Gustav Metzger

Aesthetics of Uncivilisation Pt.2

This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland

The first post under the title Aesthetics of Uncivilisation focused on responding to Charlotte Du Caan’s call for submissions for the Dark Mountain Project’s next publications and her reflection on Seeing through a glass darkly. She said,

The fact that civilisation holds us so tightly in its unkind embrace is not only because it controls what some call ‘industrialised storytelling’, but also because it manufactures the images that powerfully and unconsciously distract and misinform us, keep us endlessly looking at the shiny surfaces of what we feel is our cultural reality.

That essay responded to Charlotte’s examples of reconnecting with nature and highlighted the work of the Collins and Goto Studio and their projects The Forest is Moving and Plein Air; Liberate Tate’s performance Parts Per Million and Penny Clare’s photographs. Arguing that these represent aspects of an aesthetics which is also an ethics, an ethics of eco-cultural well-being, of the absurd performance of catastrophe, and of the possibility of an art of low energy, the essay suggested a wider conceptualisation of reconnecting with nature.

In this second essay another selection of examples have come to mind in response to watching The Grass Will Grow Over Your Cities (2010), Sophie Fiennes’ film exploring Anselm Keifer’s studio and landscape in Barjac in the South of France.

In this discussion we cannot overlook Dada and Surrealism. The artists now grouped under those ‘movements’ were responding to catastrophic human stupidity.

Perhaps the shaping document of the 20th Century has been Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism (1909), calling as it did for the of the overturning of the heart of European culture, the washing away of the old, and celebrating speed and violence. The first few lines evoke this,

1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.

2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.

3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggresive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.

4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. ….

For all the other philosophising, this manifesto is what the 20th Century has lived up to: the headlong charge, the rabid consumption of energy, aggression and violence in magnificent proportions culminating in a weapon that can destroy all life on earth and the realisation that in any case we are affecting all life on earth, and not for the better – so much more than the authors could have imagined in their call for an overturning of a failed culture.

On the other hand, and less than ten years later, Dada and Surrealism were reactions to a civilisation which believed that art was about beauty and truth, but was able to wreak havoc and destruction on a generation. This year we will remember the start of the First World War – as someone recently said, the slaughter of the working classes in the name of European Imperialism. The poets, performers, writers and artists associated with Dada and Surrealism were met with anger and derision.

Dada threw out meaning and sense: it was anti-art. Surrealism opened up the unconscious, foregrounded our basest desires and fears. These are the aesthetics of a previous moment of fury at our civilisation. Dada enacted absurdity, and Surrealism refocused art on inner madness and fear. Both have deeply influenced art over the last century and remain important tropes for artists today (Christy Rupp‘s collages such as the Frack-me-not sequence and her felt sculptures; Joel Tauber‘s Seven Attempts to Make A Ritual films).

Sophie Fiennes’ film of Anselm Keifer’s studio and landscape at Barjac in the South of France is on the one hand precisely an articulation of an aesthetic of abandonment. Keifer has constructed a landscape of broken concrete, molten lead, burnt books and broken glass, a strange proto-archaeological site of desolation. But you cannot watch the film without becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the hubris and an extraordinary cost. Between the many assistants, the JCBs and cranes, and the cement mixers, this is on a scale not hugely dissimilar to Turrell’s Roden Crater. Keifer is creating a landscape of abandonment, a man-made version of landscapes which we can see around us in our cities and towns, but he is doing it by spending vast sums of money. It is a fable of the age.

Where Keifer is constructing a destroyed and abandoned landscape, in the 60s John Latham and Gustav Metzger were amongst a group of artists who again questioned civilisation. Metzger was one of the key figures in the Destruction in Art Symposium (1966), and as part of the symposium Latham experimented with his Skoob Towers. These towers of burning books have a close resonance with Keifer’s towers and burnt books. Latham was not afraid of destruction as an artistic process, but it was within a wider intellectual project.

Whilst Latham is often a reference point for art that is engaged with industry, bureaucracy, policy and society as well as being one of the most compelling demonstrations of the idea that “context is half the work,” other aspects of his art deeply expand the norms of social scope. There are three pieces which could be signal elements in this aesthetics: These three pieces question everything. The first represents experience and event through a reduction of drawing to a one second act. The second reframes the scale of our experience into a device which encompasses the quantum and the cosmological. The third provocatively suggests that there is a common truth which shines through the greatest books understood as cultural events. This was so provocative that the Tate Gallery refused to include it in their retrospective (2005).

John Latham One-Second Drawing (17″ 2002) (Time Signature 5:1) 1972

Latham’s One Second Drawing works of various dates are just a second of spray paint on paper. They allude to the limits of our perception as well as to the limits of beauty. The question the value of painting and express the briefness of life whilst reminding us of the cosmological. These works express with absolute simplicity his conception of the least event, demonstrating the simplest spatiality whilst embodying the shortest temporal experience.

Time-Base Roller with Graphic Score, 1987 (with Basic T Diagram on left). Canvas, electric motor operating metal bar, wood, graphite. Photo: Ken Adlard

Latham’s Time Base Roller (1972) is a much more complex and sophisticated evocation of his philosophy, enabling us to understand our experience of time as event in a spectrum. Using something as mundane as a domestic roller blind with an electric motor, he set out different scales of time through a along its length, from the cosmological to the quantum, “Light at one end, and at the other the longest cosmological extent” (1975). Events occur in front of us as the roller unfurls, past time being perceived only partially through the canvas against the wall. So our sense of the immediacy of events and our dim understanding of the scale of time, whether of the least moment or the longest duration, is manifest in an everyday object elegantly reimagined as a treatise on chronology. He describes it thus, “This Time-base Spectrum presents a universal filing device whereby all manifestations are comparable within the same co-ordinates.” (1975).

John Latham, God is Great.

Latham’s work God is Great of various dates takes the form of the three fundamental books of the Abrahamic tradition, the Talmud, the Bible and the Koran, and unites them with a sheet of glass which penetrates all three. The unifying device of a sheet of broken glass both signals a shared truth and notes the incompleteness of that truth in one moment. But the underlying point is the event structure of which these books are merely spatial manifestations.  Latham said, “The belief system is a rock-bottom source of non-negotiable problems of the day”.

If one aesthetic of uncivilisation is to attempt to make art more or less useful in reconnecting us with nature, then another must be the absurd and the internal confrontation with death. In a blog for the New York Times (2013), the soldier and writer Roy Scranton spoke about coming to terms with dying in the Anthropocene. He says,

Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.

He goes on to say,

I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.”

To come to terms with dying, or collapse as the Dark Mountain project frames it, is to address the absurdity of life, to acknowledge our inner fears and nightmares, and also to understand our existence in relation to the quantum and the cosmological, to see the event rather than the thing.


Apollonio, Umbro, ed. 1973. Documents of 20th Century Art: Futurist Manifestos. Brain, Robert, R.W. Flint, J.C. Higgitt, and Caroline Tisdall, trans. New York: Viking Press, 19-24.

Du Caan, C. Seeing through a glass darkly: towards and aesthetics of uncivilisation. The Dark Mountain Project, The Dark Mountain Blog. accessed 8 January 2014

Latham, J. 1975 Time-base and determination in events in State of Mind, Düsseldorf: Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, revised reprint Edinburgh: R & R Clark

Scranton, R. 2013. Learning how to die in the anthropocene. New York Times. November 10, 2013. accessed 12 November 2013

Smith, D. 2005. Artist hits at Tate ‘cowards’ over ban. The Guardian 25 September 2005.

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The thing we shouldn’t be asking artists to do

Heart of Darkness by Cornelia Parker, 2004 from Earth: art of a changing world, London 2009

This is Climate Action on Cultural Hertitage week – it’s an initiative championed by Bridget McKenzie as a response to the growing number of individuals and organisations calling for a more clearly defined sense of purpose from the arts and heritage sector.  People like Al Tickell of Julie’s Bicycle ask: “Why do we expect moral leadership to come from corporations and science? Surely the meaningful nature of the arts in society puts it in a position to take a lead on climate action?”

There are two aspects to this. Firstly it’s about how we behave ourselves. Art fairs, say, have become an example of the muscularity of the art industry. As curators/critics Maja and Reuben Fowkes have asked,  is this world of global art jamborees a sustainable one? Gustav Metzger’s Reduce Art Flights was one of the artist’s passionate “appeals”, this time to the art world to reconsider how they had been seduced into transporting themselves and their works around the globe.’s We Won’t Fly For Art was equally explicit, asking artists to commit to opting out of the high profile career track that conflates your ability to command air tickets with success.

Industries can change the way they behave. Tickell’s work with the music business has already shown how a cultural industry can transform itself in terms of process.

But there’s also the role of art as a spoke in the wheel of culture. Science itself changes nothing. To become a transitional society requires more than policy. The real change must be cultural. So should climate be the subject matter of art?

Pause for thought: Do we want rock stars enjoining us to change our ways? Please God, no. See? If it doesn’t work for rock music, why should it work for other art forms?

In an article being published next week on the RSA Arts & Ecology website, Madeleine Bunting will be arguing strongly against the urge to push artists into an instrumental role in climate:

“The visual arts offer a myriad of powerful ways to think and feel more deeply about our age and our humanity, but it is almost impossible to trace the causal links of how that may feed through to political engagement or behaviour change,” she cautions.

It is time to accept that artists don’t simply  ”do” climate. Even the most obviously campaigning art is of little value if it is simply reducible to being about climate. They may be inspired to create by the facts of science and economics, as Metzger and Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett of Furtherfield were in those examples above, but if you asked them to make art about climate they’d almost certainly run a mile.

What was interesting about the RA exhibition Earth: art of a changing world was the way that made that explicit. Artists like Cornelia Parker and Keith Tyson were clear in saying their pieces that they weren’t necessarily conceived with climate in mind at all, (though both are passionate about the subject). The decision to include Parker’s Heart of Darkness as an a piece of work to make us ponder the destruction of our planet was a curatorial one.

There’s a kind of separation between church and state needed here; institutions shouldn’t just be looking to their carbon footprints, they should be looking to see how they can contextualise this cultural shift with what they show their audiences – whatever the artform. It is up to the curators, directors and art directors to take on this role. In this coming era, we urgently need events, exhibitions and festivals that make us feel more deeply about the change taking place around us – and we need them to find new audiences for those explorations too.

But what we shouldn’t be doing is asking artists to make art about climate.

Read Bridget McKenzie’s Framework for climate action in cultural and heritage organisations

Follow Climate Action on Cultural Hertitage #cach on twitter

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Emma Ridgway on Gustav Metzger

Gustav Metzger with Jeremy Deller: June 5 2009, UN World Environment Day, Whitechapel Gallery, London

Does the fact that an artist like Gustav Metzger, who has been creating politically agressiveaggressive works for 60 years, is so much in the spotlight at this late point in his career say anything about what we want of our artists now?

Tomorrow, RSA curator Emma Ridgway talks about the work of Gustav Metzger as part ofGustav Metzger Decades 1959 – 2009, currently at London’s Serpentine Gallery. It’s at 3pm Saturday 7 November at the Serpentine.

If you want a flavour of the talk,  Ridgway’s recent interview with Metzger about his appeals to artists over the years, is a vivid demonstration of how passionate he is about art’s need to involve itself in the political sphere:

You were an activist before you were an artist. Was there a particular moment, or was it through Bomberg, that you decided that contemporary politics was going to be a core part of your work?

Yes, my interest in politics was there from the age of around 17. That was in wartime, around 1942 – 43, when I was living in Leeds and there I almost completely converted to the idea of becoming some sort of revolutionary figure –art at that point had no place in my conception of the future. It was only in the late summer of 1944, when I felt I would move away from the ideal of becoming a political activist to becoming an artist. So moving into art was a way of moving forward without giving up the political interest; because I thought one could fuse the political ideal of social change with art. For example, the writing of Eric Gill who was both an artist and a craftsman and politically involved was a kind of inspiration to me. I could see this possibility of using the ideas of social change within art, with art and not simply through political, economic activity.

Sometimes we visit exhibitions together and discuss the work. On a number of occasions you have been disinterested in the work because it lacked any political bite or ethical aspect. Is this something you feel artists work must contain?

Yes, I think that is inescapable and the more the world changes, is changing, in the direction of more speed and more activities. And the more that happens the more necessary it is for people to stand back and, not merely in the art sphere but in every sphere of intellectual activity, to stand back and distance oneself and come up with alternative ways of dealing with reality than going along with a direction that is essentially catastrophic and consuming itself and turning itself into a numbers game. Where the technology, especially the technology of the mobile phones and this endless sound machinery that people force into their biological mechanism, seems to be unstoppable; and the more it goes on, the more we need to stand aside and distance ourselves from this rush towards destruction.

Read the complete interview.

Photograph by Benedict Johnson

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Madeline Bunting in today’s Guardian: the “quiet powerhouse” that is RSA Arts & Ecology

Radical Nature’s The Dalston Mill project

Radical Nature’s The Dalston Mill project

Madeleine Bunting’s article on the role of arts in changing perceptions about the environment kicks off by looking at Radical Nature’s The Dalston Mill project, and discusses new work Gustav Metzger and new thoughts from Tim Smit and gives a very warmly appreciated nod to the RSA Arts & …

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Gustav Metzger: artists “taking moral standpoints”

Forty-eight years ago today, Gustav Metzger took a bottle of hydrochloric acid to the South Bank and set about destroying suspended sheets of nylon in an act of what he called Auto-Destructive painting. For Metzger, whose personal world view was formed in the shadow of World War II, this was …

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RSA Arts & Ecology – Interview | Gustav Metzger

“I thought one could fuse the political ideal of social change with art”

Emma Ridgway, curator of The RSA Arts & Ecology Centre, interviews Gustav Metzger

Born in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents in Nuremberg, Gustav Metzger is an artist known for his radical approach. His work responds directly to political, economic and ecological issues. Creating manifestos and events in the UK since the early 1960s, he developed the concept of Auto-Destructive Art and Art Strike movements, which addressed destructive drives both in capitalism and the art industry. He still makes challenging work and his ideas continue to be influential.

With his Flailing Trees one of the centrepieces of the Manchester International Festival, Gustav Metzger’s reputation as a major figure in radical art continues to grow. Emma Ridgway talks to the artist about his long career in art and activism.

via RSA Arts & Ecology – Interview | Gustav Metzger.

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Should we still be flying for art’s sake?

When Emma Thompson joined the protest against the third runway at Heathrow earlier this year, MP Geoff Hoon was scathing. “She’s been in some very good films,” he said. “Love Actually is very good, but I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don’t see the logic of their position.”

I remember being extremely disturbed by what he said. Shocked even. Here was a former Defence Minister and Chief Whip, one of the tough guys, publicly coming out in favour of an excruciatingly meandering rom com. One of Richard Curtis’s worst, in fact.

Less surprising was Hoon’s attack on an actress for joining the ranks of the climate protestors. When artists lend their weight to a cause they open themselves to charges of hypocrisy. Who is she, an actress who flies across to Hollywood on a regular basis, to tell us not to fly?

The poets John Kinsella and Melanie Challenger are currently writing a work for the RSA Arts & Ecology website called Dialogue between the body and the soul, which grew out of both the poets’ decision not to fly to poetry readings. Now, even if every published poet in the world gave up flying, it would hardly make a major statistical dent in the world’s carbon footprint, but for each of them it is a major decision. Poetry is an endangered species of an artform, and practitioners have to take their audience wherever they find it. For Challenger, who is a new poet starting out, this is the kind of public commitment that could hobble her career for good.

Interestingly, there have been rumbings of unease elsewhere in the art community about the amount of too-ing and fro-ing required by the modern international art scene. Two years ago Gustav Metzger initiated Reduce Art Flights; a manifesto contribution to Sculpture Projects Münster that called for artists to go cold turkey on their addiction to international travel.

With full cognisance that it is ‘a drop in the ocean’, the RAF ‘manifesto’ nevertheless invites voluntary abandonment – a fundamental, personal, bodily rejection of technological instrumentalization and a vehement refusal to participate in the mobility increasingly endemic to the globalized art system.

And earlier this year artists Marc Garrett and Ruth Catlow invited colleagues to sign a “I will not fly for art“ pledge. Garrett and Catlow are the founders of and HTTP Gallery. The Geoff Hoon in you might feel tempted to note that both are committed to the ideas of virtual art in networked space. Give up flying? Well, maybe that’s easy for them to say.

The point is there is no one-size-fits-all pledge. That’s the unfairness of Hoon’s jibe.  We may accept that air travel has been the UK’s fastest growing emissions sector in this decade, and carbon emitted by planes in the atmosphere is three times more damaging than carbon emitted by cars on the ground. We may perfectly reasonably oppose plans for further airport expansion. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want Emma Thompson to fly to the US to make Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. (OK. Bad example.)

As Dialogue between the body and the soul winds to a conclusion, I’m going to use it as an excuse to ask writers and artists their thoughts on what they do — and don’t — feel comfortable to commit to .

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Manchester Festival announces programme: it’s good

manchester21The second Manchester International Festival released its 2009 programme this week. It’s turning into the the best multi-platform arts festival in the UK – but then the size of its budget – a whopping £10m this year – probably helps with that. That said, they’re making great artistic decisions. While the Edinburgh International Festival is clearly on the up under Jonathan Mills, Manchester is setting a great standard in new commissions.

And obviously chosing to put an image for Gustav Metzger’s new plea for environmental sanity Flailing Trees, which is one of those commisions, on the cover shows a kind of ethical intent which other festivals need to match.

More about Metzger’s sculpture here.

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Dear LA Gallerists: Please Reduce Art Driving

{The map for what could have been my 50-mile, Saturday evening gallery commute.}

Note: Credit for this idea goes to both my friend I.R. and Gustav Metzger’s project, Reduce Art Flights.

This past Saturday, I was confronted with a relatively typical Saturday night—driving all over the Southland for gallery openings. Interesting shows on my radar included Cirrus Gallery, the Luckman Gallery at CSULA, Outpost For Contemporary Art and a variety of shows at Bergamot Station. According to google maps, round trip would be just over 50 miles. But with all these shows happening at approximately the same time, I just gave up and went to one show.

Of course, galleries keep more hours than just openings but often, the incentive to go to openings (besides the talking, socializing and people watching) is to catch a bunch of shows at once. Opening nights in LA’s gallery scene are increasingly fractured—seems like there are openings in Chinatown every weekend and even the Culver City row can’t coordinate anything.

It might be better for business to stagger these events but in my opinion, openings should be coordinated both in areas where galleries are concentrated but across the city as well. One destination per night/weekend would help the environment by reducing art driving and could result in larger turnouts for the galleries and support for their artists. Most of us do not buy anything, but we sure are talking about it, critiquing it, and of course, blogging. In that sense, it’s important to get a crowd.

So, if you are reading this dear gallerists, please find a way to coordinate your openings. Start an email list, a google group, something, and get your shit together, because we want to go to your openings.
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Gustav Metzger

The podcasts of the Nuclear Forum are now all online. There’s a wealth of material there. Particularly striking is the final contribution (at the end of the third file) from the artist Gustav Metzger. Touching on art, his obsession with the newspaper and on humanity’s relentless urge to self-destruction, it should probably be listened to as a whole – it’s a kind of prose poem as much as a statement – but here, meanwhile, is a brief extract (with a personal endorsement for The Guardian):

With the coming of the Hubble space telescope humanity has gained a ring side view of galaxies – which is Wagner without the intervals.  As you know because you read the same papers as I and most likely the Guardian, it is in fact brilliant, it is outstanding, and one of the reasons I would like to go on living in this country rather than on the continent is for that paper and for many, many others. It really has standards.   

There are restaurants where diners are placed next to glass tanks with sharks gliding along the glass walls.  That is how we, thanks to Hubble, view or can view galaxies safely ensconced in our earthly habitat.  We are told repeatedly that life on earth started as star fragments entering earth…  Is it, then, that we are joined at the hips with the entire universe with galaxies engaged in that constant and endless creative destruction?  The stars entered our blood stream ages and ages ago – still coursing through our veins?  Have we internalised the universe?  According to theory we are perpetually bombarded, penetrated indeed, by cosmic rays and so totally fusing with the cosmos with or against our will.  We might as well accept, there is no choice except to run through permutations again and again testing, testing, testing.  We do need to face stellar realities, understand that we are linked to the incomprehensible, destructive powers beyond us and ask are we affected, are we in irresistible chains of connections?

Nietzsche’s vision for the future of evolution of the human being peaked at the mountain, the mountain tops, that was “xxx” years ago, that is a figure in chronological time, but when we reflect on this in real time we are then faced with totally different perspectives.  In the time since Thus Spoke Zarathustra [Nietzsche, 1883] humans have entered space flight and are exploring outer space.  Computing power, as you know, doubles every eighteen months, time is so packed, our understanding of time is so complex so extraordinary and expanded in so many directions that it is understandable that we transpose Nietzsche’s simile to our accepting the burden of aligning ourselves to the stars and galaxies.  For him, mountain peaks were the top, for us I suggest stars and galaxies are our kind of equivalent of what he was driving towards. 

Let me now endeavour to bring this all back to earth, the earth of the Evening Standard, and of the Today programme.  Humanity, I suggest, needs to enter the state attained by the aeroplane as it touches down at the end of the journey when the flaps on the wings emerge to hold back the plane’s advance.  We need to uncover and restrain the human drive to the extreme.  Intellectuals have a duty to tell the public that the game is up, that there will be no permanent life on earth.  We need to search for the origins of destructive drives in human beings, emersion in contemplating the awesome, and indeed beautiful, imagery of galaxies as we can apprehend it through Hubble, may lead to cathartic resolutions. 

Photo: 100 000 Newspapers. A Public-Active Installation by Gustav Metzger 2003, T1 2 Artspace, London, exhibition view.

Big thanks to Naomi Darlington for transcribing Gustav Metzger’s talk.