Gustav Metzger: Earth Minus Environment

25 June - 4 September 2022

The exhibition takes its title from an unrealised sculptural project originally conceived for the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Some of the summit’s outcomes included Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Declaration of Forest Principles and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Metzger’s intention was to create a ‘dramatic symbol’ that would give visual expression to the escalating global environmental crisis because he felt these issues ‘cannot live by words alone.’

The exhibition at Kestle Barton aims to recreate two pairings which give dramatic visual form to the visible and invisible tensions in our relationship to the natural world. In the gallery, Mass Media: Today and Yesterday (1971/2022) will be presented alongside Strampelde Bäumf/Mirror Trees (2010/2022). ‘Strampelde Bäumf’ translates literally as ‘kicking pruning’ and the work was originally presented at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, a gesture that intertwined the environmental message of the work with the trauma of Metzger’s own childhood, the loss of his parents in the Holocaust and his own forced ‘uprooting’ or exile in England at the age of 13. 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 – 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.

Trees are integral to both works. Newspapers were important to Metzger as the fleeting substance of history, but they also represent the casual consumption and waste of millions of trees – 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. A programme of public events will be developed around the exhibition focusing on different aspects of our relationship with trees, from forest ecosystems and the ancient woodlands around the Helford River to carbon sequestration, woodland management and rewilding.

The second pairing will bring Metzger’s 1970 work Mobbile (1970/2022) into conversation with the garden at Kestle Barton. 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 nuttery and the orchard recall age-old forms of husbandry associated with an agrarian economy and the sustainable management and conservation of natural resources in order to ensure secure supplies of food and other crops. In contrast, Mobbile is the product of industrial society, which has relied on the destructive and unsustainable exploitation of irreplaceable natural resources such as petroleum. It makes visible the invisible harm – the danger to life – that comes with our dependency on cars; and gives us pause to reflect on the way cars have come to shape the way many of us encounter nature: as a moving image behind glass, composed of impoverished landscapes at the side of roads.

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