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The Good, the Average and the Ugly: Flailing Trees by Gustav Metzger

Jonathan Schofield wonders if the Manchester International Festival public artwork isn’t a bit banal

Written by . Published on July 15th 2009.

The Good, the Average and the Ugly: Flailing Trees by Gustav Metzger

Category: Average

What and where?
Flailing Trees by Gustav Metzger, next to Barbara Pearson’s Messenger of Peace sculpture. Twenty one inverted willows, roots in the sky, set into a concrete bed.

Because Manchester International Festival 2009 commissioned the work.

Let me re-phrase the question, what is it trying to say?
This is what the programme says: ‘Flailing Trees is a subversion of the natural order that brings nature and the environment into sharp focus. With flourishing branches replaced by dying roots, the sculpture is both a plea for reflection and a plaintive cry for change, and is sure to provide a catalyst for debate.’ Metzger says more directly that it’s “about the brutality with which humanity mistreats nature.”

What do you say?
It’s too small. To highlight a globe stripped bare and empty of life it should have been the size of a football field. That would have made an impact in several ways: it would have highlighted Metzger’s message and it would have proved visually and physically exciting. To take a walk in an almost full-sized dead wood would have been impressive. This work is too small and dominated by the living trees and the buildings around it. Ok, it complements Pearson’s sculpture in that it examines conflict, this time between Man and Nature, but for public art it just isn’t – so to speak – public enough. There’s another thing.

Go on.
As several artists have said on Confidential, inverted trees have been done before. In the UK for example in the Lune Valley by Giles Kent and in Bristol by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. As an idea it’s so obvious, it's banal. This makes the slaughter a little annoying.

The slaughter?
Yep. Gustav Metzger’s a killer.

What on earth do you mean?
The twenty one willow trees here were killed for the sculpture. They were uprooted alive, had their canopies shaven off and then they were inverted into the concrete bed. They’re martyrs to art. Metzger said, this is justifiable arboricide because it highlights our childlike careless destruction of the planet. He says, “We can anticipate objections to this display.” But can we? Has anybody complained? Do people care enough? No, because it’s too small.

The artist Gustav Metzger (the very small old man) explains the work

Do you really think Metzger's a killer?
Don’t be daft, of course not. Willows have been bent to human will since we first stood upright. They are an immensely versatile tree and whether used for furniture, fencing or art then that’s fine with me.

Tell me a bit about Metzger?
Well he’s got form when it comes to this sort of direct approach to art. For instance, he defined the term 'Auto-destructive Art' in the early ‘60s. His most famous example of this was in 1959 when he sprayed acid onto nylon sheets. This was as a protest against nuclear weapons - geddit? - the acid created interesting patterns on the sheets before destroying them. Metzger himself was born in 1926 in Germany to Polish-Jewish parents. He came as a refugee to Britain when the UK took in 10,000 children, mainly Jewish, and saved them from the Holocaust. He has always declared himself stateless. He obviously thinks himself a bit too important to belong to a single nation.

And what happens to Flailing Trees after the Festival?
The Whitworth Art Gallery is acquiring it for its permanent collection. Flailing Trees will be sited in the Gallery grounds for continued free public viewing. This is a good idea. Set close to the gallery, amidst the living trees and the grass, the dead work's...er...deadliness will provide a thought-provoking counterpoint. Above all it will look apocalyptical, like those woods you see blasted to bits in Paul Nash’s World War 1 paintings such as ‘We Are Making a New World’, or like a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.

Paul Nash's 'We are making a new world'

That’s all right then.
Well, yes. Apocalyptical is always stirring, but doesn’t necessarily highlight green issues or environmental concerns. In that the sculpture fails. This is often the problem with going for the big obvious gesture. You have to reach for the end point, death, destruction, the wasting of the planet, to get your message across, it’s a bit teenage, a bit Emo. It’s also a bit silly. We won’t wipe out life or use all the Earth’s resources unless we try very, very hard and are incredibly stupid. We are too clever for that: let’s have faith in humanity. “The end of the world is facing us if we go on pulling the rainforest to pieces,” said Metzger. A bit conceited that Gustav, life on the planet’s a bit more resilient surely? I do agree with one thing the old gent says though.

Which is?
Metzger says: “Facing up to and challenging (situations) has been the privilege of art through the ages. Protest is the central intention of this work.” Hard not to agree with that contention, problem is that Flailing Trees is too small to live up to it.

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12 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousJuly 15th 2009.

ah yes Eddie I love Rubens's Slaughter of the Innocents in the National Gallery such an eye for beauty or is it horror. But conceptual art (which is about ideas) is always a puzzle. I suggest viewers my like to begin from the title 'flailing" and the image of the 'uprooted (pun) trees' and 'whip' it up from there, and then why is so square and tidy? (A version of Trevors point but asks why, rather than of substituting as Trev does, his own 'work(s)') Perhaps Rubens would have been more effective with just a soldier a a dagger a mother and a child. or have distributed a tract against putting enemy towns' inhabitants to the sword in the Thirty Years War.

Robin SkylarkJuly 15th 2009.

Well I like it.

EddieJuly 15th 2009.

How can anyone mention aesthetics when talking about this! Seems to me that the majority of art now is all a big confidence trick. No real talent or eye for beauty needed, just say you are an artist loud enough and everyone is afraid to look ignorant by saying the "art" is simple cr*p!

Martin StockleyJuly 15th 2009.

Let's look at the objections - It's too small. So you like it but you would like more of it? Presumably if you have got the message but would like it louder/larger then you have got the message and it works?It's been done before. When was that ever a reason for not doing something?Its permanent site will be The Whitworth which you think is a good idea - so that's good.It's not clear that Metzger is trying to highlight green and/or environmental issues so the fact you think it is not effective in that should be no cause for concern.You agree that facing up to and challenging situations is a worthy cause for art.So it just comes down to size and you might argue that the artist's role is to highlight the situation and it is our role to work out the scale and magnitude?Well done Gustav! Job done.

TomJuly 15th 2009.

This is outrageous! When I worked for a gardening firm years ago I planted a row of trees like after a heavy night on the town and they sacked me. Now this guy does it and he gets paid by the council – unbelievable!

Trevor JonesJuly 15th 2009.

The job isn't done because despite those arguments it's still too small. So it aesthetically fails. This is the failure of the work and it's a big one. As for making us think about the issues, then if that's the only consideration he may has well have just 'slaughtered' one tree and inverted it. Or maybe just handed out some leaflets. Metzger's arguments about the end of the world are also childish.

ArtLoverJuly 15th 2009.

Underwhelming sums it up perfectly. Remember the fantastic spaceship that was outside the Whitworth for the last festival? That was amazing - such a shame that wasn't bought for the permanent collection.

AndyMJuly 15th 2009.

I'm reminded of the accidentally tiny Stonehenge stage set in Spinal Tap..

marieJuly 15th 2009.

If the murder of trees is arboricide, is the murder of risotto rice arboriocide?

SiJuly 15th 2009.

Underwhelming is the only way I could think to describe this.

shinealightJuly 15th 2009.

I laughed when I saw it. It's completely underwhelming. It looks great on the literature although I'm not convinced that the picture MIF have used comes from the piece.

EddieJuly 15th 2009.

Ah yes Anonymous, its still cr*p. Where is the skill and artistry? Will this piece stand the test of time?Do you seriously think this says enough to be a puzzle?? Laughable.A puzzle on what level exactly?

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