Gustav Metzger’s first display of liquid crystal experiments took place in 1965 during his lecture “The Chemical Revolution in Art” at the University of Cambridge; a year later his psychedelic light projections were star turns during performances of Cream and The Who at London’s Roundhouse, and Metzger was briefly a countercultural icon. Half a century later the 88-year-old artist returns to Cambridge for a retrospective of his creative experimentation and political activism from the 1950s to the 1970s: films, sculptures, installations, archives, plus some new work.
Tate is lending “Liquid Crystal Environment” (1965, remade 2005), a 22-minute installation projecting shifting patterns from liquid crystal placed between glass slides, controlled by a computer programme. The piece marked a progression for Metzger, who had begun his career focused on destruction – his experience as a child refugee from Nazi Germany, where his parents perished, prompted him to seek “a formulation of what destruction is and what it might be in relation to art”, and his manifesto “Auto-Destructive Art” was launched in 1959 at a student happening. Now he widened his thinking to include the concept of auto-creative art. “Liquid Crystal Environment” is a positive piece, harnessing technology to create images of growth and change.
It is displayed alongside works using air, water and heat developed in a university laboratory in Swansea in 1969, which, due to their experimental nature, have not been seen since; Metzger has revisited and made variations on them here. And in new works created in Cambridge this month, he uses air to manipulate the movement of fibre-optic light across photosensitive paper.
Art as science, art as protest – Metzger staged a three-year “art strike”, making no work, in the 1970s – art as destruction, art as anything except the devotion to high culture that failed to save 20th-century Germany from moral and physical annihilation: that is surely the unifying strand in Metzger’s diverse practice.
Until August 31, kettlesyard.co.uk