Gustav Metzger developed the concept of “auto-destructive” art, combining construction and destruction in his work. When he organized the First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art at London’s Temple Bar on June 22, 1960, he wanted to initiate an artistic movement. He had already published the First Manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art one year earlier, calling for an art that contains within its making the means of its own destruction. For Metzger, auto-destructive art mimics the destruction caused by World War II, while its inevitable disintegration removes the burden of historical memory. In this sense, auto-destructive art is strongly tied to its historical moment: its concept both originates and vanishes in late modernity. Soon after he released his manifesto, Metzger designed the first Auto-Destructive Monument, three ultrathin rectangular shapes made out of steel volumes, which would dissolve entirely within a twenty-year period as a result of corrosion. Unable to find a sponsor for the monument, Metzger decided instead to stage a public demonstration. At the First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art, Metzger presented a model of the monument as part of a lecture about the role of chance and chaos in art, science, and society. He then stretched a sheet of nylon fabric over a large pane of glass and, hidden from the audience, proceeded to paint the fabric with a solution of hydrochloric acid, causing the nylon to dissolve upon contact with his acid-loaded brush. As the demonstration unfolded, the destructive gestures of the artist thus gradually became more visible.
The son of Jewish-Polish parents, Gustav Metzger came to London in 1939 under the auspices of the Kindertransport (Refugee Children’s Movement). He attended the Cambridge School of Art in London and the Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten van Antwerpen (Royal Academy of Fine Arts), Antwerp (1948–49), on a scholarship from the United Kingdom’s Jewish community. During the 1950s he took on various jobs and was politically active, protesting rocket bases in the UK and promoting nuclear disarmament. In 1959 he developed the concept of “auto-destructive” art and began to publish and write on the subject. Based on the destructive potential of his time, his work combined destruction and construction to Metzger used bags of garbage, exhaust fumes, acid, and liquid crystals in his work. In 1966 he organized the international Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) in London with members of the Vienna Actionist and Fluxus movements as well as psychologists, poets, and musicians such as John Lennon. From the 1970s onward, he created participatory art, with new technologies, and dealt with his personal history and the theme of extinction.