Agents of destruction

DIAS 2.0 implies both continuity as well as rupture, a genetic link with the series of manifestos formulated by Gustav Metzger from 1959 onwards, as well as a freedom from those protocols which can look over didactic to 21st century eyes. DIAS 2.0 also references the ground-breaking event DIAS, held at St Bride’s church and the Africa Centre, Covent Garden in 1966, a battery which would charge a new generation of artists employing and deploying destructive means in their work.

In his jacket notes to the 2015 Bedford Press facsimile edition of Metzger’s 1965 lecture at the Architectural Association, Andrew Wilson describes his legacy in terms of “monuments that would change and disintegrate over time”, extolling the “complete codification of the theory and practice of auto-destructive art, which he had developed over the previous five years”. These statements were respectively Auto-Destructive Art (1959), Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art (1960), Machine Art Auto-Creative Art (1961), Manifesto World (1962), and On Random Activity in Material/Transforming Works of Art (1964). At the start of his 1965 lecture Metzger maintains the view that auto-destructive practice was ten years behind theory, and to support his isolated and vulnerable anti-establishment position viz-a-viz artworks (and let’s remember in those days there were still only two respectable disciplines taught at art college: painting and sculpture), cites dynamic thinkers from earlier in the 20th century: Bruno Munari’s Manifesto del Macchinismo, László Moholy-Nagy & Alfred Kemeny’s Manifesto (1922) in which they declare the artist an “active partner to the forces unfolding themselves”, and Naum Gabo’s remark in the journal Circle (1937) that sculpture was the “real movement of substantial masses”, so kinetic, volatile and ephemeral rather than monumental. Metzger certainly allies and aligns himself with kinetic art, but worries it is liable to become a “toy” (I think we all owned that ballbearing desktop novelty ‘Newton’s Cradle’!). Nevertheless he promotes Auto-Destructive art as “an important step in the enlargement of forms at the disposal of kinetic art” (originally underlined), and a shelf life for its artefacts ideally of twenty years only. So, DIAS 1966 and its unplanned spin offs was less a great leap forward than a catching up of practice with theory.

Set against this historical precedent, there is a cadre of artists whose practice has matured in the 21st century and continue to embrace destruction within the neo-geopolitical spaces formed since Al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center. Despite composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s overblown pronouncement about 9/11 being the “greatest work of art in the entire cosmos”, the televised moment was seismic, age old frameworks of meaning blown open, causing a tectonic shift from a bi-polar into a multi-polar world with diverse actors, one in which the human subject has become mediatised, fatally entangled in digital networks, a global environment in which art could no longer afford to be parochial and innocent.

With the rise of hard-to-police social media, the dark web and incessant street robbery/homicide it is increasingly harder to discern the actions of scattered auto-destructive artists, their dematerialising, aleatoric gestures often lost against this backdrop, by and large unable or unwilling to critique one of Metzger’s ideological targets -the dealership system- because they are complicit with it; while one of the most important goals of the 1960s, ie the absolute breaking down of the wall between art and life has ironically meant that types of transgressive art have become normative behaviour by default.

So, who are the new practitioners of Auto-Destruction? Maria Arceo -plastic waste retrieval; Eleanor Bartlett -tar painting; Jérémie Bennequin erasing Proust; David Blackmore -rage room; Bookend -biblioclasty; Matt Calderwood -dangerous performance; Jake & Dinos Chapman -détournement; Abraham Cruzvillegas -autodestructive kitsch; Rhodri Davies -Welsh harp violation; Bridget Harvey -visible repair; Dinaro Kasko -patisserie; Michael Landy -shredding; Kris Martin -vase smashing; Sam Messenger -cryography; Christina Mitrentse -wounded books; Glen Onwin -chemical baths; Sarah Pickering -detonations; Antonio Riello –Diabolus in Vitro; Caitlin de Silvey -curated decay; Michael Tompert & Paul Fairchild -smartphone vandalism; Diana Taylor -unpainting; Amikam Toren -interrogating representation; Vladimir Umanets -Yellowism. This list of names is by no means comprehensive but gives a general idea of the broad range of methods and aims being adopted, some more nihilistic than others, yet all working cheerfully against the deterministic principle of commodification -which in effect means the art market- even if they realise only too well that this strategy is a double-bind, in which processual leftovers themselves can easily become merchandise, notwithstanding in Liam Gillick’s words “the entropic quality of art’s structural and critical trajectory is its resistance”. These 2.0 artists constitute a sphere rather than a movement, for whom Metzger’s 1961 South Bank ‘Acid/Nylon’ performance, Herman Nitsch’s ‘Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries’ or John Latham’s ‘Book Plumbing’ event in the basement of Better Books are ancient history.

One way this background tension plays out is through re-enactment, specifically re-enactment with a twist, which sets out to avoid simplistically embalming the past as heritage. Instead of throwing a typewriter from a car travelling at high speed, Simon Morris and Howard Britton ‘restaged’ Ed Ruscha’s ‘Royal Road Test’, using Freudian confetti; Nikolas Bentel brokered ad space at $92.59 a square inch on top of a Robert Rauschenberg print in a tribute to his iconic Erased de Kooning (1953); Tomoko Hojo’s work-in-progress ‘Unfinished Descriptions’ invites composers to imagine content for Yoko Ono’s undocumented piece 014 from her solo show at Indica Gallery in November 1966, a few months after Ono’s participation in DIAS itself. Such reverential stunts loop back to canonic works of the past, forced to comply with the dominance inside the art market -since the 1997 Saatchi collection show ‘Sensations’- of the thrill over the concept. Yet Auto-Destructive art attempts to fuse both memes, giving its documentation great archival significance, and an impact even in its naïve form today, for where materials are placed under pressure, or designed to fail in aesthetic terms, the universal experience of childhood is evoked, in what Esther Leslie paraphrasing Walter Benjamin has called the child’s “impulse to revolutionary overhaul”.

Gustav Metzger’s great artistic contribution was to reach out to science and technology, before it became fashionable to do so, and use an array of substances and tools in a bid for interdisciplinary freedom, ie cardboard/ compressed air/carbon dioxide/glycerine/graphite/hot plate/laser beam/ lentils/liquid crystal/mica/nylon/photographs/plastic tube/polystyrene/ religious statuary/rust/silicon/slide projector/steel/stroboscope/sulphuric acid/water jet/etc. Sometimes this translated as a boycott of pop art in the name of revulsion, or strong public medicine, seeking as he said in his Cardboards statement of 1959 “nature unadulterated by commercial consideration of the contemporary drawing room”.

London September 2018

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