Magazine article Tate Etc.

The Seeds of Destruction

Magazine article Tate Etc.

The Seeds of Destruction

Article excerpt

As a forthcoming exhibition at Tate Britain reveals, iconoclasm has taken many turns throughout the centuries in the United Kingdom, from savage destruction during the Reformation to more recent actions by contemporary artists In 1957 the artist Gustav Metzger mounted an exhibition of damaged art in King's Lynn. 'Treasures from East Anglian Churches' was a selection of sacred artefacts that had been attacked during the period of iconoclasm between the English Reformation in the 1530s and the Commonwealth of 1649-1660 when Britain, under the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, was effectively a republic. Metzger already knew plenty about annihilation. Born to Jewish parents in Nuremburg, he was evacuated via Kindertransport to England in 1939 at the age of twelve, justas Nazi Germany was engaging in genocide against its own people. His parents disappeared soon after. In the 1950s he was involved in activism, first with the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament and then as a founder of the Committee of 100. Later he made art born of material violence- nylon panels that he corroded with acid, and liquid crystal projections that melted and reformed under the heat of the projectors. He called it Auto-Destructive Art.

Metzger, argues Tate curator Andrew Wilson in the catalogue for the forthcoming exhibition 'Art Under Attack' at Tate Britain, was not an iconoclast in the classic sense. Rather, he understood something that iconoclasts have often failed to grasp. Breaking an image does not eradicate it; it merely replaces it with another. Destruction is part and parcel of creation. 'Treasures from East Anglian Churches' demonstrated just this fact-, cruelly mutilated artworks had transformed into powerful warnings againstthe latent violence of political and religious dogma.

There were periods of iconoclasm in Britain before the Reformation, of course. In the late fourteenth century the Lollards, an heretical sect founded by John Wycliffe, waged war on idolatry, removing statuary and images-"dead stones and rotten sticks"-from churches and destroying them. The Lollards protested that these objects were venerated as if they were alive, while the poor citizenry was left to subsist in wretchedness. As with many iconoclasts, their actions revealed a paradoxical anxiety over the liveliness of artefacts; some Lollards claimed that religious imagery and statuary were hiding places for demons which lured worshippers into idolatry.

The (progressive) mistrust of (old-fashioned) superstition burned bright among Protestant iconoclasts during the Reformation a century and a half later. They were troubled by complex ontological questions. How does a representation embody its subject? Is it possible for one material - bread, say-actually to transubstantiate into another-flesh.for instance-in certain sacred circumstances? The Catholic clergy claimed not only was it possible, but that the church alone was capable of effecting such a change. The Protestants were unconvinced. Today, these issues remain unresolved. It is difficult, painful even, to treat a photograph of a loved one (as an oft-cited example) merely as chemical emulsion on paper. When the subject of an image is not only loved but divine, the problem of its ontological status could hardly be more explosive and far-reaching.

The central visual focus of every medieval Christian church was a sculpture of Jesus on the cross, usually fixed on a rood screen at the emtrance to the chancel. Many roods were strikingly lifelike; the one from Boxley Abbey in Kent could move its eyes, lips and arms. Protestant reformists seized it in 1538 and paraded it through market towns, showing off the rods and wires that manipulated it as proof of thefraudulence ofthe Catholic church. In a sermon at the pulpit of Paul's Cross in London, Bishop Hilsey gave itto the congregation to smash to pieces. Not a single medieval rood survives in a British church today.

The Mercers' Hall in London is built on the site ofthe destroyed Catholic Church of St Thomas of Aeon. …

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