Gustav Metzger: Act or Perish! – A Retrospective
Rome, Italy: NERO, 2016
220 pp., 22 x 30 cm., hardcover
Edition of 1000
“[Gustav] Metzger had a profound effect on me. I was doing my first gig with The Who. I took it as an excuse to smash my new Rickenbacker… I really believed it was my responsibility to start a rock band that would only last three months, an Auto-destructive rock group. The Who would have been the first punk band, except that we had a hit.”
- Pete Townshend, 2000
Accounts differ, and some cite the above quote as convenient high-brow rock revisionism: that Townshend was merely frustrated by the poor sound quality at the venue and destroyed the instrument out of rage, or that he accidentally hit a low-hanging lightbulb while swinging his guitar in the air, and continued with its destruction when the act was met with applause. Either way, the smashing of his guitar became a mainstay of Who performances for years.
The guitarist met Metzger - whose death was announced earlier today - when he was a student at Ealing Art College and later attended the infamous Destruction in Art Symposium that Metzger hosted in 1966. The three-day event brought together Fluxus artists and members of the Viennese Actionists, and featured tortured books, melted canvases, punctured pianos, slaughtered sheep, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, Otto Muhl, Hermann Nitsch (whose involvement cost the organizers a £100 fine) and many others.
I was trying to research this event with little luck last spring (there wasn’t much information available online) when the above book arrived in the mail from Nero, impeccably timed. The title is the catalogue of the first extensive overview of Metzger’s work, which was organized in 2015-2016 at the Centre of Contemporary Art in Torun and Kunsthall Oslo and Stiftelsen Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo.
Metzger studied art at Sir John Cass Institute in Aldgate East from 1945 to 1948, and later - with a grant from the UK Jewish community - at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (1948–49).
His childhood experiences as a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany influenced much of his work in later life, which explored society's will to destruct. "Facing up to the Nazis and the powers of the Nazi state coloured my life as an artist," he says.
Metzger launched the “auto-destructive art movement” with a 1959 manifesto, in protest of rising consumerism, the proliferation of capitalism, and Atomic physics, which he called “the worst thing that happened in the 20th century.”
He conceived of the movement as "a slow time bomb [...] a desperate, last-minute, subversive political weapon [...] an attack on the capitalist system and an attack also on art dealers and collectors who manipulate modern art for profit”. The central idea of the DIAS was to “isolate the element of destruction of new art forms, and to discover and links with destruction in society”.
Act or Perish! presents Metzger as both an artist and activist and includes the following essays: "Gustav Metzger's Path from Art and Activism to Activist Art" by Pontus Kyander, "Painting and Auto-Destructive Art: For Other People" by Andrew Wilson, "Creation/Destruction, An Art In Constant Becoming" by Mathieu Copeland and Leanne Dmyterko's "Kneeling Down in Front of History". A short selection of Metzger’s own writings from 1966, '70, '71, '72, '74, '92, '98 and 2010 are also included.
The monograph also features interviews by curator Dobrila Denegri with Metzger's contemporaries, such as Yoko Ono, Hermann Nitsch, Ivor Davies and Jon Hendricks, as well as a conversation between Metzger and Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Metzger died at his home in London today, at the age of 90. Read Adrian Searle's obituary in the Guardian, here.
Act or Perish! is available from the publisher, here.