Fondazione Galleria Civica di Trento

Curated by Andrea Viliani with Elena Lydia Scipioni

The Fondazione Galleria Civica of Trento is proud to announce Gustav Metzger. Decades: 1959-2009, the first retrospective in an Italian public institution dedicated to Gustav Metzger (Nuremberg, 1926).

After the solo exhibitions Robert Kusmirowski. Cosmorama/PAPOP (an artist book will be published, by the end of 2010, by Archive Books, Berlin), Melvin Moti. From Dust to Dust (artist book co-published by WIELS, Bruxelles and Fondazione Galleria Civica, Trento) and the workshop The Otolith Group. A Long Time Between Suns (artist book published by Sternberg Press), the exhibition Gustav Metzger. Decades: 1959-2009 and the related publication by Koening Books, London, are the last chapter of the 2010 exhibition program held at the Fondazione Galleria Civica of Trento, fully devoted to the relation beween “story” and “history”, to the multiple links between social and personal memory, to the role of the contemporary art institution suspended between critical dimension and narrative potentiality.

Gustav Metzger. Decades: 1959-2009 – initiated and organized by the Serpentine Gallery, London, and then presented at the Musée départemental d’art contemporain of Rochechouart – is the result of a significant investigation on the artist’s six decades of activity and presents a large selection of works, from those belonging to the Cardboards series of 1959 to the auto-destructive and auto-creative works of the Sixties, from the Liquid Crystal Environment, conceived in 1965, to the Historic Photographs realized in the Nineties and inspired by the main historical events and catastrophes of the 20th Century. The exhibition includes the films of the main performances and demonstrations by the artist, as Auto-Destructive Art, the Activities of G. Metzger (1963), directed by Harold Liversidge’s, and Power to the People (2003). Several works, that due to their ephemeral nature are not available any more, as well as some examples of auto-destructive art, have been again realized expressly for the exhibition, whilst other interventions will be presented as documentation.

When, in 1959, Metzger developed the concept of Auto-destructive art, he started realizing works and performing actions that were based on the never-seen-before relation between creation and destruction that may be put in direct relation (reaction) to those cultural, social, political systems that, like in a spiraling device, lead contemporary man to self-destruction. Auto-destructive art – introducing, besides, the dimension of time as an artistic medium – makes the slow disintegration of an object, or the rapid disappearance of a canvas through the use of acid, a process which is at the same time creative and destructive, revolving around the paradoxical coexistence of creation and destruction. Metzger therefore proposes a new way of making art that he had already outlined in his first manifesto on Auto-destructive art (4 November 1959) which would become the theoretical foundation of most part of his following artistic production. In 1960 Metzger moved away for good from painting in favour of the employment of daily-use material such as cardboard packaging, newspapers, plastic bags and pieces of fabric, all readymade objects that showed both art’s creative potential and a strong critic to consumerism’s wastefulness. In 1966, Metzger helped organizing the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) that was held in London with the participation of Ivor Davies, Juan Hidalgo, John Latham, Yoko Ono, Rolf Ortiz, John Sharkey, Biff (Graham) Stevens, Wolf Vostell, alongside with the Viennese Actionists. Even today, the artist considers his political commitment as important as his artistic activity (he was also among the founders, with Bertrand Russell and Michael Scott, of the “Committee of 100″, a British group of peace activists). Consistently with his active commitment against the consequences of global capitalism, of the arms and nuclear race, of the effects of the automobile and airplane pollution on the environment, of industrialization and the growing commodification of the art industry Metzger, has initiated campaigns and protests or has conceived projects that have often remain unrealized for several years.

Now well over eighty years old, Metzger has survived as a highly conscious and creatively sensitive witness to the history of the 20th and the early 21st Century. If the western world, starting from 1945, had been characterized by increasing affluence and a conspicuous prosperity, Metzger was among the very first artists to realize the potentially horrendous “Faustian pact” that contemporary progress entails. Metzger has made it his business to draw attention, with a succession of important artistic strategies, including both art manifestations and writings, to the dire consequences, as he has seen it, of this human folly, and not to lose its memory under the never-ending effects of the news.

Among a range of 23 major works, the exhibition presents Mass Media: Today and Yesterday (2009), a newspapers’ archive the artist has collected starting from 1995. The constant employment of printed paper is a sign of the artist’s attention towards newspapers as a medium from which we may extrapolate and analyse the never-ending flow of information we are subject to, to which Metzger reacts by creating his own information archives. Viewers are asked to select images and articles from Italian newspapers relating to three topics: the credit crunch, extinction and the way we live now, and to “publish” the news on a nearby board, creating a dialogue with other, unknown, visitors. The relation of man with the natural world and technology had been explored by the artist through various works, as the exhibited works Mirror Trees (2009), Car Scrappage Adverts from Currents Newspapers (2009) and Historic Photographs: Kill the Cars, Camden Town, London, 1996 (1996-2009). An extensive part of the exhibition is devoted to the Historic Photographs, a series of works that refer to some of the most tragic moments in modern history that are endlessly and globally replicated via newspapers and television. The artist has selected some well-known images, in particular from the official archives of photographs from Nazi Germany: each image has been hidden (out of compassion) and/or enlarged (out of indignation) by the artist: the viewer is unable to look at the total picture and is forced to focus on the image and on its terrible meaning, instead of suffering it passively or absent-mindedly. The exhibition also includes Liquid Crystal Environment (1965-66), a primary example of Auto-creative art that reflects the artist’s interest in the relation among artistic creation, science and technology. In his third manifesto on Auto-destructive art (23 June 1961) Metzger would propose the “art of change, of movement, of growth”, in which destruction represented also a prerequisite for renewal and creation itself. The artist had been prompted to experiment with liquid crystals after seeing them on the cover of an issue of “Scientific American” magazine in 1964, but a year before Metzger had made his first light projections in 1963 during a lecture for the Bartlett Society at the University of London, in which nylon stretched over a slide frame was seen to disintegrate after the application of hydrochloric acid. This technique was at the centre of Harold Liversidge’s 1963 film Auto-Destructive Art, the Activities of G. Metzger that films the gradual auto-destructive process of a piece of nylon fabric attached to a frame. However, it was not until 1966 that Metzger, collaborating with a physicist, perfected the coloured light projections and when the images were projected during performances by The Who, The Move and Cream who were playing at London’s Roundhouse. Confirming the parallelism between constant commitment and artistic production, the last section of the exhibition presents works as After Après Paolozzi PN 004886402 (1997-2009), a polystyrene packaging for TV sets that the artist has expressly showcased as a model, like in a sort of small-sized architecture; been there, done that K.S. (2001-2009), a collection of discarded cardboard boxes that pays homage to German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), whose works (big spaces realized with discarded material condemned to disposal) have been precursory as regards many contemporary installations; I Am Afraid of Red, White and Blue (2004), whose title refers to a work of the series Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue – a large-sized canvas divided into three brightly coloured sections by US artist and Abstract Expressionism representative Barnett Newman (1905-1970); Protect and Survive (1980), a booklet realized by the Central Office of Information for the British Home Office, and the response to such document, Protest and Survive (1980), created by E. P. Thompson for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; Reduce Art Flights (or RAF, to borrow the shared acronym for the Royal Air Force and the Red Army Faction), a flyer related to an ongoing campaign, initiated in 2007, which upholds that the art world – artists, curators, critics, gallerists, collectors, museum directors – could and should diminish its use of airplanes. The exhibition is closed by a work realized in 2009: Before the Bombardment of Yugoslavia Blair, Clinton, 1999 and Joschka Fischer, President Milan Milutinovic at the Failed Peace Negotiations at Château de Rambouillet on 23 February 1999. Metzger draws once again from archival material of recent events, reconstructing a fatal game of glances between the American, English, German and Serbian political leaders – all players, somehow, in one of the largest and bloodiest recent conflicts, the Balkan one. Metzger shows us again the terrible consequences of the mad mechanisms that drive our world, and invites us once again not to lose memory of our history and our role into it, as responsible actors, active witnesses, contemporary storytellers.

The Fondazione Galleria Civica of Trento would like to thank Gustav Metzger, Julia Peyton-Jones, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Sophie O’Brien and all the staff at the Serpentine Gallery, London, for making this project possible.

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