In 1971 Gustav Metzger prepared a proposal for a large-scale public artwork involving heat-sensitive liquid crystals that could be rotated, heated and cooled inside a projector. The artist intended that the resulting multicoloured patters be screened as a light display on the eastern exterior wall of the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, an area for which Metzger made two other proposals for public art works that year. One was for a large sheet of metal to be floated on the River Thames in front of the National Film Theatre, which would rise and fall with the tides; the other was a proposal to construct a large cube of bundled newspapers to fill the space on the southern embankment underneath Waterloo Bridge.
The Greater London Council immediately rejected Metzger’s ideas for both the liquid crystal display and the newspaper cube, both of which would have been installed directly onto its land. In the case of the floating metal structure, the council referred the matter to Trinity House, the body responsible for Britain’s waterways. Although permission to make this work was granted, and feasibility studies carried out under the sponsorship of the British arts patron Alistair McAlpine, all three projects remain unrealised.
The three rejected projects were presented by Metzger as his contribution to the 1972 exhibition 3 Life Situations at Gallery House in London. The German artist Birgit Burkhard, then a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, was invited by Metzger to imagine the proposals as a series of large-scale photomontages. The present photographic representation of this group of works was prepared for the exhibition Gustav Metzger at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford in 1998.
From the earliest days of his artistic career Metzger has made use of large-scale installations to publicise the messages behind his work. By the mid-1960s, following on from his concept of ‘auto-destructive art’ (which sought to illuminate society’s dangerous relationship with technology and destruction), Metzger began to engage more positively with technology. His experimentation with liquid crystal displays during the mid-1960s (see, for example, Liquid Crystal Environment 1965–6, Tate T12160) can be seen as an expression of this engagement, encouraging the viewer to see technology as having creative potential. That Metzger chose London’s South Bank for his large-scale light display is fitting: 1971 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Festival of Britain, a post-war celebration of Britain’s future, held on the South Bank, in which the promise of technological advancements played a central role.
Kerry Brougher and Astrid Bowron (eds.), Gustav Metzger, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art Oxford 1998.
Sabina Breitwieser (ed.), Gustav Metzger: History History, exhibition catalogue, Generali Foundation, Vienna 2005, pp.166, 168–9, 212.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Conversation Series: Gustav Metzger, Cologne 2008, pp.10–11, 58–62.