A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
I went to a new art exhibition in The Hague and reflected on life as a student here. West, a museum of contemporary art with two locations, on the Lange Voorhout and on the Groenwegje, is hosting work by Gustav Metzger, a German artist-activist, who died last year.
At the turn of a year, we’re supposed to reflect on our lives. With a month away from school, we’re given a rare moment to do so. At Leiden University College, the degree follows the US’ liberal arts and sciences model. Students have a lot of freedom to choose courses throughout the degree. This freedom makes taking moments to pause and consider choices important. Pausing can be baffling though; sitting around all January pondering choosing could be more stressful than restful. Thankfully art can help guide reflection; Metzger’s, a man thinking about the world’s challenges throughout his life, especially so.
Metzger is perhaps most famous for articulating ‘Auto-destructive Art’: art which clears space for new collaboration. In this articulation “artists are not so much creators as destroyers”. This feels counterintuitive: the terms ‘artist’ and ‘creative’ seem, after all, interchangeable. But thinking about the semester ahead (my last one), perhaps creating space, desperately needed in our oversaturated undergraduate minds, means destroying clutter. Perhaps creating new ideas means destroying old ones. I dwell on this vaguely while looking at a piece of cloth disintegrated by acid.
It is hard to process the mass of information hurled at us today. This feels especially true for students whose primary purpose is to process information and commit it to memory. Choosing which bits to focus on, deciding which are important, becomes harder and harder the more information we have. This spiral to accumulate information, only to realize how much more needs to be accumulated, induces anxiety.
I felt this anxiety embodied by Metzger in his piece Mass Media. An engulfing cuboid of newspaper stacks fills the center of the room. A sign invites visitors to select pieces they find relevant, cut them out of their publications, and stick them to the wall. Many have. The walls are covered with pieces other visitors found relevant. The description says, “this work suggests that collective action can be effective against political disenchantment”. I agree and think about the ways my peers help me choose what to pay attention to.
Metzger chooses to pay attention to a range of society’s ills. In his early years, he critiqued nationalist genocide, specifically Nazi Germany, from which he narrowly escaped. Later, he turned his gaze towards the perils of capitalism, specifically the ecocide it is causing.
His radical work sits strangely in West’s grand ornate 18th-century building on the embassy strewn Lange Voorhout. The building is only on loan, however. Built by a banker fleeing Napoleon, the Dutch state has owned it for many years now. On a kind of anti-squat ethos, West has been in charge of it for the past two years. 2018 is the last year they’ll have it. West, like us students, are travelling through here, learning and sharing. I dwell vaguely on the similarities between myself and West while looking at a plant being choked inside of a glass cube.
I will try to restrain myself from becoming too didactic, but as well as reminding me of the ways we can help each other sort through the material we come across at university, Metzger also reminds me of my priorities. As he told a friend “we need to take a stand against the continuing erasure of species, if we continue to talk just of climate change, nothing would change”. One of my favourite of his quotes, sums up the feeling more generally, “we must become idealists or die”.
If you’re lacking stimulus for reflection this January go to West yourself. They’re exhibiting Metzger until the 4th of February, there’s still time.