Gustav Metzger in Oslo: Extremes Touch and Liquid Crystal Environment

November 14th 2015 –  January 31st 2016
Kunsthall Oslo and Kunstnernes Hus are very pleased to announce a joint presentation

Gustav Metzger in Oslo: Extremes Touch and Liquid Crystal Environment

Please join us for the openings on Friday 13th November 2015
Kunsthall Oslo from 6pm/Kunstnernes Hus from 8pm
Kunsthall Oslo and Kunstnernes Hus are very pleased to announce a major presentation of work by Gustav Metzger, comprising two simultaneous exhibitions, Extremes Touch at Kunsthall Oslo and Liquid Crystal Environment at Kunstnernes hus. The exhibitions are part of the project Act or Perish. Gustav Metzger—a retrospective, initiated by the Centre of Contemporary Art in Toruń, Poland and curated by Dobrila Denegri and Pontus Kyander.

Gustav Metzger’s radical vision, foresight and commitment have led to his overdue acknowledgement as one of the most important artists of the post-war avant-garde. From his first manifesto on Auto Destructive Art in 1959 to last year’s exhibition and conference Facing Extinction, Metzger has been a pioneer in conceptual and performance art and an uncompromising activist for anti-capitalist and environmental causes. The Oslo exhibitions focus on Metzger’s auto-destructive and auto-creative artworks from the 1960s, including a painting made with hydrochloric acid and an artificial rainbow.

Kunstnernes hus presents Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment and a recreation of the First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art. Kunsthall Oslo presents Extremes Touch, a series of experiments in kinetic art using compressed air, water, heat and light, many of which have not been repeated since they were first performed in 1968.
The First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art (1960/2006) took place at the Temple Gallery in London on the afternoon of 22 June 1960. At the beginning of the performance, the artist was invisible to his audience, separated from them by a large pane of glass, across which was stretched a sheet of white nylon. He then applied a hydrochloric acid solution to the fabric. The acid immediately began to dissolve the nylon, creating a swirling glue-like coating on the glass through which Metzger slowly became visible. “Man in Regent Street is auto-destructive. Rockets, nuclear weapons are auto-destructive. Auto destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction …”1

Liquid Crystal Environment (1965/1998) is a large scale projection work that uses heated liquid crystals on glass slides to produce shifting patterns of polarised coloured light. The work epitomises Metzger’s search for an auto-creative art of “change, movement, growth” as the counterpoint to the violence of auto-destruction. “Gustav Metzger’s first display of liquid crystal experiments took place in 1965 during his lecture The Chemical Revolution in Art at the University of Cambridge; a year later his psychedelic light projections were star turns during performances of Cream and The Who at London’s Roundhouse, and Metzger was briefly a countercultural icon.”2

Extremes Touch: Material/Transforming Art (1968/2015) is the name Metzger gave to a series of experiments performed in the brand new Filtration Laboratory in the Chemical Engineering Department of University College, Swansea, which formed his contribution to the 1968 Swansea Arts Festival. Water, compressed air, laboratory hotplates, liquid nitrogen, crystalline mica and strobe lighting were brought together in various combinations: jets of water launched across the lab clashed with madly dancing plastic tubes animated by compressed air; drops of water fizzed into steam; swirling clouds of mica flakes sparkled hypnotically. Blocks of polystyrene were levitated off the ground, while at certain times of day a rainbow would form in one corner of the room. Sometimes, late at night, Metzger would turn everything on at once and watch by the light of the stroboscope. “At a certain point the work takes over … reaches a power, grace, momentum, transcendence … which the artist could not achieve except through random activity”.3

“I have no other choice than to assert my right to live”—A brief biography of Gustav Metzger

Born in 1926 in Germany to a family of Polish-Jewish descent, Metzger came to Britain as a child refugee in 1939; his parents and other members of his family were killed in the Holocaust. He initially trained as a furniture maker, but his interest in art led him to seek out Henry Moore, who advised him to go to art school. He studied painting in Antwerp, and with David Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic in London, before breaking ties with Bomberg and setting out to single-handedly reinvent the practice of art. Metzger’s first exhibition—a display of found cardboard boxes—in 1959 was followed by a series of manifestos and demonstrations of auto-destructive art, and he was invited to take part in the first official Fluxus manifestation in Britain, the Festival of Misfits in 1962. In 1966, with the poet John Sharkey, he organised the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium, a three-day series of performances which included Yoko Ono and Hermann Nitsch among its core participants. The Symposium attracted widespread media attention, and Metzger and Sherkey were later fined £100 for “having unlawfully caused to be shown a lewd and indecent exhibition.”4

In 1960, with Bertrand Russell and the Reverend Michael Scott among others, Metzger was one of the founder members of the Committee of 100, an anti-war group dedicated to direct action and civil disobedience. Briefly imprisoned for his involvement in the Committee’s protests, Metzger told the judge, “I came to this country from Germany when 12 years old, my parents being Polish Jews, and I am grateful to the government for bringing me over. My parents disappeared in 1943 and I would have shared their fate. But the situation is now far more barbaric than Buchenwald, for there can be absolute obliteration at any moment. I have no other choice than to assert my right to live, and we have chosen, in this committee, a method of fighting which is the opposite of war—the principle of total non-violence.”5

In 1969, as one of the few artists in the UK interested in exploring the implications of digital technology for art and society, Metzger became the first editor of PAGE, the journal of the Computer Arts Society. His sculpture/action Mobbile (1970)—a car with a large transparent cube containing plants mounted on its roof, and the car’s exhaust piped into the cube as it was driven around London and parked outside West End galleries—was an early example of environmentalist art-activism. By the early 1970s his reputation was established internationally. In 1972 he took part in the exhibition British Thing at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter and was invited to join Harald Szeeman’s dOCUMENTA 5, though his ambitious proposal appeared only in the catalogue and was not realised until 2006.

In 1974 the ICA in London invited Metzger to take part in the exhibition Art Into Society/Society Into Art but, disillusioned with art’s increasing commercialisation, he declined and instead contributed a statement to the catalogue proposing the Years Without Art 1977–1980, “a period of three years when artists will not produce work, sell work, permit work to go on exhibition and refuse collaboration with any part of the publicity machinery of the art world”.6

The call attracted little support (though it was later taken up, or knowingly plagiarised, by the UK artist Stewart Home as the Art Strike of 1990–93), but Metzger himself withdrew from both art production and the art world. He embarked on years of research which included organising, with Cordula Frowein, the conference Art in Germany under National Socialism in London in 1976, the first attempt to critically examine the subject of National Socialist art, architecture and design. He lived in Germany and Holland through the 1980s and continued to make occasional presentations of his research.

Metzger returned to London in 1994, where he produced a new body of work, the Historic Photographs, that was presented as part of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. Since that time his work has been exhibited widely, with solo exhibitions at the Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2015); Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej, Centre of Contemporary Art Toruń (2015); Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (2015); Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (2014); Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon (2013); New Museum, New York (2011); Serpentine Gallery, London (2009); Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw (2007); Kunsthalle Basel (2006); Lunds Konsthall (2006); Generali Foundation, Vienna (2005); Kunsthalle Nürnberg (1999); Oxford Museum of Modern Art (1995). Metzger’s work has also been shown in major international group exhibitions including dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel (2012); the São Paulo Biennial (2010); Gwangju Biennale (2010); Sharjah Biennial (2007); Skulptur Projekte Münster (2007); and the 50th Venice Biennale (2003).

Extremes Touch at Kunsthall Oslo and Liquid Crystal Environment at Kunstnernes Hus are part of Act or Perish, a major retrospective of Gustav Metzger’s work organised by the Centre of Contemporary Art in Toruń, Poland and curated by Dobrila Denegri and Pontus Kyander. The exhibition Act or Perish in Toruń surveyed the entire period of Metzger’s practice from the late 1940s until today. Extremes Touch extends the retrospective with the addition of several works that have been recreated for the first time since 1968.

Act or Perish. Gustav Metzger—a Retrospective in Toruń and Oslo has been organized with the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland within the program “Promotion of Diversity in Culture and Arts within European Cultural Heritage”—EEA Grants, in collaboration with Kunsthall Oslo and Kunstnernes Hus, and is under the patronage of The Embassy of Norway in Warsaw and UMK—Copernicus University in Toruń. Additional funding for talks and educational events in Oslo has been provided by the Arts Council Norway and the Freedom of Expression Foundation.

A seminar, Between Creation and Destruction: On the work of Gustav Metzger, will be held at Kunstnernes Hus, 12-4pm Sunday 23rd November, admission free. Participants: Mathieu Copeland, Leanne Dmyterko, Serina Erfjord, Pontus Kyander, Sören Schmeling.

1. Gustav Metzger, Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art, 1960
2. Financial Times, London, 29/5/14
3. Gustav Metzger, “On Random Activity in Material/Transforming Works of Art” (30 July 1964), in Metzger at AA, Destruction/Creation, London, 1965
4. Simon Ford, “Technological Kindergarten”, in Mute Vol. 1 #26, 2003
5. Gustav Metzger quoted in Andrew Wilson, “Papa what did you do when the Nazis built the concentration camps? My dear they never told us anything”, in Gustav Metzger: Damaged Nature, Auto-Destructive Art, Coracle, London, 1996
6. Gustav Metzger, “Art Strike (1977–80)”, in Art Into Society/Society Into Art exhibition catalogue, ICA London, 1974