Location Livorno, IT

earth to galaxies: on destruction and destructivity

We are poised on a trajectory that takes us from the bowels of the Earth to the infinity or near infinity of space.

Can it be said that the sun is destructive? So much has been said about the generative nature of the sun. Ancient Egypt is a hymn to the sun. Thousands of years later the same sun is seen as a threat – no – the threat to humanity. We believe that the sun, that self same sun, will burn and devour the earth. There are quite a large number of cultures which have also seen the sun as a predator and destroyer.

It is evident that the sun burns crops, parches the land and destroys people and animals who are without water and shelter.

And yet without it there would not be life as we know it on this earth. It is this bifocal balancing of opposites, the dance on the edge of abyss, which runs through human life and suffuses so much of art – all the arts.

Art arises from the feeling and the knowledge that the line between a generative and a destructive reality is paper-thin. I find that in the music for piano by Chopin. It is this line which maintains and sustains. Opening to the expansion and even within that expansion runs a line of declension. “Himmelhoch jauchzend zum Tode betruebt” (Goethe, Egmont). This line quoted again and again says the same in a manner that is more easily apprehended.

We live in a scientific age. When it comes to the question of the slaughter of thousands of living cattle, it is science that is called upon by the British government to decide on life or death.

If the science is right, they will go under.

When we look at everything that we know and everything that we do not know about BSE, we are entitled to ask weather we are so different from witch doctors or Aztec priests in making decisions on life or death.

The question that I am facing in recent years is this: to what extent are human beings part of this ceaseless chain of destruction? Do we absorb it; does it impinge on us; is the chemical, biological entity that is the human being penetrated by that which is so overwhelmingly the stuff of life?

Is the destructivity, so deeply embedded in us, inescapably there because it is in the entire cosmos? We absorb in the course of the development of life, of which we are a part, the bombardment that is present on the earth and in the galaxies. Cataclysmic forces – which is what galaxies are – are present as life evolves, and evolving life inevitably absorbs such elements like milk from the mother’s breast.

Why should it not be so? Confirmation of a sort comes from that vast accumulation of folklore and myth on creation and destruction that has been handed down.

If destruction and creation are so profoundly embedded in the human being, in the atoms and cells, and the origins go back to the first beginnings of biological life; if there is a total mix between that which is on Earth and in the galaxies, how should we respond?

Destruction is not nice. Religion after religion has tried to turn away from it, but always only with partial success.

Everything that is on the surface of the earth will go. Mountains will melt in the heat. Vast periods of time before this, even the best preserved works of art will have gone, and human beings also. Nothing is forever.

When I wrote in the first Auto-Destructive Art manifesto that a work of auto-destructive art can last a few seconds and no more then twenty years, I had a certain doubt. Really, only a few seconds? I was right to query but erred in the direction. Today, in the work with electronics, a second is a vast expanse of time.

Time is considered in terms of a millionth part of a second.

As the years have passed, I observed the changes taking place and have found confirmation of so much I had believed in. Scientists who predict future developments in their field qualify for the Nobel Prize. If this principle applied in the field of the visual arts, my work would have received wide recognition.

Right across the spectrum of developments in society, in science and technology and in thought and invention, there are links with ideas that I have worked with. There are big ideas, such as the Big Bang or Black Holes; there is the recently discussed theory that cells in the human body are in a constant process of self-destruction.

Responding to the crisis of pollution and waste disposal, leading car manufacturers have started to build cars on the principle of disassembly. This means that the end disposal of the components is considered from the earliest design stage, with the intention to reduce to a minimum any materials which cannot be reused and recycled in some form or another. What a step forward from the time when old cars where simply smashed up!

In thought there is deconstruction which started in the second half of the 1960’s. One would need days to list the links of auto-destruction and auto-creation in the context of change since 1959.

And beyond this, there are attitudes towards environment, the critique of capitalist consumer society, the critique of science and technology and the emphasis on individual responsibility.

There is a deep-seated fear of destruction in many people. What is the origin of this fear? In part is a fear of destructivity lodged in ourselves. Our urge to be aggressive and act with violence gives rise to a reaction that seeks to ban and inhibit aggression and violence in general.

Black Holes. In 1959, before coming to the theory of auto-destructive art, I was fascinated by the possibility of using very powerful steel presses to make sculpture. I had seen a report of a press that had the power to crush large pieces of metal, but could be tuned to the point of delicacy where it would crack the shell of an egg. I wanted to use such a machine to form relatively small pieces of sculpture. What interested me was the thought of the trace of the impact of the press on the surface of the sculpture.

One of the profound concepts of Judaism is that of Ruach, referring to the ‘Breath’ of God. Here, there would be an exploration of the ‘breath’ of the all-powerful press, with its capacity to manipulate vast power on a quite modest piece of matter.

As you know, at about the same time, César was crushing pieces of metal using presses in Paris, making sculptures in the form of small blocks.

The point in relation to Black Holes is this: I was concerned with the enormous pressure contained in the implement and the pressure built up in the emergent sculpture. And the pressure of forces within a Black Hole is a key feature of the phenomenon. In a way, I was setting up the equivalent of Black Holes within a sculptural form. This feeling for enormous pressures stayed with me when later in that year, 1959, I developed the theory of auto-destructive art.

In the acid-nylon painting of 1961, connections could also be made to Black Holes. Holes are burned in the nylon, and the material inevitably collapses in upon itself as the process is being observed. There are three screens, and one could envisage channels of communication from one screen to another. The open-air activity then, and even more markedly at the time of the filming on the South Bank in 1963, can be seen as a statement on Earth and Heaven: the earth and the beyond.

We are part of nature: We are nature. But is nature red in tooth and claw?

Certain micro-organisms can live within nuclear reactors. It has been said that should there be a nuclear destruction of the world, microbes will manage to survive better than any other species. So what life can survive amongst the galaxies? Are the galaxies nature? Is what is going on there natural? Well, not by our standards. But presumably being a galaxy is as natural as apple pie for the galaxy. For a galaxy, life on Earth is meaningless – soft and soppy. Who wants all that soggy stuff – trees swaying in the wind? How can a Niagara Falls or an atom bomb compare with the immense expanse, the power billion times greater than the sun, the sheer empowerment of it all? What a life!

The fact that we could not live there and that we would find those conditions unnatural must not blind us to the realization that galaxies are nature.

From the burning core of our Earth to those expanses where we could never go, and if we did, never survive. Do we share the burning to the point where everything disintegrates? What is the fever pitch of a person in love; or the maniacal excess of a creative act; or the blind onslaught of a killer? What has it to do with the torrents within a galaxy?

It is the extreme and the excess. It is the burning to the point threatened by dissolution. Dissolution does not take place – any more than the galaxy dissolves – despite its white heat.

That is what unites us with the beyond: the capacity to reach a core, burning, endangered, exposed. And to go on. To go through the furnace – remember the Bible Story – go through the galaxy and emerge intact.

Destruction and destructivity are inextricably entwined in the nature that we know; fire does not make moral judgements. Inasfar that we are nature, that nature suffuses us, we are inescapably entrapped within it.

The murderer hits out like the branch falls off the tree.

We do not need visual reminders to conjure up the destructivity ongoing in humanity. We need merely to repeat a mantra of atrocities – The Hordes of Genghis Khan, the Thirty Years War – in the manner perhaps of Alastair MacLennan’s recent installation at the Arches, Glasgow, speaking of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Sacking of Rome, the Gates of Jericho, Sabra and Shatilla. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Massacre on the Temple Mount. The First World War. The Second World War. The Third World War. Zaire, Rwanda. Yugoslavia. My Lai.

Nature and natural - Natural Born Killers.

Essay published in Pavel Büchler with Charles Esche (eds). Tramlines, no.5. Tramway with Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow 1996.

Courtesy Gustav Metzger Foundation