. at DOCUMENTA(13), yet this exhibition is the first complete retrospective. It allows to show where his art comes from, a genesis of Gustav Metzger as an artist.
Dobrila Denegri: When you start working on an exhibition with such artist as Gustav Metzger, known within the art history frame for his conceptual ideas – Auto-Destructive and Auto-Creative – it is important to think about the context from which he comes. So we tried to pay attention to both Metzger’s personal biography, as well as to the historical moment in which he was living and forming himself as an artist and activist. The personal history of Gustav Metzger entwines itself with one of the most traumatic moments of our recent history. He was born in Germany to a family of Polish-Jewish descent, grew up in the shadow of Nazi propaganda of Nuremberg. Then he was rescued in 1939 and taken to England by the Refugee Children Movement, while his parents and elder brother perished in the Holocaust. Then again, looking from a broader perspective, the post-war period meant a necessity of coming to terms with mass-destruction, hundreds of thousands of victims, the Holocaust, the atomic bombs thrown on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the other hand, it was also the moment when the Cold War and the nuclear race between the global super-powers started. Within such a context, and very early influenced by the ideas and ideals of Wilhelm Reich and Edmond Székely, Metzger profiled himself as an artist and activist conceptually more upfront than his colleagues who shared the same fate of Jewish children refugees, namely, Auerbach and Kossoff. From late 50s onwards, he distanced himself from the post-war Expressionism and Informalism in favor of formally more radical and experimental approaches introduced by Lucio Fontana, and later by other artists associated with groups such as Nouveau Réalisme or Gutai. Metzger became a precursor and pioneer of awareness-raising movements: against political violence, against destructiveness of capitalistic greed, against commercialization of art. To come back to the early period that we are presenting extensively within this exhibition, we should underline a strong connection which Metzger had with an English artist of Jewish origins, David Bomberg, to whom he probably owed much of his activist fervor.
Pontus Kyander: I think David Bomberg was indeed a modernist, but not much of an activist. Just a few words of historical explanation: David Bomberg worked as a teacher at Borough Polytechnic [ed. now London South Bank University] in London from 1945 to 1953, where he taught Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead, Dennis Creffield, Cecil Bailey and Gustav Metzger. Metzger was very attached to Bomberg also personally, but they had a disagreement which resulted in Bomberg cutting all ties to Metzger, which certainly was a huge blow in Metzger’s private as well as professional life. It was like being expelled: Metzger left London, and for a long period did not produce any art at all. If you think of an alternative history, which is of course just a hypothesis; under the umbrella of David Bomberg, Gustav could have become another expressive painter in “The School of London”, like Auerbach and Kossoff. You can see he was moving in that direction until the break with Bomberg.
Dobrila Denegri: That is an interesting part, he became really active within the social and political issues.
Pontus Kyander: …and environmental.
Dobrila Denegri: Yes, after being expelled from Bomberg’s “Borough Bottega” he moved to King’s Lynn in Norfolk, where he single-handedly launched North End Protest against redevelopment of the ancient fishing quarter of the town. We were trying to show and contextualize this early period which leads Metzger towards more active engagement within the Action Committee Against Nuclear War (DAC), and later within Bertrand Russell’s movement known under the name “Committee of 100”. From the documentation about this movement emerged that Gustav contributed to giving the initiative this name.
Pontus Kyander: This part of the exhibition you can find in the archive. You can search through the drawers and there are some interesting documents from that time.
Dobrila Denegri: In Metzger’s private archive we have found some original documents, letters, pamphlets, flyers, through which one can learn about ways in which public demonstrations were organized, people were instructed how to behave and in what way to implement non-violent manifestations. The “strategy” of non-violent mass demonstrations wasn’t developed yet, and one of the main examples to follow was Mahatma Gandhi. Even if Gustav was part of the anti-nuclear movement that pleaded for disarmament, it doesn’t mean that he was a pacifist.
Pontus Kyander: No, Gustav Metzger is not a pacifist. His approach to art and life relates to his background as well. He is always close to the idea of resistance; resistance to the Nazis, resistance to the atomic bomb, resistance to capitalism and so on. It also came with his great engagement on many different levels: being a vegetarian, engagement to preserve the environment of the old town in King’s Lynn, protesting against building roadworks etc. You think people started to care about the environment around the 70s, but Gustav was doing this already in the 50s.
Dobrila Denegri: His references are rather radical far left. It dates back to the mid 40s when he lived Bristol in a commune of Trotskyists and Anarchists. Earlier, he was inspired by the writings of Eric Gill, an English sculptor and typeface designer, known for his strong antifascist and pacifist positions. This type of input shaped Metzger from his early youth.
Pontus Kyander: Yes, both in the artistic as well as in the political way. What I think is really important, is that Gustav Metzger never really had a classic university education, so his intellectual engagement comes from his activism, from his practice. It is a very idiosyncratic system of learning. He is self-taught in most of the fields outside of the art practice, which he anyhow abandoned.
Zofia Cielątkowska: This exhibition is really his biggest retrospective and we can see most of his works. What are you going to show in Oslo?
Pontus Kyander: The show in Norway will be significantly different mostly because of the spaces of Kunsthall Oslo and Kunstnernes Hus. The first is a small, almost gallery type of space, the latter is a very classical building from the 1930s. The Oslo part of the exhibition will focus more on Metzger’s Auto-Creative projects, possibly with more attention to documentation and his experimental projects from the Swansea laboratory.
Dobrila Denegri: I think that this part in Torun can be described as a large panoramic view on Metzger’s oeuvre. In Oslo, we want to go deeper into certain aspects of Gustav Metzger’s works, especially works related with science and cybernetics.
Pontus Kyander: Here in Toruń there are some of his works from that area.
Zofia Maria Cielątkowska:: That dangerous stuff? Two gum-wires attached to the ceiling which unpredictably move in the space?
Pontus Kyander: [Laugh] Yes, that is the one.
Dobrila Denegri: Metzger’s Laboratory is a challenge for everyone and for the time being nobody has succeeded in reconstructing it, so we really hope it is going to work in Oslo. Even if there is a small space, it will be something very special and particular. We would also like to go deeper into his public-art projects.
Pontus Kyander: But – as with all of the examples of public art – we depend on a creative collaboration with the institutions. There are plenty of Gustav Metzger’s unrealized projects, so it is an important decision what to do in that particular place.
Zofia Cielątkowska: I think in general Gustav Metzger is quite a difficult artist to be exposed in the classical terms of exhibition. His works rather challenge our habits of experiencing art. He is perceived as an intellectual and conceptual artist, but I must say that there is a strong – let’s say – visual similarity or continuity between his early paintings and drawings from the 50s and late “Light Drawings” (2014), which we can also see at the exhibition.
Pontus Kyander: That could also be explored deeper. There are a lot of abstract drawings as well – like random movements of his hand on paper.
Dobrila Denegri: For Gustav Metzger, it is not the accent on the destructive or the creative, but on the Auto-Destructive and Auto-Creative. In this sense, it reflects some of the main features of the industrial and capitalist society in which production is mechanized and alienated. When he initiated and organized DIAS – Destruction in Art Symposium – he didn’t take part as an artist. He believed that his art is not about destruction ‘per se’.
Pontus Kyander: There is also a difference between him and other conceptual artists, for example Yoko Ono. For Yoko Ono, it does not really matter if the work is realized; the most important is the concept. For Gustav Metzger, the proposed work, however complex or radical, is always meant to be realized. When he talks about Auto-Destructive art, it is really about acting out and making it. Then again, of course, you don’t get so many opportunities to realize them in the end…
Dobrila Denegri: He is not working with the idea of an instruction to the audience, as we know Yoko did.
Pontus Kyander: No, he doesn’t, but what I mean is that in his art, concepts are still there to be realized, and some in fact have been produced. Other realized works are often reproduced in quite different versions. For Gustav Metzger, the work is a process that often lasts over a very long period of time. His projects remain active and open, and if not produced now, then later. For Metzger, it is always a source of frustration when certain projects are not realized.
Dobrila Denegri: Yes, in Gustav’s case it was also a question of possibilities.
Zofia Cielątkowska: That is also why I think we can find in his works this double thinking: modernist and postmodernist. His destruction could be also read as deconstruction.
Pontus Kyander: He talks a lot about Jacques Derrida, he certainly listened to his lectures, but theoreticians’ role in his work is more of confirming what he is into, and is not very likely to quote anyone extensively. There are clear parallels between what he does and postmodern ideas of deconstruction, but there is also one huge difference from much of postmodernist thought. For Gustav Metzger, there is no irony or distance. I would say he brings some existential approaches to the postmodernist model. His is a real engagement. He is in fact the most serious artist I know, in every sense of the word.
Zofia Cielątkowska: I’m thinking here especially of Theodor Adorno as an author of “The Negative Dialectics” – the concept which you can find in Gustav Metzger’s approach as an anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, anti-you name it.
Pontus Kyander: …and anti-authority. He has been an activist but never a political party player. Theodor Adorno is one of the few philosophers mentioned by Gustav Metzger.
Zofia Cielątkowska: Yes, I’m thinking here, as I said, of Adorno from “The Negative Dialectics”, but also, and perhaps the more so, of Adorno from “Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life”. The text in which he says that even the way we close our cars – this gesture of slamming – already tells a lot about the violence written into technology and everyday live. It is a rather subtle form of analysis.
Pontus Kyander: I think that is exactly what Gustav Metzger absorbed. He is very selective in his choice of intellectual references.
Zofia Cielątkowska: On a different level, this selection is somehow visible in his concept of history and memory – I mean the way it is represented.
DOBRILA DENEGRI: For me, it was interesting to see how already in the early 60s, he referred to history and “history in it’s making” through mass-media channels, and in particular through newspapers. For instance, when invited by Daniel Spoerri and Robert Filliou to take part in the “Festival of Misfits” at Gallery One in London in 1962, Metzger proposes to exhibit editions of the “Daily Express” newspaper reporting about missile crises in Cuba. The organizers considered it too inaccessible for the audience and refused to present it. But it was the first time that he intended to use newspapers to make a work which directly dealt with current political agenda, and it will remain one of the recurring motives/materials for him, as we can see in the works belonging to the “Historical Photographs” series, or “Mass-Media: yesterday and today”. It makes you think that Metzger is an artist extremely responsive to current events and he seems to imply that information is crucial, as is our ability to form an opinion, take a stand, engage ourselves in processes that can change the course of events and the course of history itself.
Pontus Kyander: There is also another aspect of memory in his work – especially with the images that are being hidden. I find there is a sort of inverted engagement. The images that are most ‘invisible’ seem to relate to personal memories (e.g. the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, women cleaning the streets in Vienna, a child being rescued from the Oklahoma bombing). He closes these memories out, shuts them off. The least accessible works of Gustav Metzger are his most personal pieces, as I see it. In these works, memory precedes visuality. Images come with their references, and once the image is hidden, the references have to stand alone, together with the new materiality of the work. You cannot remain neutral in front of these works, however ‘hidden’ their content might be. They request your engagement.
Zofia Cielątkowska: There is always some action or decision. You can either move further or get engaged.
Pontus Kyander: Yes, and posing the works in a way that prevents an easy and direct understanding or interpretation. He once said to me that art is always about not being understood, about making things people don’t understand. The picture of Adolf Hitler talking to Reichstag would be too obvious, too easy. He hides pictures, so the viewer in turn needs to make an effort to visualize them.
Zofia Cielątkowska: That means somehow going back to the title. If a small gesture can be done, it should be done – act or perish.
“Act or Perish! Gustav Metzger – A Retrospective”, Centre of Contemporary Art, Torun 27.03-30.08.2015; Kunsthall Oslo and Stiftelsen Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, 7.11.2015-17.01.2016