press release

The Zacheta exhibition presents only a fragment of the rich oeuvre of Gustav Metzger, whose personal history is as fascinating and dramatic as History to which he refers in his works. Born in Nuremberg in 1926 to an Orthodox Jewish family, its roots in Poland, he was sent in 1939 to Great Britain as part of the Refugee Children’s Movement, thanks to which he was saved from the Holocaust. He has never accepted any citizenship and lives as a stateless person. Lives and works chiefly in London.

The exhibition in Zacheta National Gallery of Art presents Metzger’s works from the 90 – the cycle Historic Photographs, which take up the problem of greatest catastrophies, as well as the newest ones, sculptures-installations In Memoriam and Eichmann and the Angel, referring to the tragedy of Holocaust.

The exhibition is divided between four galleries, each of which constitutes a chapter in the narrative. The first of those is called The Killing Fields. Entering the gallery, the viewer has to pass through a corridor on the wall of which there hangs a huge, rastered-out (but still recognisable) photograph of Hungarian Jews undergoing selection on the Auschwitz ramp in 1942. The room presents objects from the Historic Photographs series, referring to the various turning-point events and bloody conflicts of the 20th century: the 1938 Anschluss of Austria, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the napalm air raids against civilian targets in Vietnam in 1972, events from the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or an ecological disaster – the construction of the Twyford Down highway in the UK. The pictures are almost always covered, their visibility is limited or access to them is hindered, as if the artist was referring to certain clichés, the mediated images of those tragedies present in the collective consciousness and memory. Sometimes the viewer is allowed to act. For instance, he can raise a huge curtain and crawl under it to try, from so close a perspective, to examine a huge photo on the floor (To Crawl Into). But instead of really seeing it, he will be able only to guess, to work out, fragments of the image he knows is there: a representation of Viennese Jews forced to clean the sidewalks on their knees following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.

The next gallery room is called In Memoriam. Besides Historic Photographs related to images from the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, closely boarded up here, the room includes also an installation from 2006, In Memoriam. Huge cardboard boxes, arranged in rows, are a reference to Peter Eisenmann’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Another part of the exhibition is Terror and Oppression – the latest work from the Historic Photographs series, made specially for the Zacheta show. It is comprised by two large-format photographs hanging vis-à-vis each other: Jews waiting in even queues for registration in Buchenwald in 1938, and Germans entering Poland in 1939 in equally even lines. The victim and the perpetrator shown in a similar order and array.

The narrative is closed by a multi-part 1995 installation called Eichmann and the Angel. A reconstruction of the cage in which Eichmann was kept during his trial in Jerusalem stands opposite a wall of newspapers. Alongside the other, longer, wall a transmission belt has been placed, and in front of it lie the newspaper batches left from the construction of the wall. The viewer can spread the newspaper and place it on the moving belt. The machine transports the paper, which eventually lands on the floor on a heap of similarly ‘used’ newspapers. A nameless, mass-scale, nonsensical production of chaos and destruction continues. Hanging above it all is a reproduction of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. The original painting was owned by Walter Benjamin, the Paris-based German Jewish philosopher who in 1940 tried to flee from France to the US. Stopped at the border in Port Bou in Spain, when it turned out the papers he had would not get him to the US, he committed suicide. ‘Port Bou’, ‘New York’, ‘Jerusalem’ – say inscriptions visible from the Eichmann cage. New York – the death place of Hannah Arendt, whose reports from the Nazi criminal’s trial gave rise to Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil – one of the 20th century’s most important pieces of literature.

All of the presented works also confront themselves with the history of the place where they are shown. The history of Poland, of Warsaw, of the Zacheta building – where Gabriel Narutowicz, independent Poland’s first elected President was murdered in 1922. The history of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which took place not far from the Zacheta and another anniversary of which will be celebrated on April 19. The history in a way still too often forgotten, even though it is part of our identity.

curators Pontus Kyander, Hanna Wróblewska collaboration Julia Leopold

The exhibition is made in collaboration with Kunsthalle Lund in Sweden and supported by Goethe-Institut.

only in german

Gustav Metzger
Works of 1995–2007
Kuratoren: Pontus Kyander, Hanna Wroblewska