Auto-destructive Art

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Auto-Destructive Art (ADA) is a form of art coined in 1959 by Gustav Metzger, an artist born in Bavaria that moved to Britain in 1939. Auto-Destructive Art was highly influenced by World War II. After the many casualties and mass destruction, people around the world were distraught and horrified. The extensive use of aircraft and the introduction of nuclear weapons greatly inspired artists to approach art using new means such as corrosion, stress, or heat.

ADA represents the war and its casualties. Artists in this time period wanted to explore issues in new ways. In order to explore these issues in the industrial society, Metzger encouraged artists to work with scientists and engineers.

The term, Auto-Destructive Art, was put into circulation by his article ‘Machine, Auto-Creative and Auto-Destructive Art’ in the 1962 issue of the journal ‘Ark.’ ADA was influenced by transgressive art styles including Cubism and Dadaism, which were notable for rejecting past concepts in order to not only redefine art, but also to bring light to issues of the day. Many strategies were used to create, or rather destroy art. Metzger used bricks, cloth, and other objects as a base for his work. He then used multiple types of harming materials such as acid or fire to create the destruction. For one piece, Metzger used a nylon sheet and then threw hydrochloric acid on it. He noted that while the acid did destroy the sheet, it also created shapes. The use of everyday objects added to the concept of how materialism and manufacturing should be destroyed.

Auto-Destructive Art’s purpose was to draw attention to the destruction of previous beliefs. By allowing stress and natural forces to create damage after an initial mark, the art is auto-created. This represents how man sparked and created destruction. The destruction also represents the chaos caused by the government. In interviews, Metzger expressed his dislike of politics and commercialism. He believed the ‘aesthetic of revulsion’ would add to the idea of the corrupt, capitalist system. By damaging the art itself, Metzger is able to question the idea of what art is.

Metzger lost his parents to Nazi attacks, he quotes ‘Facing up to the Nazis and the powers of the Nazi state colored my life as an artist”. Metzger would spark the damage of the art piece to represent mankind’s destruction. He then allowed natural forces to take over which symbolized how mankind’s spark can result in much more destruction than intended. Metzger later used his art to speak out against the violence we do to each other and nature. In his 2009 piece, ‘Flailing Trees,’ heuprooted and overturned a series of trees to symbolize the brutalization done to the natural world.

Along with Metzger, John Latham was another influential destructive artist. Latham had an interest in ‘temporality’ and ‘time based’ destruction. His most recognized piece was the 1964 ‘Skoob Tower Ceremonies,’ which was comprised of stacks of books that he then set on fire. This demonstration was controversial and compared to Nazi book burnings. Latham noted that he was not against the content in the books, but rather the idea that books are the only source of knowledge.

Artist Jean Tinguely was also a powerful figure in destructive art with his use of mechanics in 1953. Later in his work, Tinguely wanted to focus on “dematerialization” by creating machines that would eventually destroy themselves. One very significant piece was ‘Homage to New York’ a machine that created noise, paintings, and smoke before being stopped by a firefighter.

One impact of ADA was the creation of the ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’ (DIAS). Metzger was against the art dealer system because dealers were uninterested in the ‘fundamental technical change.’ This resulted in Metzger and John Sharkey to organize DIAS in 1966, which was a volunteer based event that showcased different art forms from diverse individuals across the world. One significant performance at this event was Yoko Ono’s ‘Cut’ piece. In this piece, presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971, Ono sat and allowed the audience to cut away pieces of her clothing. Allowing the audience to cut away her clothing not only represented female vulnerability but also destroyed the traditional relationship between the viewer and the artist.

Pete Townshend of The Who would later relate destroying his guitar on stage to auto-destructive art. Band member Keith Moon dramatically followed suit by placing explosives into his drums (at some points nearly blowing himself to pieces).

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