Issue 225 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
An artist who painted hydrochloric acid onto a canvas so that eventually the painting was entirely eaten away, as 'an attack on art dealers and collectors who manipulate modern art for profit', was never going to climb the art world career ladder. Gustav Metzger's invisibility to all but a small circle is the consequence of his lifelong commitment to politically confrontational art and scorn for the showcase of the commercial gallery.
The retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford brings together four decades of projects and documentation on this Polish-Jewish artist who came to England as a child refugee from Germany in 1939. His family perished in the Holocaust, and his early experiences fuelled his political ideas and enduring opposition to the barbarity and destruction of the capitalist system. Metzger's CND activities have put him in jail and his subversive art events have resulted in prosecution.
The exhibition falls into three sections: 'Auto-Creative Art', 'Auto-Destructive Art' (expressions of the potential for creativity and the drive to destruction in the 20th century) as well as an entirely new body of work begun in his seventies, 'Historic Photographs'. These are a series of installations which powerfully engage the spectator in a physical and psychic relation to press images of momentous or tragic events from the last 50 years of history.
In the first gallery are examples of 'Auto-Creative Art' - mesmerisingly beautiful liquid crystal light projections first made in the 1960s. The middle section comprises the models and documents of 'Auto-Destructive Art' in which Metzger developed an 'aesthetic of revulsion', where self-destruction was built in to the art as a mirror of a system careering towards annihilation. The largest gallery houses his current project, 'Historic Photographs' - images of fascism, the Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli war, Vietnam, the Oklahoma bombing and Twyford Down (site of recent tenacious road protests: for Metzger the history of struggle is categorically not over). All the photographs are instantly recognisable from the media, but are re-presented in ways which demand that the spectator experiences the images at a more profound level than the usual fleeting consumption of mass images.
Metzger makes it difficult - physical, optical and conceptual challenges confront the spectator. High iron bars herd you over a rough ramp down a corridor, close up against a vast blow-up of the 'Ramp at Auschwitz'. Some images are totally obscured - you have to press your face against rough breeze blocks to squint into the Oklahoma piece. The fluorescent lighting of 'Hitler Addressing the Reichstag' blinds your eyes. The menacing black shape of an Israeli soldier looms over you toting an automatic rifle as you pass into the curtained piece, 'Massacre on the Mount'.
A cloth lies on the floor, covering a huge photograph of Viennese Jews forced to scrub the pavement. To see this you are also forced to get down on your knees and crawl on top of the photograph beneath the clammy cloth, physically enacting the position of the Jews. Details of the image are revealed bit by bit, while at the same time you tread uncomfortably all over those already downtrodden people.
On my way out, I picked up a book by a younger artist well known for his work about the Holocaust. It was a fat coffee table edition costing £40. I flicked idly through the hundred or so pages of gruesome images and I knew in that moment why Metzger made that physical assault course. The lessons of history are hard.
Gustav Metzger's work is at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, until 10 January. For opening times and further information call 01865 722733.