LONDON.- The Serpentine Gallery presents a major survey of six decades of work by the influential artist and activist Gustav Metzger. 

Metzger’s practice represents a life-long involvement of left-wing politics, ecology and the creative and destructive powers of twentieth century industrialised societies. This will be the first time such an extensive overview of Metzger’s work has been presented in the UK. Metzger is working closely with the Serpentine Gallery to examine his own archives and those kept by institutions, identifying milestone works from his career and developing new works specifically for this exhibition. 

The exhibition draws together the threads of Metzger’s practice from 1945 to 2009. Exploring archives, the exhibition will bring the themes and methodologies that have informed the artist’s practice for over sixty years to a new generation, who themselves have witnessed the effects of industrialisation, capitalism and globalisation in recent world events. 

A broad cross-section of Metzger’s work will be presented, including the auto-destructive and auto-creative works of the 1960s such as the pioneering use of liquid crystals projections; the Historic Photographs series of the 1990s, which respond to major events and catastrophes of the twentieth century, and later works exploring ecological issues, globalisation and commercialisation. Film footage of seminal performances and actions are also presented. 

A central element of the exhibition is a participative installation using a large archive of newspapers, which Metzger has been collecting since 1995, with members of the public getting a hands-on experience of the newspaper collection. 

Several works, which no longer exist due to their ephemeral or auto-destructive nature, will be recreated following the artists’ instructions and other works are being commissioned specifically for the exhibition. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a major conference on the subject of Extinction, taking place near the Serpentine Gallery in November 2009. The conference will examine the threat to humanity of urgently pressing world issues such as environmental degradation; genocide; atomic weapons; threats to small, isolated communities; threats to languages; global warming; economics; catastrophes in nature, and life wiped out by disease and hunger. The conference will be a call to action to slow down the advancing decimation of nature, and aims to be a ground-breaking event presenting an overarching perspective that will reflect on art, aesthetics, poetry and music, as well as economics and science. 

Gustav Metzger

 Born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents, Gustav Metzger was evacuated to England with his brother Max/Mendel as part of the Kindertransport in 1939. During the 1940s Metzger studied at various art schools in Cambridge, London, including David Bomberg’s class at the Borough Polytechnic, Antwerp and Oxford. In 1959 he developed the concept of auto-destructive art, proposing an oeuvre which could self-destruct to reflect political and social systems spiralling towards annihilation. Auto-destructive art also concerned the use of time as a medium in art, exploring the actions of time in the slow disintegration of a sculpture, for example, or the rapid disappearance of painting by acid. In a 1961 action, three large coloured nylon ‘canvases’ were sprayed with acid on London’s South Bank and in the process, creating as well as destroying. 

Gustav Metzger, South Bank, 1961   

Gustav Metzger, The South Bank, 1961

In 1959, Metzger abandoned painting and he used everyday objects such as cardboard packing cases, newspapers, polythene bags and fabric scraps. These readymade objects demonstrated both the creative potential of Machine Art and a critique of the inherent wastage of consumerism.

Gustav Metzger, Wolf Vostell and Al Hanson   

Gustav Metzger, Wolf Vostell and Al Hanson at The Destruction In Art Symposium, The Africa Centre, Covent Garden, London, 1966 (photo: Tom Picton)

In 1966 Metzger co-organised the Destruction in Art Symposium in London, featuring contributions by Ivor Davies, Juan Hidalgo, John Latham, Yoko Ono, Ralph Ortiz, John Sharkey, Biff [Graham] Stevens, Wolf Vostell and the Viennese Actionists, who performed outside Austria for the first time. 

General Overview of DIAS   

General Overview of DIAS. Ono visible in centre in back row of audience. (photo: Tom Picton)

Metzger has been ahead of his time through the adoption of industrial materials and his concern for environmental issues, and has exerted a lasting influence on his contemporaries and subsequent generations of artists. Metzger considers his political activities as important as his artistic production. He was a founder member of the Committee of 100 with Bertrand Russell, the Reverend Michael Scott and Ralph Schoenmann. Metzger has been consistent in his opposition to capitalism, and his stance against globalised capitalism has informed much of his work. 

The Serpentine Gallery has collaborated closely with Gustav Metzger on a number of projects since 2006, including the Interview Marathon (2006) Experiment Marathon in both London and Reykjavik (2007) and the Manifesto Marathon (2008). Metzger also spoke at the Serpentine’s On the Conditions of Politics conference in 2007. 

Gustav Metzger’s Flailing Trees is a new piece of public art commissioned by Manchester International Festival (2-19 July 2009). Twenty-one upended willows will stand in the Manchester Peace Garden from 3 July until the end of the Festival.

Flailing Trees by Gustav Metzger at Manchester International Festival 


Gustav Metzger
Fri 3 – Sun 19 July / Manchester Peace Garden

Walking or driving the same streets every day, many of us take our surroundings for granted. Artist Gustav Metzger will be challenging this sense of security withFlailing Trees, an arresting and poignant new piece of public art that will stand in the Manchester Peace Garden for the duration of the Festival.

Flailing Trees comprises 21 inverted willows, a subversion of the natural order that brings nature and the environment into sharp focus. With flourishing branches replaced by dying roots, the sculpture is both a plea for reflection and a plaintive cry for change, and is sure to provide a catalyst for debate.

The Festival is delighted that the Whitworth Art Gallery is acquiring this work for its permanent collection. After the Festival, Flailing Trees will be sited in the Gallery grounds for continued free public viewing.

Commissioned by Manchester International Festival.
Produced by Manchester International Festival and CUBE.

Photo © Karen Wright


Yoko Ono’s “Tribute to Gustav Metzger” here.