The first public demonstration of Gustav Metzger’s concept of ‘auto-destructive art’ took place at the Temple Gallery in London on the afternoon of 22 June 1960. At the beginning of the performance, the artist was invisible to his audience, separated from them by a large pane of glass, across which was stretched a sheet of white Nylon. Using a modified paintbrush, Metzger then applied a hydrochloric acid solution to the fabric. As the Nylon came into contact with the acid it immediately dissolved, creating a swirling glue-like coating on the glass through which Metzger slowly became visible. The demonstration was recreated in 2004 as part of the Tate Britain exhibition, Art and the Sixties: This was Tomorrow.
Metzger’s concept of auto-destructive art was first described in his manifesto dated 4 November 1959. In this statement the artist sought to emphasise how even mechanically-produced objects – in which he believed society was placing a dangerous level of faith – would ultimately degrade, a process over which humans would have no control. In his second manifesto on the topic, released in March 1960, Metzger elaborated on his concerns, explaining that auto-destructive artworks sought to highlight society’s obsession with destruction and the damaging effects of machinery on human life. As well as carrying an anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist message, in the context of the early years of the Cold War the anti-nuclear tone of Metzger’s auto-destructive art was apparent (indeed in 1961 the artist was briefly imprisoned for his involvement in an anti-nuclear protest).
Metzger initially planned to erect a public monument to spread the message of auto-destructive art, constructed from thin sheets of steel that would quickly degrade when installed outside. Finding no sponsor willing to fund such a work, Metzger turned to the idea of a public demonstration. In an interview conducted in 2009, Metzger explained:
I was very aggressive putting the acid onto that nylon ... it was partly me attacking the system of capitalism, but inevitably also the systems of war, the warmongers, and destroying them in a sense symbolically.
(Quoted in Peyton-Jones 2009, p.25.)
Although Metzger has moved away from making explicitly auto-destructive works, he has remained committed to using art for political means, with later works addressing the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, terrorist bombings and global warming (see, for example, Projects Realised I (Monument to Bloody Sunday) 1972, Tate T12339).
Chris Stephens and Katharine Stout (eds.), Art and the Sixties: This was Tomorrow, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2004, pp.64–5, 100–1.
Sabine Breitwieser (ed.), Gustav Metzger: History History, exhibition catalogue, Generali Foundation, Vienna 2005, p.111.
Julia Peyton-Jones (ed.), Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959–2009, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 2009, pp.24–5, 44–7.