Gustav Metzger
A true art revolutionary and a wonderful human being

Hans Ulrich Obrist
Guardian, Friday 3 March 2017 19.05 GMT

His life and art were one long rallying cry. And the auto-destructive artist was vital and influential until the end. The artistic director of the Serpentine gallery remembers his great friend Gustav Metzger.

The term “artists’ artist” is used a lot. My friend Gustav Metzger was more than that – he was a role model. In 1991, I found myself in the UK, giving a lecture tour for the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust. I’d never given a lecture in my life – at this point, I’d only organised an art exhibition in my kitchen. The first lecture happened in London and I remember visiting Norman Rosenthal at the Royal Academy who told me I needed to know about Gustav.

After giving talks in Dublin, Leeds, Manchester and Belfast, I finally reached Glasgow, where late one night after lecturing, I met Douglas Gordon in the basement of the art space Transmission. In Glasgow at the time it was impossible not to visit all the artists. One led me to the next with a sense of urgency. So after meeting Douglas, I visited his studio and it was there he told me about his two biggest inspirations: the conceptualist John Latham and the auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger. I could not have imagined that, years later, we would end up exhibiting both at the Serpentine.

Metzger, born in Nuremberg in 1926, was a highly politicised artist who from a young age involved himself in anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist activities, as well as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This activism fed directly into his first artist manifesto, where he described his art as “a desperate last-minute subversive political weapon and attack on the capitalist system (an attack also on art dealers and collectors who manipulate modern art for profit)”. And to think this was 1959.

For a long time after learning of Gustav, I couldn’t get hold of him. He had gone underground. He didn’t have a telephone number. He was totally unreachable. It was only later in 1995, when Julia Peyton-Jones invited me to guest-curate my first show at the Serpentine in London, Take Me, I’m Yours, that our paths actually crossed. The day after opening, the lobby desk phoned up to my office and said: “There is a gentleman here who says he wants to speak to the curator.” I went downstairs and a man in his 60s said: “My name is Gustav Metzger.”

Gustav said artists are not so much creators as destroyers; that their role is not to add but to make fewer things

Take Me, I’m Yours was predicated on participation and interaction. That day, as we talked, Gustav told me he was doing something similar down the road at Gallery House. It was the beginning of a deep friendship that lasted 20 years. Our first major collaboration came in 1996 with Life/Live at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. It was an exhibition about the young English arts scene – artist-run spaces such as City Racing and Bank – but it also sought to revisit certain key influences on younger artists: the likes of Latham, Gilbert & George, Mona Hatoum and, of course, Gustav.

Included in that show were two works from his Historic Photographs series: To Walk Into – Massacre on the Mount, Jerusalem, 8th November 1990, and To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938. The former recorded a recent event at the time; the latter was a document showing the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Austria. Vertically and horizontally covered in cloth, these images were only visible to spectators when they crawled or walked into them. Gustav was encouraging people to confront history. There was no possibility of “consuming” these photographs as images; there had to be a confrontation on different terms. As we watched visitors in Paris interacting with his work, the relationship between artist and audience seemed to shift perceptibly.

Our contact intensified when I moved back to London in 2006 and he came to the Serpentine’s first ever Marathon. Rem Koolhaas and I interviewed artists, architects, scientists and writers non-stop for 24 hours. But Gustav Metzger was the only person who stayed till the very end. Three years later, the Serpentine exhibition Decades: 1959-2009 brought together 60 years of his epiphanies and inventions, his connections to politics, science, the mass media and history.

Because many of Gustav’s works were ephemeral or of an auto-destructive nature, they had to be recreated for the Serpentine show following the artist’s instructions. But Gustav always maintained that an artist is not so much a creator as a destroyer; that the artist’s role is not to add something to the world of objects but to make fewer things. It’s this kind of revolutionary thinking that makes him so important to younger artists and art students today.

Gustav repeatedly told me that we needed to take a stand against the continuing erasure of species, that if we continued to talk just of climate change, nothing would change. He said we must call it what it was: extinction. This led to the Serpentine Extinction Marathon, which we co-curated in 2014, and our last collaboration, Remember Nature, which saw Gustav encouraging students and arts practitioners around the world to join a day of action by making work addressing the catastrophic effects of global warming. “We have no choice but to follow the path of ethics into aesthetics,” he said in his rallying call. “We live in societies suffocating in waste.”

Although we saw each other often, time spent with him always felt urgent. Contact with Gustav had a seismic impact on whoever met him. He challenged us to action. He defined his own trajectory, linking art to activism with work that continues to resonate on many different levels. With today’s artists once again connecting art and politics, no wonder so many look to Gustav as a toolbox. Even recently, Gustav was protesting the extinction of handwriting by developing a new extinction writing style for my Instagram project. Adapting the WH Auden quote, he wrote: “We must become idealists or die.”

A couple of weeks ago – the last time we met – Gustav was still insisting we stay at the forefront of the struggle. On 1 March, he died peacefully at his home in London. He was one of the most important artists of our time and a wonderful human being. His was a journey without compromise.