A recent presentation by Gustav Metzger at London's Tate Britain took its title from a line from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922): 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins'. It would have made an apt epigram to Metzger's 100,000 Newspapers (2003) a 'public-active installation' that took up two large rooms in the basement of an abandoned brewery in London's East End. Passing through a noisy video projection by Stewart Home, one descended into a brightly lit chamber containing thousands of newspapers strewn across a cold concrete floor. Visitors were requested to cut from the papers anything they found interesting. Metzger, then mounted the individual cuttings under headings such as 'Extinction', 'Work' and 'Biotechnology'. In the second room a dusty metallic structure of shelves and walkways was loaded with further batches of newspapers, this time in a most orderly way. In the centre of this underground library a well of carefully crumpled newsprint formed a pool of discarded, loose leaves, disrupting the righteous archival rigidity of the stack surrounding them. The ostensibly calm eye of the storm was itself, so to speak, enraged and out of control.
The deathly coldness of this subterranean double space seemed more than appropriate after hearing Metzger remark at the Tate that reality is, today, something most people find impossible to bear. Mutilations, murders and disasters of all kinds fill the papers, as do anxieties over genetic manipulation, increases in pollution and the arrogant expansion of corporations indifferent to the havoc they all too frequently wreak. These and other nightmare narratives are brought to our attention on a daily basis, only for us to turn away in cowardly acts of distraction and self-deceit. Metzger's utilization of newspapers as an exemplary form, both here and in earlier exhibitions, helps to emphasize that even the official channels of information admit, more and more, that things are frighteningly close to chaos. Layers and layers of printed text, yesterday's news sinking under its own weight, may well be regarded as paralleling Walter Benjamin's influential account of historical change as an allegorical ruin. Metzger also echoes Benjamin in believing that we live, today, in a constant state of emergency and despair.
If the press reports are accurate, then radical change can only come about if we refuse to remain passive consumers, incidental observers of our own potentially imminent annihilation. It is this and similar messages that have been at the centre of Metzger's practice for the last 50 years, from his literally corrosive demonstration of 'Auto-Destructive Art' in London in 1961 (in which he sprayed three coloured banners with hydrochloric acid) to his provocative re-presentation in the 1990s of photographs of major historical events from the 20th century. Metzger's subject matter and working methods involve a provocative disruption of conventional perceptions, coupled with a refusal to sink into indifference and resignation.
What's important about the buried textual explosion that was 100,000 Newspapers isn't whether or not it succeeded according to the conventional criteria of artistic achievement or the vagaries of aesthetic taste. Rather, the piece cleverly suspended such ideas, raised them for critical consideration, while also problematizing the related notion of the artist as a highly privileged creative individual. If we are treading on the edge of destruction, as Metzger is more than keen to stress, then it is imperative that we move ground before there is nothing left to save. This urgent need for action cannot be replaced by the making of art, which is in any case often too whimsical to act as an effective critical force. But paradoxically, in his role as artist, Metzger politicizes the aesthetic domain to a point at which one begins to wonder if art could have, after all, a pivotal role to play in holding back the rot.
So apparently useless in the present circumstances, art may yet be the only 'useful' means of communication we have, and vigorously independent voices such as Metzger's among the few worth listening to. All those shock-horror headlines have done little to make us recognize what we surely already see, no matter how hard we try to look away. The power of 100,000 Newspapers lay in its contradictions, difficulties and heightened irresolution, and in Metzger 'making strange' of what has become, in our news-saturated culture, mesmerizingly banal. It is up to others to make the implications of his work truly 'public-active'.
First published in Issue 75