Last chance to catch this illuminating glimpse of the visionary artist-activist in remotest West Cornwall
Hidden away down a thickly wooded lane on the Lizard peninsular in the far west of Cornwall, Kestle Barton must count as one of the most magical and surprising galleries in Britain. Housed in an award-winning conversion of an ancient farmstead and surrounded by exquisite gardens, it’s not somewhere you’d expect to find a cutting-edge art gallery, let alone an exhibition on the visionary ecologist and activist-artist Gustav Metzger.
Metzger (1926-2017), who came to Britain on a kindertransport aged 13, was obsessed with “nature”, a term he vastly preferred to “environment”, a concept he believed had been hijacked by “the forces that are manipulating the world” – the capitalist West (though he was no great fan of the Soviet bloc either). Yet for all his concern with the destruction of the natural world, the feel of his art is urban and edgy. A diminutive figure, white-bearded in old age, a touch scruffy and often to be seen distributing his hand-made fliers round the London galleries – urging his fellow artists to “remember nature” – he always struck me as a very urban character. Certainly it was hard to imagine him ever being in the countryside, let alone in a bucolic idyll such as Kestle Barton.
His Mobbile stands amid billowing flower beds, all with that half-wild look known among gardeners as “naturalistic”: a second hand estate car with a perspex box screwed to the roof and a plant inside. A tube connects the vehicle’s exhaust to the box, so the car kills the plant is it moves. It makes a potent, and slightly sinister embodiment of the motor car’s calamitous impact on the world and our collective health.
First created in 1970, the work has been incarnated in many forms over the decades, notably as part of a gigantic installation at the 2007 Sharjah Biennial (seen on film in the exhibition), in which 100 cars pumped their emissions into a vast cuboid tent. To the members of the touring-and-cream tea fraternity who drop into Kestle Barton mainly for the gardens (I’m not being patronising, I’m one of them), the presence of the vehicle seems unfathomable: what’s it doing here? What does it mean?
Metzger’s creativity took many forms, as a pioneer of auto-destructive art – setting fire to his paintings with a blow-torch during a legendary even at the ICA in 1965 – and psychedelic art. He created light shows for Cream and encouraged Pete Townshend, his student at Ealing School of Art, to smash his guitar during performances with the Who. For him the commercial art world and the global media industry were manifestations of capitalism that were essentially “ecological” in their impact on the world.
Mass Media: Today and Yesterday, which fills much of the indoor gallery is a massive stack of old newspapers in carrier bags (all collected by Metzger), with the covers revealing how the media turns massive historical events (the destruction of the Twin Towers as seen on an old Evening Standard), domestic crimes and celebrity trivia into an instant ongoing historical flow that is as exploitative as it is informative.
Flailing Tree, a young tree upended into a block of concrete, with the mass of its cropped roots sticking up into the rafters, alludes both to Metzger’s uprooted adolescence as a refugee and humanity’s ravaging of forests. Like Mobbile, it isn’t an original work, as such, but a recreation of an earlier piece (in this case from 2010) created on site. And this is itself an ecological gesture. If all exhibitions were constructed like this, the art word’s carbon footprint would be massively reduced.
Kestle Barton proves a surprisingly appropriate setting for this tiny, but illuminating exhibition. Not only does his art feel more jarring, and hence more impactful among the gallery’s carefully tended flower beds than it would in say the Hayward Gallery, but with the gallery doors thrown open you can inhale the scents of earth and vegetation, deep in the nature that Metzger so passionately wanted us all to remember. The experience left me feeling surprisingly close to the funny old bloke, and wanting to see a great deal more of his multi-faceted art.