In his 2008 essay "The Chinese Puffin," the novelist Jonathan Franzen describes his initial impressions of Shanghai as exhibiting an "advancedness" which comes to seem the "late-ness" of "late modernity." As in science fiction, futurism is inevitably superseded, and projection succumbs to retrospection. The art of Peter Fischli and David Weiss is poised on the cusp of this transition. Like Gerhard Richter's Atlas, their vast slide collection, Visible World (1987-2001), forms a loosely taxonomical representation of the contemporary world's multiplicity. Patterns emerge when thousands of images are presented on light boxes, in glowing connective sequences. If the system appears elegiac, its objectivity ensures a sense that reality has betrayed its own tragic flaw rather than the flaw being projected onto it by the artists.
Elegy was in the air at Sprüth Magers given that Weiss, one half of this artist duo, died last year. The three slide projections, Views of Airports (1987/2012), that dominated the gallery might have been a subcategory of Visible World dedicated to the themes of technology and modernity. The work consists of 469 photographs taken at airports world-wide. A slow fade between the individual images, displayed at about 6 feet wide, emphasizes a standardization of artificial public environments, which was further accentuated here by installing the projections in conjunction with two series of white sculptures. One represents prototypical "modern" car forms, the other generic businesswomen carrying briefcases. The cars are around 5 feet long, the women a little larger than Barbie dolls. Each sculpture suggests a conflation of averages, although the anti-monumental scale and the bleached-out rendering of anonymity are deftly specific.
The businesswomen, each titled Hostess (1987/2012), are ciphers of corporate function, drained of their humanity. Placed on a plinth in the middle of the main gallery, they were further depersonalized by being cast as silhouetted figures in the postindustrial photographic spectacles that loomed around them. But the theatrical accommodation of the figures by the slide shows also liberated them from their lumpen opacity. They became cameos onto which we could project our own imaginings.
If the reductive blankness of the Hostess figures doubles as a screen for our desires and imaginings, the airports are both portals for an escape into alternative realms and bland stops on the inexorable mill of international commerce—capsules of boredom and dead air. These emblems of late modernity's homogenization of experience are also romantic celebrations of the escape offered by jet flight from nihilism and conformity. For every image that pictures the airport apron as a concrete wasteland, there is another of a glorious marbled sunset over a snowbound runway.
The gallery windows had been walled over so the projections usurped their function, like fissures in a shell, releasing our view into the wider world, or at least the illusion of it. Indeed, most of the photographs have been taken through the interstices of a terminal's windows, as if from within a cage. Several associate this confinement with the medium of photography itself by viewing the grounded planes through a mesh screen, a metaphor for the Benday dots of a halftone printing screen. Technology, as well as the art that deploys it, is implicated in what we are yearning to flee. The mountain ranges and dramatic skyscapes which foil the runways are escape valves from commercial propagandas of global freedom, releases from the escape offered by corporate technology. Fischli and Weiss subversively superimpose the two—the commercial image of escape and the artistic escape from it—and present them as inseparable.
PHOTO: View of Fischli and Weiss's Views of Airports, 1987/2012, slide projections, with (on floor) "Hostesses," 1987/2012, aluminum and paint; at Sprüth Magers.