Gustav Metzgerīs influential contribution to post-war British art - as an artist, theorist and opponent to the capitalist system - is reflected in his current exhibition, now touring from MoMA in Oxford, U.K, to Exeter and further to Nurnberg, Germany. In this interview, at legendary Café Cosmo in London, curator Hans Ulrich traces Metzgerīs activities from his years as an art student, via the auto-destructive manifesto and the Destruction in Art Symposium to his most recent work Historic Photographs.
by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO):
This interview takes place at Café Cosmo at Waterloo Station. Could you tell me about the
history of the original Café Cosmo in Hampstead?
Gustav Metzger (GM): Well, itīs very famous and you had thousands of people using it during and certainly since. certainly after the war. People who spoke German, who met here. In Hampstead you had the cultural center the Free German, the communist inspired cultural center. You had liberal Germans, you had probably the reactionary Germans, all in and out of Hampstead, all in and out of this café. So itīs an historic spot that is worth remembering.
HUO: Can we talk about the unrealized projects? Iīd like to ask you to talk about this project notion, very generally, in your work. And then maybe about some specific examples of the works which potentionally could have been realized and athe reasons why they have not been realized, in terms of either censorship or economics.
GM: The projects are largely projects which have to do with auto-destructive art. And none of them have been realized, none of them have even been considered by anyone except myself. They have never even been discussed in terms of a possibility of realization. So they are genunine projects in that sense. Or unfinsihed or unproduced. But what is behind them is the desire to materialize an idea and an ideal of auto-destructive art. And they are all just words on paper and words that I have spoken in terms of lectures or private discussions. And there are other projects which have not been realized which have not to do with auto-destructive art. Like the floating piece of metal in front of the National Film Theater or the liquid crystal projections on the side of the Festival Hall.
HUO: Could you talk about this?
"The acid-nylon paintings are the realizations of auto-destructive art. But they are not the perfect realizations. The perfect realizations are monuments."
GM: Yes, this is a project I think from 1970 or 1971. I actually went to the Greater London Council or the GLC, anyway ,the governing body of London, which was situated in the County Hall just up the road on the South Bank. And told them that I wanted to do certain projects. And they said you canīt do those projects, that was the answer, you canīt do them. There were three projects. And I told them that the project of the floating metal on the river - it would look something like this; a piece of iron or steel which would "we do not mind if you do that but why donīt you get an agreement from the River Board" - some official board in charge of the river. But I went as far as seeing the River Board and they gave me permission to my surprise. Then I was advised to contact Alistair McAlpine. His firm, was building the National Theatre. Alistair McAlpine, as you know, was at that time a great patron of the arts.
HUO: So one could say that the auto-destructive concept as a whole is an unrealized project?
GM: Yes, so far. I mean the only realizations were the acid-nylon paintings. The acid-nylon paintings are the realizations of auto-destructive art. But they are not the perfect realizations. The perfect realizations are monuments. And also remember, the acid paintings were made by hand but the essence of auto-destructive art is that the hand doesnīt have a part in it, except in the contruction of the original sculpture. Then itīs all automatic, itīs all You leave it, the artist no longer touches the work.
HUO: You have always been reluctant to use the word utopia...
GM: The term utopia is one that I have very rarely used. And Iīve kept shy of it. Itīs a word that I find rather disturbing and so heavily laden with all kinds of past movements. To me it seems unusable. So that is something we can keep out. But itīs utopic in the sense that Iīve been concerned with the realization of something in the future. But since the future has never happened and may never happen itīs in that sense utopic, in the technical sense if you like... Certainly you can call it visionary. These are visions, visions of vast monuments as I describe them. Pharaonic monuments to manīs capacity to destroy, I think that is one of my bits of writing on the subject.
HUO: In your texts on the auto-destructive project it is defined as a very complex theory, as a whole thinking process. Are there different stages of realizations of these monuments? Could you talk about the time aspects?
GM: Well, the realization hasnīt happened and that is one of the problems when it comes to time. Time is at the very center of the idea. Time and a way of demonstrating it. Demonstrating time. Showing time. Getting people involved with time. That is at the center of it all. In that sense it relates to music and to dance. Both art forms I have been very involved in as a spectator, someone who takes it in. Not of course as a performer.
HUO: But also the change in time ? The change from one moment to another moment. It wouldnīt be static sculptures, your monuments are in permanent transformation.
GM: Sure. And the transformation of material is at the very center. Material actually changing its form and shape and its meaning. You respond to each changing form and the interaction between changing forms in a particular manner. At least you can, if you are sensitive enough, concerned enough. Because of time - either day-depending, or weeks, or years there is the opportunity to react differently to the different transformative effects. This in the center of my concerns. Thatīs what I meant by the enlargement of the scope of art. And that includes time. Time is involved in everything.
HUO: That would be more of a time monumentally than a space monumentally. Could one say that?
GM: Yes. This is the point. This is, I think, the beauty of it, that you have an integration of so many factors and then, again, is why I explain auto-destructive art as an extension of capacities. The problem is that people havenīt understood that, people havenīt gone deep enough into the potential. Potential that is opened up by auto-destructive art. Thatīs why itīs still not there!
"And so the potential of understanding my work is greater, but I can tell you that there is still an enormous gap. And the gap has lagerly to do with a resistance to the views on politics that I have expressed over the the years, has lasted."
HUO: This is a little bit like unbuilt architecture - paper architecture. There is a potential.
GM: Yes, but itīs bigger than that, because unbuilt architecture is architecture. But here is something unbuilt which has never existed, which would never exist unless it was made along the lines that Iīve proposed. And that is a kind of tragedy. Itīs a term I sometime use.
HUO: Isnīt that maybe also linked to the specialization? At the time of the Russian constructivism Moholy-Nagy used plastic and some other material shortly after they had been invented. So there has been a dialogueI think in the second half of this century this dialogue has been cut and has existed very little between art and science, a loss we now are more and more aware of.
GM: I agree that the opportunity for understanding the work is greater now than ever before. And here I think we can bring in cosmology. We are now bombarded by information on cosmology. It is concerned with the beginning of time and space and life and the ending of that. This is an area which Iīve reflected a lot upon the last few years, increasingly so. But so has everyone else. Now there is a conjunction of some of my issues, problems. And that of a large number of people, beyond scientists - ordinary people, people in the public - are getting to know about this, reading books, watching television and listening to the radio. And so the potential of understanding my work is greater, but I can tell you that there is still an enormous gap. And the gap has lagerly to do with a resistance to the views on politics that I have expressed over the the years, has lasted. They are pretty extreme, they are disruptive of the way things are, and most people donīt want to know! And that is one major reason why my work has not been accepted. Had I not been in the political arena I would probably by now have been quite successful. And there we can cite Tinguely who didnīt bring up, I mean he was an anarchist. He had very strong critical views but you canīt say that he continously made manifestos or held lectures. He didnīt. He went on with his work. Iīm not criticising him for that but in my case Iīve always put theory first. Iīve always stuck to this attack on society - and people donīt like that they still donīt like that!
HUO: Richard Dindo said the artist is always in resistance.
"And I wrote this text calling on artists of the world to stop to making art between 1977 and 1980. Three years of not working as artists."
GM: Well, it is constant and I will never give it up. I would in the end maintain my ideas and give up art rather than the other way around.
HUO: That leads to the question about your art strike.
GM: Yes, the art strike was a culmination of feelings I had. That I personally didnīt want to go into the art world. I was at that point, 1974, beginning to be integrated in the art world. In the sense that I was asked to go to Documenta in 1972.
HUO: By Harald Szeemann.
GM: Yes, I was personally invited by him, and all that And there were other exhibitions. There was in 74, this very large German project in London at the ICA and the Goethe Institute. There I was asked, in fact I was urged to come in, I mean I was pressuarized! I didnīt want to come in! And there were the two curators who had discussions with me for hours, trying to persuade me. Eventually I then caved in, but as you know, I decided not to exhibit as a gesture. And I wrote this text calling on artists of the world to stop to making art between 1977 and 1980. Three years of not working as artists. So there you have an extreme manifestation of my rejection of the way things are and my attempt to go towards some other ideas.
HUO: This notion of auto-destructive art how would you define this in relation to the pervasiveness of capitalism. Is auto-destructive art aiming at abolishing the capitalistic system?
GM: Yes, this is the central idea. As we said in the taxi there are different definitions of this system at different times. There was corporatism - the corporations were stressed at a certain point then you had terms like the global economy, this is still with us. But in principle they refer to the same problem; the capitalism, the market economy. Yes, very popular in the end of the seventies, early eighties. There is always the attempt not to use the term capitalism.
HUO: Like to circumscribe it? Like to evade it?
GM: Yes, itīs not a nice word. And of course capitalism changes. Now itīs a world system which has triumphed, and is triumphing globally. Itīs a world system, global economy is the term to this effect But it still relates to the problem which is capitalism. And we have to be opposed to all these terms and to all these developments. Itīs just one thing; power and domination. Power and domination. And we have to oppose it. And the trouble is that there are not enough people in the art world who think like this. Not enough.
HUO: You once mentioned that you had dialogues with Beuys?
GM: It was in -72 when he came to the Tate and in -74 when he came to London for the German month.
HUO: Did you basically agree with him?
GM: The central confrontation was the first time we met, in -72. Youīve got a picture here in this book there we are talking It was a genuine confrontation. We had never met before and he knew me by name but obviously not by sight, otherwise he would have recognized me. For at least one hour we were in communication, were confronting each other, and as the text documents based on the tape there were a lot of disagreement between us and I would suggest that I was considerably more sophisticated in understanding.
HUO: What was the main disagreement?
GM: The main disagreement was on development. I suggested that we should not encourage the so called third world to develop along our lines and here he tended to disagree. He said , and this is a quotation, if we have goods we should give them to the poor people so that everyone would benefit. Which means that he never understood the dilemma that the west is placed in. In other words, he didnīt understand the crisis, which is now so blatant, which now every school child is aware of. He didnīt understand that - at that time. It was evident by the tape that is now at the Tate gallery, which Andrew Wilson is quoting in his article
. HUO: Were there other basic disagreement? Did any ecological concerns come out from that discussion? What about the Green Party?
GM: Well, we discussed ecological problems. But he didnīt understand these aspects of the crisis at that time. Iīm sure he learnt as time went on. As time went on he educated himself, became more responsible. Iīm sure.
HUO: Were there other artists with whom you had a dialogue at the time?
"I have never taken any position towards critics, of any kind. No, I havenīt. Because I donīt think that itīs my job..." "I am much more concerned with the outside world, than with the inner art world."
GM: Yes, of course, the person was John Latham. I knew John Latham since the early 60īs, certainly since -64. And as you know he developed this concept of Artists Placement. My problem with him was that I felt that he was too close to the big powers. And was prepared to collaborate closely. We had a public dispute there is an article that you may know?
HUO: Yes, you disagreed with his concept of infiltration of existing structures.
GM: Yes, the manner of infiltration, not the principle of infiltration. But the article I wrote in response to this major exhibition they had at the Hayward Gallery in the early 70īs, makes this very clear, makes our differences very clear. My position, and the position I took in conversation with John Latham, was that if going to do the kind of work that you are planning to do then you should go to this business and say: We are opposed to you - yes, that is our position - but we are offering to collaborate on specific projects which could be interesting to us and possibly helpful to the world situation. He never accepted the challenge which I put to him. And that is one reason, maybe, why I never really worked with him.
HUO: How did it occur that you distanced yourself from the Artists Placement group?
GM: We did have connections. We were trying to do things together. They never materialized. And I sort of dropped out. I was not the only one, there were others who dropped out from this orbit. I am not, of course, now putting the whole work down. Some of their work was contructive and I like his own work very much. I like his paintings. And I am very interested in the destructive works he did. I was present at a number of them, kind of participant in a sense. And I take him very seriously.
HUO: And the two of you shared this anti-Greenbergian drive, didnīt you?
"So this exhibition was the 9th of November 1959. From that point onwards I didnīt stop thinking about the idea of auto-destructive art."
GM: Well, I wasnīt part of that. I mean, I wasnīt invited. In terms of disintegration But I donīt have an anti-Greenbergian position.
HUO: You donīt?
GM: I have never taken any position towards critics, of any kind. No, I havenīt. Because I donīt think that itīs my job. And maybe I havenīt got the capacity. I am not like some of the American artists, who are polemical in the art field. I am much more concerned with the outside world, than with the inner art world. So itīs not my job to attack either artists or critics. But I have attacked institutions - which is something else. Yes, also I admit I have hardly read Greenberg, even to this date. So when I was younger I just didnīt read Greenberg.
HUO: But your first performances, what was then the point of beginning? I mean you worked with David Bomberg.You said that you at the same time wanted to become a sculptor. How did this first major destructive drive enter your work, did it come out of a disagreement with Bomberg? I would be very interested in knowing more about the origins of your auto-destructive project.
GM: Yes, that is very very clear. It was a vision which I had in the summer, the late summer of 1959 when I returned to London. For many years I lived at Kings Lynn, a small market town in East Anglia. And early 1959 I left. I had a beautiful big house there, a studio, workshops and so on. I gave it all up. I was very poor, isolated, but I had a very good time, in 1959, I wonīt go into the whole story, but itīs connected with a small artist café called 14 Monmouth Street, where I exhibited some paintings I did in Kings Lynn. And then I exhibited the cardboards, which are illustrated here...Now there you had young people who were kind of neo-dadaists. They werenīt fully professional. They showed junk-sculptures. One day we were sitting around, and after they had shown their work and I had shown some work, one of them said: Well, I think we should make an exhibition of paintings. And once it opens weīll burn them. And I think that gave me a certain hint. It certainly affected me. I mean, itīs not the first time I thought of destruction, but it was this specific idea. And within a month or two I had the idea of making a sculpture which would disintegrate during the exhibition. The London Group has annual or biannual exhibitions, I thought that I would make a sculpture, not much bigger than this, maybe twice the height. So I put it in as a sculpture. Nobody knows, but that sculpture would have some kind of inbuilt chemical or mechanical system that after two or three weeks you can see the transformation. So this was actually the origin of auto-destructive art. Not an idea but a work. Sculpture. And on the basis of that sculpture I began to develop a theory, the first manifesto, in November, which came out at the same time as this exhibition. It was one sheet, cardboard text. So this exhibition was the 9th of November 1959. From that point onwards I didnīt stop thinking about the idea of auto-destructive art.
You asked me about the first acid painting. I painted the first in 1960, about seven months after the first manifesto, I painted. Now, that is closer to Bomberg. When you look at photographs of that first painting you could think that I was painting in his style, or in the style that I was painting, because I wasnīt just painting in Bombergīs style, I was developing my own work to some extent. It was action-painting, the first one.
HUO: Early in the 50s you wrote about Bomberg. What was your interest in Bomberg?
"I would travel sometimes for 50 miles to get to his class. So, it shows in the end I was fully committed and reconciled to the relationship of teacher student. But then things got very complicated."
GM: First of all, he was my teacher. I had many
teachers but he was the major teacher, who interested me more than any other. And he influenced the way I was painting. He always influenced the way I was painting, or drawing. So you can imagine itīs a very wide-ranging issue, what Bomberg is for me. He was also a friend. He was a supporter of mine. He arranged that I had a grant for three years. He worked with me, but also for me. And he became a kind of father figure, in a sense. It was a difference in age and he was Polish Jewish origins like my family. There was so much that brought us together. At the same time we had quite a number of disagreements. I left his class on several occasions, disappeared.
HUO: What were the reasons for these disagreements?
GM: Well, you know, if you are a young man and I met him when I was 19 you inevitably rebel against the older person.
HUO: Like you rebel against the father?
GM: Exactly, you rebel against the father, you rebel against the teacher. So this was part of it. In the end though there were three years when he had two evening classes a week at the Borough Polytechnic. And I attended all of those. Even if I didnīt live in London. I would travel sometimes for 50 miles to get to his class. So, it shows in the end I was fully committed and reconciled to the relationship of teacher student. But then things got very complicated.
HUO: Where did you disagree?
GM: The final disagreement was...Originally, in 1948 Bomberg had a group that the students called Borough Group. We formed Borough Bottega. And I was the driving force behind the Borough Bottega. And I was the driving force behind the idea that we students should do something together to recognize Bomberg. So we established this Borough Bottega in the summer - a long summer, there were a dozen meetings to go through the idea and to establish a constitution and to arrange an exhibition. So we arranged an exhibition, in October, November 1953. At the end of all that I came to the conclusion that there was a fundamental problem in the whole situation. Bomberg wanted a place for himself and his family which wasnīt right. We had decided I had decided - that the Borough Bottega would try to put him on the map but as the meetings proceeded, as we formed the constitution, I realized that he in an extraordinary egoistic manner was trying to dominate it to an extent that I could not longer accept. And I resigned. And at the point of resigning I said, "Look, Iīm resigning from this group. But that doesnīt mean that I donīt want to go on supporting you." I had moved to Kingīs Lynn. Iīd left London for a number of reasons. I then had a letter from Bomberg, saying that my letters to Bomberg and correspondence, is in Tate Gallery Archive. Itīs all documented. There is the final letter from Bomberg, not the letter of course that he sent me, but the draft for that, saying, I can no longer have any contact with you, I canīt quote it now. "You have taken up too much of my life. Goodbye." I mean, he broke the relationship. I had changed my relationship to the group, to him too, but I didnīt break it.
"And auto destructive art was the liberating ideal for me. And the tragedy, that I come back to, is that society didnīt recognize this potential. Or put it in another way; society is clever enough to see the potential and stop it."
HUO: What I am also interested in is the question of painting in terms of politics ..like what we discussed before, political art, the whole notion of political art I mean, this is the question, if sculpture or painting could be a carrier of this political message? If the 20th century paintings still could trigger a state crisis, in terms of Gericaultīs The Raft of the Medusa could trigger in the 19th century? I mean this whole question of painting and sculpture being more and more self referential, eventually. At the time of Courbert or Gericault a painting could could trigger a very public discussion.
GM: This is precisely..This is the center of my move away from painting - Bomberg, if you like towards auto-destructive art. This is the crisis that Iīve lived through. All the years of my being a student, and I started in January 1945, I asked myself: How can art contribute to the saving of society, to the change of society? And this was everyday more or less, all these years. And auto destructive art was the liberating ideal for me. And the tragedy, that I come back to, is that society didnīt recognize this potential. Or put it in another way; society is clever enough to see the potential and stop it. Because that is how it operates. Society is an organism which is self-protecting. And as soon as society, in a broad sense, wants a stop, they kill, they imprison, or they send you to a mad house, or they make you ill or they ingnore you.. None of these things happened to me, but they certainly ignored me, yes. They could have done but they didnīt. I am not blaming everything on the outside, because I have my own failure. As I told you I didnīt send works to (Pontus) Hultén when he asked me, I didnīt take up other opportunities. So in me too, there is a self-destructive trend, inside my own person. I accept that. I have to live with it.
HUO: You then organized a symposium out of these convictions of auto-destructive art, these convictions out of young painting and young sculpture. Itīs a very important symposium which Otto Mühl told me a lot about this Destruction in Art Symposium where you were an organizer...
GM: Yes, it rose out of a realization that there were so many artists in the world who destroyed at some point. And this happened separate from auto- destructive art. These people were not using auto-destructive art. That is quite clear. The vast majority are using elements in their work, where this work is damaged, physically damaged and opened up. I wonīt go into the whole history but...
HUO: What about Fontanaīs influence? What about Fontana?
GM: Fontana, indeed. I talked to Fontana once. Surely there is a destructive element. He repetedly said to me, "No, I reject this interpretation completely. Itīs only a constructive process where I liberate space behind the cut. In and behind the cut there is space which I liberate." This explanation of course I have to accept. But Fontana is at the edge of destruction. There is Ortiz who tears furniture. Iīve seen it in London.
HUO: And there is Burri?
GM: Yes, Burri is certainly close to Fontana. There is a close connection. As far as they will make something which stays, is fixed and becomes a work of art. But there is John Lalhan - burning, Aubertin - burning. And you can go on and on and on. So the idea was to bring this together on a platform, it is connected with the Art and Artist issue of course, on auto-destructive art. So there is an enormous history to it. Of course there is Kristine Stiles dissertation where you can read all about it. All the documentation.
HUO: About the Viennese actionists?
"Certainly you could say that the fetish is in the making, as people watch it, Iīm making a fetisch. Thatīs why I want to be careful not to respond in a simple manner. But certainly once itīs ended you canīt say there is a fetisch there except in oneīs mind."
GM: Indeed. For the first time. I donīt know if you have seen the new book called the Destruction of Art. Destruction of Art by Gamboni. Do get it while youīre in London. Itīs certainly in all the big book shops. Itīs a good book. I take it seriously. Itīs 400 pages.
HUO: You work did not only change at the beginning in order to be frozen into a fixed form, your whole work is about transformations and change.
GM: Well, youīve got the picture which is exactly relevant. In this first painting, public painting, in the summer of 1960, I was painting with strokes, with brushes. Here in the open air, one year later, after the first one, I transformed my approach, my technique. Instead of one painting, one screen, I had three screens. And I didnīt paint, but I sprayed. I actually sprayed on. This is a completely different way of working and thinking. And it leads to the total obliteration of the art work, which in the end ends up with a few strips. We are seeing the work in progress but in the end all you had was some strips left. This was all gone. But, gone, of course in a way , in a technique, in a visualization that has nothing to do with painting. This is no longer painting. This is a completely, maybe I should not say this but I would define this as a completely original way of dealing with painting. Because you are creating a painting, you are creating the forms of the painting, and the colours. There were three colours in this, black, white and red, on each screen. So you are seeing colour in relation to other colours. You see here, white against black against red. And of course itīs a very fascinating image. You can imagine, that it could have been fixed at any point and oh, itīs a work. But it was never fixed, it was never meant to be fixed.
HUO: Like the refusal of the fetish?
GM: Well, let me go on. Certainly you could say that the fetish is in the making, as people watch it, Iīm making a fetisch. Thatīs why I want to be careful not to respond in a simple manner. But certainly once itīs ended you canīt say there is a fetisch there except in oneīs mind. Itīs finished. But this is more complex than has been analyzed. You know, one needs an article. Maybe when I do it in Los Angeles somebody comes a long and makes a real study of this technique.
HUO: You will re-construct, or re-make, the -61 event in LA?
GM: Yes, as close as possible. That is what I have been asked to do. And in principle I have accepted the challenge. I have accepted it with all its problems. But this is a work which goes way beyond Bomberg. Bomberg never conceived of it. Bomberg perhaps wouldnīt have wanted. In this (Roy) Oxlade dissertation there is a section where he actually says, referring to my activities at the end of the Borough Bottega."This destructiveness of Metzger is a signal which later came out. When Metzger did this auto-destructive art he revealed his destructivity." And I know that Mrs Bomberg, Bombergīs wife, regarded my new work as unacceptable. And itīs possible that Bomberg might also had rejected this. He died in 1957, two years before I became involved in this. So it raises the interesting question of how this relates to my teaching. But it is a rejection of my studies. You see, I had to go beyond - and this is the point - the young artists have to go beyondBomberg has made this statement that the young must go beyond the master. He made that statement in different ways.
HUO: But I understand your reluctance to too quickly accept the idea of critique of the fetish, because obviously process can also be a fetisch. But still, in your work it seems to me that there is a very strong parallell to what Adorno said, that there is a permanent critique of the fetish, in terms that your works have not been an accumulation of static objects - that there has been much more active processes. And that also leads to my question about the second distinction for many of the participants of your Destruction in Art Symposium. In fact many artists, also performance artists of the 60īs and 70īs, made performances which were very artistic and auto-destructive for themselves, but not invited to participation. Your art, since the 60`s, and maybe even the 50īs, has always been in the realm of participation. It would be interesting if you talk about this notion of participation?
GM: Yes, this is at the center of the idea of these auto-destructive monuments. And I write about this, and I lectured on it. And I say, "This is for the people so that they get another vision that they are offered something which they havenīt got." But which, in my terms, offers something significant on the aesthetic level but also on the political plane. In as far as they are seeing something which they donīt get anywhere else. This is already a plus. If you see something novel, well, it must be good, I suggest. They see something which is challenging, so it challenges their perception of the daily reality, which is good. But it offers them a visual experience which they canīt get anywhere else. And all that is free, because these will be public sculptures. So that is one inherent challenge, as regards the Destruction in Art Symposium. And that explains my decision not to participate. I could have made works like the others. I was asked, "Arenīt you going to do anything?" And one that I didnīt do was to sharpen the difference between auto-destructive art and my position and the rest. Not putting them down but itīs a matter of understanding. Iīm glad you raised that question.
HUO: This notion of participation which is also very strong in your current Historic Photographs work.Images to walk into, to crawl into as you showed them in Life/Live in Paris.
"I think, what I am doing is offering everybody the chance of a kneefall in front of history. Just to walk in is also to accept the heaviness, the weight of history."
GM: To respond to, to interact.Yes, auto-destructive art is concerned with giving to people. And getting them absorbed in something unusual - but of course changing their political views. But that applies to my present work, doesnīt it? Changing the political views. I confront in Paris the present-day Israel and the past Nazi-Austria. And, of course, some people understand the connections and others donīt. But my challenge is to make people see connections, to see the differences and to literally interact and hopefully transform their being through confronting these very difficult works. They are very difficult works, arenīt they? Donīt you think?
HUO: Yes, uncomfortable. But there is a paradox because itīs very uncomfortable and still the people who did interact, did so very strongly and were very involved? Usually there was never one person alone, there was a process where two or three people went in.
GM: Yes, but let me say this. A number of people came up and said how much they liked, how highly they rated my particular exhibited. And some of them I asked Did you go in?. And some said yes. Then I said Did you crawl in? Nobody that I talked to actually admitted that. And there was one person, who rated it very highly and I asked Did you crawl in?. He looked at me and said There are three things I never do. And one of them is to crawl. He was an Englishman middleclass, respectable, somebody high up in the art world. I can understand that, but it shows you...
HUO: Its about guilt in a publicly space.
GM: Yes, but it has to do with the kneefall of Willy Brandt in Warzaw. Yes, very public, as head of the German state, head of the government. He bent down on his knees in front of this monument. Itīs world famous. I think, what I am doing is offering everybody the chance of a kneefall in front of history. Just to walk in is also to accept the heaviness, the weight of history. Which is a good thing for people to do, to go in to confront the past and present, to present oneself against that history means that you have a chance to transform yourself. Isnīt that so? You have a chance to change. This is really what my work is about; offering people the chance to change through a work of art, which I put into the world. And in that sense I am fulfilling a responsibility from which I started out as an artist. What can I do as an artists to help society? To prevent future wars? This is my origin, as an artist. This was a challenge to me. And the question for me was Can art do it instead of just politics? And I said Art can do it. I said Art must do it and I must be one of the artists who do it.
HUO: So itīs a question of art changing the world?
"My job is to draw people in so that they interact towards social change. That is a principle that I am committed to."
GM: Yes. Art changing the world and me as an individual artist facing up to the challenge. Now, I believe through auto destructive art Iīve suceeded in formulating, at least an idea and an ideal where this can come about. And in that sense I am reasonably content - looking back and looking forward to my future works - that I am on the right track.
HUO: So in that sense one could say that auto-destructive art is only just beginning?
GM: Yes, in a sense. And with your book, hopefully, somebody who is out there, listening, waiting, may respond to this cry of mine. Yes, its always possible. I predict that if I could make one sculpture of auto-destructive art there would be a little queue of people. But, if I make one auto-destructive art sculpture I am sure that there will be somebody saying, "Do this one" or "Do another one" or "Do something else". So the first one, that is the difficult one.
HUO: So itīs like trigger of a process?
HUO: This is also interesting in terms of the notion of participation in your work. In the Paris piece but also other pieces are almost like triggers for dialogues. They trigger reactions in between the spaces so that people engage in a dialogue? Or as Douglas Gordon always says: Objects as an excuse to have a dialogue.
GM: Yes, that is what I am working on. My job is to draw people in so that they interact towards social change. That is a principle that I am committed to. That doesnīt mean that I may not to do paintings, just paintings. Because I believe, Iīve always believed, that painting and sculpture, makes a major contribution. In all my talks to students, all these decades, I īve never said anything else. So one day I am quite prepared to go into some room and see if I can paint. And see what they are like. I mean, if they are not good I donīt have to exhibit them. If I think they are good then I would exhibit them. I see no contradiction. When I have sometimes said that, they said Oh, you canīt think like that, can you?. Itīs like I would be abandoning my whole past. I donīt see it like that. Any form of art has validity, I believe. And I am open to change into the future. Yes.
HUO: So itīs less about being against painting, or against sculpture, but more like a media mix, something which is in between. How do you see that in connection to Dick Higginīs intermedia where everything is inbetween.
GM: Well, itīs perfectly acceptable. And of course I am in that position now, influenced by newspapers, by historical photographs, current events and the whole history of art or culture. And again, cosmology is part of this. Cosmology goes back for tens or thousands of years, people have looked at the stars, been concerned with the world beyond that long. And itīs now of greater concern than ever before for more and more people. I am fully involved with that. And as I said before, this way of understanding the world is very close to auto-destructive art. We now accept that the world started with nothing and but it will end with nothing but is going through enormous transformations which involves destructivity. I see this as a powerful confirmation of my position in art; that there is now a world movement concerned with these fundamentals. What is so important about this is that people are becoming more honest. Culture so far has been an attempt to escape from the realization that we are finite. Culture was the idea that we have these monuments forever.
HUO: Like an illusion of infinity?
GM: Yes, the Renaissance. Every great burst of art has been the attempt to think that we have made it, we have achieved the absolute, in books, in philosophy, in art. And we have created a shield against that through our culture. Isnīt that the feeling you get when you look at different major cultures? Today we are now thinking that itīs all over . It doesnīt matter you see.There was a time a few decades ago where the idea was prevalent that we are so clever, we know the earth will be burnt but we will escape. Now, slowly people begin to think, "Alright, we can do that, and will do that but where ever we go to we are trapped". Because in the end everything will go into nothing. So it could be four hundred million years, but we might as well give up now. We will never succeed in permanent life. Now when this percolates, and it hasnīt percolated yet, but all the signs are that people will accept that, then they may begin to think, on the lines that Iīve begun to think; If thatīs the case we might as well abandon all these dreams of permanent life and technology. And just live. Live for the present and enjoy ourselves. And not kill ourselves with the ideal of immortality.
HUO: Hakim Bey talks about Immediatism.
GM: Yes, Iīm going to read that book. And I liked his lecture enormously. And so we are in a very fascinating stage in culture where these fundamentals are finally faced - that we will die as a species. And so why not just live for the present? Why not have a good time on earth rather than keep escaping into some unknown endless future? When this is realized and I think it will take another twenty years the ideals of living on the land, living close to nature, living in a simplifyed manner, will start to grow. You see my perspective? We are becoming more realistic. Weīre facing up to the dangers of bio-technology - thirty years ago we didnīt do that. Now everybody is talking about it. That is facing up to reality, facing up in the right way, in a constructive manner. So in that sense I feel history is on my side. You know, I feel that. And that is one of the reason that I have more confidence than I had twenty years ago. Twenty years ago you had the Cold War, talking about destroying. There was so much uncertainty, there was so much disclarity - about everything.~