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The Art That Was Never Made To Last

Words:

Edd Norval
May 22, 2018

With the conviction that art should be as much about doing as what was done, Gustav Metzger formulated the ideological tenets for Auto-Destructive Arts - his way to retain the primal power that art offered.

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As an acronym, ADA was the artists way of reflecting on the destruction of the Second World War in the post-war period and inaugurated as a movement initially in 1959. Like Dadaism before it, the experimental and uncertain period nestled in-between the two wars, ADA also rejected what came before it - it was a mish-mash of concepts that reworked history as an attempt at understanding the present.


ADA carries on in a similar vein, using the idea of destruction and attrition in its work. Rust, wear-and-tear, corrosion and heat all affect the subjects of the art - a reflection on the painful symptoms and side-effects of war and the modern industrial world. As such, the works highlighted the human capabilities of destroying, often hypocritically, that which had taken so long to build.


Although the artists of the movement masterminded the concept with this in mind - the art itself was often affected by natural destruction too. It relied on the effects of the environment to aid in the 'auto-destruction' of the objects. Of course, the natural damage was exasperated and exaggerated by the artists - just like the effects of war on life. We're all going to end up in a state of decay, but nuclear armament will never slow that down.

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Highly critical as a school of thought, ADA had a politically charged outlook on society. Just as one self-harms or engages in self-destructive behaviour, the artists revulsion of capitalism and materialism spurred on their mission to harm the man-made object. They were resisting against the forces and fears that had spent years reigning over them, from governments to war planes.


So what is art then? Is it the objects before their destruction? Does the destruction mean that they've become 'less' art?


Art here is a symbolic gesture that elevates the meaningless object to become an object-as-protest or object-as-statement. The statement is always that we (the group) are not willing to be a part of the society you wish to create. The protest is their continual battle to make that statement heard and known. Gustav Metzger grew up during the Second World War and lost his parents to the Nazis. This affected him deeply and informed his later output. He grew up surrounded by destruction and used his art was a way to understand the line - when does destruction become creation and vice-versa. Were these men that were hell-bent on destruction doing so with the hope of creating a new future or destroying the one that preceded theirs?

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The influence of the movement was limited, but spread into other cultural realms, making its impact in a more subtle form of influence. Yoko Ono's performance piece 'Cut', where she allowed members of the audience to cut off her clothing, was a concept aimed to destroy the relationship between artist and audience - or more specifically the chasm that was often present between the two.


Beyond this, Metzger was also a university teacher and one of his students was a young Pete Townshend (guitarist and singer from The Who). Townshend was famous for smashing up guitars on-stage, alongside wild-man drummer Keith Moon who preferred to blow up his kit using pyrotechnics, and he credited the movement and his teacher as the leading inspiration for his actions. To onlookers it may have looked like a meltdown, but it was part of The Who's periphery existence between musical act amd performance-art - it allowed them to challenge the limits of music and the live show - later exemplified in their pinball-machine hit Tommy.


The approach was revolutionary, it was one of the first movements in art to work on the conceptual deconstruction of art and the effect desctruction had on society. Many artists and their lives are linked, Metzger's was so intrinsically so that his own life became a part of his art. His fundamental lesson was that the concept wasn't just about creating or destroying the physical, but a way of living ones life. Creation and destruction are, after all, age old philosophies present in many of the world's spiritual and religious systems.


It's been just over one year since he passed away, outliving many of his artworks due to their ephemeral nature. His death was as impactful as his life - the final statement. Nothing lasts forever.

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