Political Activism in Kensington Gardens

Alexandra Kelsall 19 October 2009

Alexandra Kelsall reports on Gustav Metzger’s challenging works at the Serpentine Gallery’s latest exhibition.

If you have never heard of Gustav Metzger it’s probably more his fault than yours. In 1977 he proclaimed an ‘Art Strike’ and refused to produce work for three years, and has since alienated himself from the mainstream art scene. Now, at the grand age of 83, the Serpentine is dragging Metzger into the spotlight with a retrospective of 50 years of politically aggressive works.

Metzger is angry. As much a political activist as an artist, he has spent his life verbally and visually critiquing social injustice, commercialisation, environmental exploitation and waste; essentially condemning humankind’s irresponsibility and its resulting damage.

The first work one encounters is a block of newspapers piled up in carrier bags. Viewers here are asked to leaf through and find articles related to extinction or climate change, with Metzger imploring us to engage with the damage we have done. But for someone with such vehement desire for change, the whole thing seems rather tame. Is thumbing through old Independents really going to transform behaviour?

Moving through the austere white rooms of the gallery, however, things become more heated. Metzger’s Historic Photograph series focuses on social injustice, partially drawing on the artist’s childhood as a Polish-Jew in Nazi Germany and the terrible deaths of both his parents. The artist again demands audience engagement, but this time the cooperation is much more affecting.

As we crawl under a sheet, the image on the floor reveals a painful reflection, with Austrian Jews scrubbing the streets of 1938 Vienna gradually emerging out of a monochromatic haze. Shuffling along the wall behind a sheet we are confronted with Palestinians shot dead on their way up Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 1990. Metzger clearly refuses to forget, and thus denies us any comfort that time and distance might grant.

Metzger’s frustrated fury at both capitalism and the art market manifests itself most fervently in his ‘Auto-Destructive Art’. His 1960 Manifesto urged the use of ‘Explosives, Glass, Mass Production, Pressure, Stress’ in artistic creation. A video of Metzger, ominously disguised in a gas mask, shows the artist flinging acid onto a rapidly dissolving canvas.

As the fabric melts away the camera zooms in on the deformed material revealing a disturbing beauty that contrasts with the savagery of the process.

In stark contrast to such violence is the Liquid Crystal Environment installation. Thermotropic liquid crystals are placed in thin glass slides and projected onto the walls. These slides are heated and cooled causing the crystals to transmute into a spectrum of glowing colour. Given no clear message to ponder, we simply sit and contemplate the constantly morphing shapes.

The final works seethe with the artist’s rage at mankind’s inability to take responsibility for the world. The automotive trade is attacked in Kill the Cars (before they get us first, unmistakably intimated), and one of the most haunting recent works, Flailing Trees, in which “inverted trees, with their branches stifled in concrete foundations, seem to thrash their roots as they desperately try to breathe in our polluted air”. These messages might not be original or subtly stated, but within our galleries and museums they are not represented often enough.

Finally, the art world’s perennial outcast has entered the public’s radar with a collection of work articulating messages of intense importance and relevance to every viewer.

Gustav Metzger 1959-2009 continues until the 8th of November at the Serpentine Gallery, London.

Alexandra Kelsall