The Gustav Metzger retrospective Decades 1959-2009 is the most extensive single exhibition of auto-destructive art ever to be held in London. Not just the work, but also the head-on collision between the Serpentine as a chic white cube space and Metzger’s decidedly funky left-field practice is in itself interesting. The good news first, and that is Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment has never looked better! With the walls inside the North Gallery painted black, and very effective blackout curtains, the colours are really luminous. This piece was also a highlight of the otherwise lousy Tate Triennial earlier this year, but at the Serpentine it looks even better than it did there, or at the Summer Of Love exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2005. There are scatter cushions on the floor, so you can just lie back and trip out to these light projections. I could easily spend several days in this installation groovin’ on the ambient vibe.
The rest of the exhibition highlights Metzger’s varied practices of the past 50 years, with many pieces realised in new ways. For instance, his series of Historic Photographs are now easier to view than in earlier incarnations, although in most cases there are still obstructions to prevent these works being gazed at from a comfortable and familiar distance. Moving on, Metzger’s trade mark displays of old newspapers and waste materials are too cleanly and neatly laid out. Although this highlights Metzger’s grunge aesthetic, I still found it surprising that a series of car scrappage adverts torn from recent newspapers should be evenly spaced along the walls as if they were somehow equivalent to a series of Jeff Koons pictures. Personally I’d have preferred less space around these and all the other works, anything but the white walls on which they were displayed (light grey would have seemed more appropriate), and considerably dimmer lighting.
Much of Metzger’s oeuvre deals with the ecological destruction wreaked by capitalism, and while hanging it as if it is decorative does provide a neat counterfoil to its ugly but urgent message, inevitably such a mode of display runs the danger of blunting its impact. That said, it still provided a fantastic contrast to Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa’s expensive and wasteful folly in the Serpentine grounds; a temporary pavilion made from brightly lit aluminium, designed to look impressive in photographs but which is extremely unpleasant and impractical for human use.
Metzger has always excelled at drawing out the contradictions of the art world and exposing the many ways in which the majority of those active within it uncritically serve capitalism. Unsurprisingly, there were fewer rich socialites at the Metzger opening than I’ve come to expect at Serpentine private views. Instead the event was littered with those dedicated to marginal and oppositional aesthetic practices, ranging from Sarah Andrews to Alastair Brotchie, Bronac Ferran to Martin Sexton. Rut Blees Luxemburg to Peter Suchin, Kristine Stiles to Bruce Gilchrist, Sarah Sutch to Matt Hale, Jo Joelson to Clive Phillpot, and Ilze Black to Tony White. There were plenty of Serpentine regulars in evidence too – Nicola Lees, Sally Tallant, Rose Dempsey, Sophie O’Brien – but I could see no sign of co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist, although his current artist-in-residence Hilary Koob-Sassen, and unofficial writer-in-residence Tom McCarthy, were both present and correct.
Despite my surprise at the tasteful installation of work that really isn’t pretty and shouldn’t be treated as such, this is still a great and important show, so make sure you check it out. And look closely at the labelling, which I’m told Metzger went through word by word, since you won’t see it bettered in any other London museum or gallery. Gustav Metzger Decades is on at The Serpentine (Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA) until 8 November 2008.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!