Gustav Metzger: Earth Minus Environment

25 Jun-4 Sep 2022


Earth Minus Environment takes its title from an unrealised sculptural installation by the late artist Gustav Metzger, which he proposed for the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992. As a result of this event, the UN established Agenda 21, a non-binding action plan adopted by more than 178 national governments which included the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of Principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests. Sadly, as we know today, these declarations did not pave the way for concrete action to slow climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation as hoped. Metzger’s intention for the work had been to create a “dramatic symbol” that would give visual expression to the escalating global environmental crisis because, as he foresaw, these issues “cannot live by words alone”. The ambitious sculpture was to consist of a large plastic enclosure in the form of the letter ‘E’, around which 120 second-hand cars would be arranged. The exhaust of each car would feed into the transparent structure, with every car engine running for the duration of the summit. The installation would therefore make visible the destructive capabilities of the ‘human environment’, which Metzger wanted viewers to consider as a “man-made construction”, that was leading to the demise of the natural world.

Metzger’s proposal was also an interrogation of what is meant when we use the word ‘environment’ — a term Metzger believed could mean “anything and nothing” and, having been “hijacked by the forces that are manipulating the world” had come to replace the word ‘nature’ with its more tangible and emotive associations. Metzger argued that one of the vital tasks of our time, and an essential step towards (re-)imagining more sustainable relations between human systems and the natural world, was to pay attention to the ways in which politics manipulate language to describe our ‘environment’. Although Earth Minus Environment remains only an idea, it nevertheless stands as a powerful representation of Metzger’s prescient thinking about the environmental movement, and his belief in the power of art to inspire radical change. Art and activism were the same thing for Metzger, who declared ‘the artist acts in a political framework whether he knows it or not. Whether he wants to or not.’ He rejected the art market and advocated instead for an artistic practice that could be used “for the good of our world”.

Earth Minus Environment at Kestle Barton continues Metzger’s urgent messaging by bringing together three keystone works that relate to the Earth Summit proposal. In the gallery, the pairing Mass Media: Today and Yesterday (1971/2009) and Strampelde/Flailing Tree (2010/2022) are presented, which both use ‘trees’ as their medium. In Mass Media:Today and Yesterday trees are presented in their most ephemeral, throwaway form, the newspaper. Newspapers were important to Metzger as the physical materialisation of history, but they also represent the casual consumption and waste of millions of trees to produce our daily news – not to mention the use of water and (coal-fired) power, or the polluting heavy metals in the inks and dyes used to print or colour paper products. Mass Media is what Metzger called a ‘public-active’ installation because visitor involvement is an essential aspect of the work. Next to the monumental stacks of newspapers that dominate the gallery is another pile of papers that visitors are encouraged to leaf through in order to find and cut out headlines, images and articles that reflect their thoughts and opinions in response to themes such as ‘extinction’ and to pin these contributions on the gallery walls as part of an evolving collaborative mural that gives voice to a usually silent audience. As is usual with Metzger, the work functions as part of a larger strategy to disrupt passive behaviours such as consumption or disengagement from politics and to encourage active, critical engagement with the issues of our time.

Strampelde / Flailing Tree intertwines Metzger’s environmental campaigning with the trauma of Metzger’s own childhood, the loss of his parents in the Holocaust and his own forced ‘uprooting’ at the age of 13, when he was sent to England on the Kindertransport and his life as a refugee began. The violence inflicted upon the tree, upturned in concrete with its roots shorn, is a powerful metaphor for the far more extensive, but unthinking brutality humanity has visited upon itself and the natural world more broadly – not just in terms of genocides in Europe, Myanmar, Rwanda, China – but also ecocides, from Vietnam to the Amazon, the Niger Delta to the Arctic. All of this Metzger witnessed within his lifetime and continues to bear witness in his work. As the artist stated: “I’m aiming at people saying, ‘My God! What a mistreatment of beautiful young willow trees!’…Trees are being mistreated all the time. Violence and trees go together.”

The third work in the exhibition, Mobbile (1970/2022), is a closer iteration of the Earth Summit idea. First shown in London in 1970, Mobbile consists of a modified second-hand car that collects and stores its own carbon emissions. The car’s tailpipe extends into a transparent cube fixed onto its roof. Inside this box, a living plant becomes gradually asphyxiated by the car’s fumes as the work is driven around. Ahead of the exhibition, Mobbile will be driven to various locations across Cornwall to be shown in public, inevitably increasing the destructive cycle of pollution and production inherent to it. Mobbile is a vivid reminder of the unsustainable trade-offs between ecological health and industrial society—trade-offs we are told must be remedied within this decade to avert catastrophic climate change but are yet to materialise into significant action. For the duration of the show, Mobbile will be parked in the idyllic garden at Kestle Barton, amidst elegant herbaceous borders and rolling farmland. Designed in 2010 by James Alexander-Sinclair, the garden is part of a long history of thinking and looking at landscape according to aesthetic and ideological principles, from the picturesque to the politics of the pastoral. It also occupies what was once the mowhay, a yard where crops of wheat or hay were once gathered and stacked. The garden and meadow beyond, the restored nuttery and orchard recall bygone forms of husbandry associated with an agrarian economy and the clear interdependence of people and nature. Mobbile’s jarring presence forces us to think about what has been lost as well as what we have gained in the pursuit of mobility and convenience in our modern lives.

We are delighted to open Earth Minus Environment with a weekend of talks, discussions and workshops inspired by Gustav Metzger on 25 & 26 June 2022. Taking trees as a common theme, events for adults and for families will explore different aspects of our relationship with trees, from working with them to understanding their role in the ecosystems of the planet. Please join us in engaging with the work and environmental thinking of this important artist, which becomes ever more important in our increasingly damaged world.

This exhibition is supported by the Gustav Metzger Foundation and co-curated along with Dr. Lizzie Fisher of Northumbria University, and Lauren Keeley.


Gustav Metzger

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