Gustav Metzger: Earth Minus Environment

25 June - 4 September 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 Strampelnde Bäum/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.

Strampelnde Bäum /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 by Ula Dajerling and Leanne Dmyterko, Co-Directors, along with Dr. Lizzie Fisher of Northumbria University, and Lauren Keeley.

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Mass Media: Yesterday and Today (1971/2009)

Mass Media:Today and Yesterday (1971/2009) is a participatory artwork consisting of multiple elements. In the centre of the room, papers are stacked to create a monumental sculptural form, intended to convey the sheer volume of information we consume as news, and the burden of history it then becomes.

On a table nearby, there are piles of newspapers that visitors to the exhibition are invited to leaf through. Please select images, words or articles that reflect your thoughts and feelings in relation to the headings selected by Metzger, and pin them on the walls around you.

Your contributions will become part of an evolving collective mural, reflecting the views of everyone taking part and revealing how the news shapes the way we see the world around us.

Mobbile (1970/2022)

First shown in London in 1970, Mobbile has been frequently re-staged as a form of visual protest at global climate meetings, including at COP26 in Glasgow last year.

Mobbile consists of a modified car that collects and stores its own carbon emissions via an exhaust pipe that extends into a transparent cube fixed onto its roof. Inside the box, a living plant is gradually suffocated by the car’s fumes. It is a powerful illustration of the sometimes silent destruction of the natural world and the harmful effects of pollution.

After its tour around various parts of Cornwall, stopping in Falmouth, Penzance and St.Ives, Mobbile sits in Kestle Barton’s idyllic garden, on the site of the ancient mowhay where the hay was gathered from the meadows and sorted before storing for winter. Its presence contrasts sharply with the sense of order, balance and beauty evoked by the tranquil garden and the harmonious systems of husbandry once practised here.

Strampelnde Bäum / Flailing Tree (2010/2022)

This work intertwines Metzger’s environmental message with the trauma of his own childhood. It alludes to Metzger’s own ‘uprooting’ or exile to England, where he came from Nazi Germany as a refugee at the age of thirteen.

The violence inflicted upon the tree—upturned in concrete with its roots shorn—is a powerful metaphor for the brutality humanity has visited upon itself and nature more broadly.

The work is a poignant yet distressing representation of the ravages of war, genocide and , ecocide, urging people to take immediate action. As the artist explained, “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.”

Gustav Metzger

Gustav Metzger (1926–2017) was a visionary artist, radical thinker, and political activist, whose work and activism spanned over 65 years. Born to Jewish parents in Nuremberg, Germany in 1926, Metzger and his brother came to England on the Kindertransport as a refugees, yet tragically lost their parents and most of their extended family in the Holocaust. At the heart of his thinking and art was a tension between the opposing yet interdependent forces of destruction and creation, which Metzger mobilised to expose the destructive systems and ideologies of the modern world.

Throughout his life, Metzger was heavily involved in anti-capitalist, anti-nuclear and anti-consumerist movements. In his work he strove to bring together revolutionary content with radical form. Metzger was deeply interested in science and new technologies such as computing as destructive tools that could be misused to exploit and damage the earth and natural systems, but also as potentially revolutionary forces to enact a more democratic, peaceful society.

An enduring theme in Metzger’s work is the protection of nature and the prevention of the extinction of species. In 2015, Metzger initiated an ongoing project called Remember Nature, where he urged arts professionals and students around the world to participate in a ‘Day of Action’ every year on 4th November to do just that.

In the face of climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, war and persecution across the world, Metzger’s art and ethics are evermore urgent.

The Gustav Metzger Foundation

The Gustav Metzger Foundation is a UK-based charity that was founded upon Metzger’s death in 2017. During his lifetime, the artist defined its charitable purpose, which is: to organise exhibitions of his work and convey the political and philosophical ideas which he espoused; to support individuals working in the fields of the arts, environmental studies or other areas relevant to his ideas and work; and ‘to combat the risk of global extinction arising from the activities of humans.’

Guiding Aims & Objectives:

To advance the education, public understanding and appreciation of the artistic and literary work of Gustav Metzger.

To promote national and international conflict resolution and reconciliation for the public benefit with a view to relieving suffering, poverty and distress and building and maintaining social cohesion and trust within and between communities.

The promotion of racial and religious harmony for the benefit of the public. The promotion of equality and diversity for the public benefit.

To promote for the benefit of the public the conservation, protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment and to protect and relieve the suffering of animals in need of care and attention as a consequence of any change to the natural environment (man-made or otherwise).

To advance the education of the public in the arts, world ecology and the conservation, protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment and to conduct and procure research concerning world ecology and the natural environment and the effects on that environment of both natural and man-made or other activities and to publish the useful results.

The relief of sickness and suffering of those in need as a consequence of any change to the natural environment (man-made or otherwise).

Image: Gustav Metzger, Mobbile 1970

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