The Indiscreet Charm of Fischli and Weiss

Peter Fischli David Weiss: Outlaws, 1984, chromogenic print, 11¾ by 9½ inches, from the series “Equilibres (A Quiet Afternoon).” Jumex Collection, Mexico City.

All images courtesy Fischli Weiss Archive, Zurich. 


In a New York retrospective, the Swiss artist team alternately indulges and challenges audiences with their videos, photos and sculptures. 

Repetition and Difference is a small, unfired-clay sculpture of two smiling, cartoonish, bowler-hatted figures, not quite identical and irresistibly charming. It is among 600 similarly appealing sculptures in Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s series “Suddenly This Overview” (1981-ongoing), 150 of which can be seen in the current survey of the Swiss duo’s work at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, organized by curators Nancy Spector and Nat Trotman in association with Fischli. There is also Popular Vision of Fear, featuring a clay airplane nosing down into clay waves, and The First Fish Decides to Go Ashore (it and its trailing mates are grinning madly). Cassius Clay after His Fight with Joe Frazier is a mangled, blocky mess; Japanese Rock Garden is neatly combed. All crude but exceedingly deft, and most extremely funny, they are installed with gregarious profusion on pedestals and walls along the ramp in this generous show, which contains happy surprises for even the most diligent art viewers.

Collaborators for more than three decades, Fischli and Weiss produced work in a now fashionably broad range of disciplines, including film, video, photography, sculpture (using a variety of materials as well as found objects), artists’ books, drawings, installations and public works sited outdoors. The clay sculptures, which Fischli continues to make—Weiss died of cancer in 2012—introduce many aspects of their joint artistic character, distinguished by modesty and humor in the service of exploring big ideas; a prodigious capacity for hard work, often under the guise of goofing off; comfort with the quotidian; and a very sharp sense of how best to bring high and low art into fruitful collision. Their artistic collaboration began with the “Sausage Series” (1979), a fooling-around kind of project in which they arranged household objects and food into tableaux they documented in 10 slightly funky color photographs. Pickles go shopping for carpets made of sliced salami; Alps, fashioned from rumpled pillows and bed sheets, are cast in a sunset-red glow; sausage links on wheels collide as cigarette butts stand around watching. 

Soon thereafter, the artists acted out such comically improvisational tales themselves, making two movies in which they appear as characters identified, and costumed with endearing cheesiness, as Rat and Bear. Shot in Los Angeles, The Least Resistance (1980-81, 29 minutes) is a patchwork of genres,  showing the companionably grumpy pair conversing about art, money and metaphysics; visiting a gallery; and solving a murder (after robbing the corpse). The second film, The Right Way (1983, 55 minutes), takes the protagonists to the majestic Swiss countryside, where their joint escapades, squabbles and gruff reconciliations resume. Neither movie benefits from summary, but together they block out the artists’ ongoing concern with banality and sublimity, while also charting a collaborative style of productively argumentative amity. 

Though the personas of Rat and Bear suggest slightly crotchety, middle-aged men, neither artist was much past 30 when shooting began. Weiss was born to a Protestant pastor in Zurich in 1946, and attended art school there and in Basel. His travels took him to San Francisco in 1967; he returned to California 12 years later, this time choosing Los Angeles and finding work as a set director for a Halloween-style horror film titled The Boogey Man. Fischli met Weiss, six years years his senior, in 1977 in his hometown, Zurich (after Fischli returned from Italy, where he, too, studied art). Following their first collaboration, he joined Weiss in L.A. in 1980. They returned to Zurich shortly after completing The Least Resistance.

Both men had developed under the prevailing influence of Bauhaus training, which Fischli’s father, an architect and sculptor, had received before them. Of course, other influences were at hand, not least the heritage of Dada, a movement born in Zurich in 1916. Among Fischli and Weiss’s compatriots are Markus Raetz, a sculptor and painter of similarly devilish whimsy, and Jean Tinguely—although, as Arthur Danto notes, Tinguely’s 1960 self-destructing Homage to New York went haywire, while in even the most jerry-built of Fischli and Weiss’s work things seem to run like a good Swiss watch. 1 Formative as well was “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” the exhibition, organized by Harald Szeemann, at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 that introduced Post-Minimalism and Conceptualism to Switzerland.

In any case, it is fair to say that nothing could be further from Fischli and Weiss’s purposes than the idealism of the Bauhaus, with its belief in the seamless identity of form, functionality and refined taste. “[Swiss art historian and curator] Jean-Christophe Ammann once said, ‘Art begins where good taste ends,’” Weiss noted approvingly in a 2013 interview. To which Fischli added, “Are you sure? Didn’t he mean ‘Art stops where good taste commences’?” 2 A fine illustration of their screwball dialectics, the exchange also neatly stakes their turf.

Though Fischli and Weiss remade the domain beyond good taste as their own, its boundaries were established at the height of the Bauhaus’s prestige, when Clement Greenberg denounced a newly ascendant form he called kitsch. Condemning this form of popular art with a barrage of epithets—academic, formulaic, lazy, deceptive—Greenberg concluded that kitsch was no less than a tool of totalitarianism. 3 For Susan Sontag, writing in the less gloomy mid-’60s, the aestheticism of kitsch—or, in her uppercased and sexualized term, Camp—like its sentimental relation to the past and its political disengagement, was a quality to be celebrated. Endorsing its ironic embrace of such laughably lowbrow artifacts as Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake and King Kong, Sontag claims, “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious.” And then, as if to apologize for her snootiness, “Camp is a tender feeling.” 4

Unserious but tender: it is a good pair of adjectives for Fischli and Weiss’s work, particularly if both terms are taken with a touch of campy skepticism. They are surely apt for the much beloved The Way Things Go (1987). This utterly irresistible, half-hour-long film presents an apparently seamless chain reaction (there are in fact around 25 unobtrusive cuts), involving household, studio and garage objects exploding, deflating, tumbling, dripping, wobbling and rolling, each effect becoming a cause in turn. Some actions are drawn out—as in the water that slowly fills a bucket until it floats a can on which is balanced a chair that, when tipped, sets off another slow reaction—and others blindingly fast. With its dramatic cliff-hangers and reliably satisfying resolutions, The Way Things Go enlists the innocent joy of discovering hidden life in ordinary objects—children know it well—and incidentally helps uncover the playfulness in some of late modernism’s more ponderous art: Smithson’s asphalt rundown, Serra’s prop pieces and Barry Le Va’s shatter scatter are, in this light, variations on the theme of encouraging non-art materials and physical processes to do their own things. 

In a book-length essay on The Way Things Go, artist and critic Jeremy Millar argues for the relevance to the film’s antics of Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of laughter as a subversive force, upending hierarchies. “Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides,” 5 Bakhtin wrote, suggesting that the risible is not far from the erotic. Along with implying that both qualities have important roles in Fischli and Weiss’s video, Millar suggests that the artists share this sense of the ribald with Duchamp. 6 His Large Glass, with its crypto-sexual chocolate grinder and mysterious mechanical figures, exemplifies, too, a love of household implements that Fischli and Weiss also share, as witnessed by their relish for things that go without having to be plugged in. 

The Way Things Go was not Fischli and Weiss’s first experiment with staging precariousness. A series of photographs called “Equilibres (A Quiet Afternoon), 1984-86, documents the fleeting balancing acts of domestic items—utensils, bottles, vegetables, tires—that have been tied, wedged and pinned into unsteady assemblages. Pairing visual and material thrift with extravagant absurdity, the “Equilibres” translate fugitive moments into enduring images. And as with much of Fischli and Weiss’s work, they ramify by accumulation. 

Similarly cumulative, the “Grey Sculptures” (1984-86, 2006-08) are painted polyurethane works that range from nightmarishly large to dreamily small: on the one hand, a giant grayish-green bean, a conduit-size macaroni tube and a monstrous egg; on the other, a shrunken factory. All are featureless, as is also true of the many nondescript plaster pieces in the series “Cars” and “Hostesses” (both 1988-89). The cars are too big for toys, too small for realism, and the hostesses are a stunted army of poker-faced attendants. Life-size but no less uncanny is a group of black “Rubber Sculptures” (1986-90, 2005-06) made by casting existing objects. Some casts have near-Minimalist forms, as in the looming plinths created from a large cabinet and a closet, or the more intimate geometry of a silverware divider. By contrast, the casts of a couple of plant and tree roots result in sculptures that simulate unchecked expressionistic abandon. 

The artists’ final collaborative work, “Walls, Corners, Tubes” (2009-12), comprises both cast rubber and molded unfired clay; here the resulting plinths, planks and cylinders seem less narrative than conceptual, and bring Rachel Whiteread and early Bruce Nauman to mind. Scale, strikingly indeterminate in these works, is also at center stage in the impeccably style-free Haus (1987), an aluminum-and-glass office building at the unaccountably disorienting dimensions of one-fifth actual size. Positioned outside the entrance to the Guggenheim, it enters into active—and, Fischli emphasizes, deliberate 7 —dialogue with the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building, Haus’s intransigent formal muteness speaking banality to power. Passive aggression is seldom this beguiling.

Shown in the same gallery as “Walls, Corners, Tubes” is Kanalvideo (1992), made from footage shot in a Zurich sewer. While echoing the brutally simple geometry of the sculptures, it also suggests a solar eclipse approached by satellite at dizzying speed. Taking a more explicitly God’s-eye view is “Visible World” (1986-2012), a 2,400-image collection of photographs undertaken, the artists say, to survey—without help from the Internet—the planet’s scenic spots. Having also appeared in artists’ books and as transparencies displayed on light boxes, the colorful, professional-looking and generically appealing images of international sites both exalted and mundane are sampled here in three video slide shows, with slow dissolves from one image to the next. The series “Airports” (1987-2012), presented in the same manner, ably conveys the globally identical, reliably narcotic experience of being in an airport. But perhaps the artists’ most pleasantly numbing photographic project is the untitled 96-hour video installation made for the 1995 Venice Biennale. Divided among 12 monitors, it presents footage of Swiss industry, farming, recreation and landscape.

 Referring to this installation, Weiss said—much as he had of “Suddenly This Overview”—“we like to flood our viewers with impressions, with information.” To which Fischli added, “in most of our pieces, time is a very important aspect: the time you spend doing something.” 8 And in reference to a photographic series of rather hyperbolically gorgeous flowers (not shown at the Guggenheim), Fischli further explained that the nature of their seduction involves a hint of coercion: “It does matter that firstly we ourselves, as the authors of these works, feel captured,” he said. “This certainly happens with the viewer as well. For a moment, at the beginning, he’s a victim.” 9

By suggesting that he and Weiss were after something between captivation and kidnapping, Fischli alerts us to the complications that season their work’s many pleasures. In the exhibition catalogue, Nancy Spector puts the onus on viewers, writing, “Fischli and Weiss offer us, their audience, the chance to misuse time.” 10 The invitation, which encourages exploration of the relationship between industry and indolence, puts the artists in good company. In the catalogue for the 2003 group exhibition titled “Work Ethic,” Helen Molesworth writes, “one unifying principle of the extraordinarily heterogeneous field of post-World War II avant-garde art was a concern with the problematic of artistic labor.” 11 Indeed the title of the Guggenheim survey is “How to Work Better”; it derives from a public billboard piece of 1991 (first shown in Zurich and appearing through May 1 on Houston Street in downtown Manhattan) that borrows its text from a list of instructions the artists found pinned up in a Thai pottery factory. Its 10 precepts include, “DO ONE THING AT A TIME,” “DISTINGUISH SENSE FROM NONSENSE” (this, Fischli says, is the hardest one to abide by 12 ), “BE CALM” and “SMILE.”

By most measures, Fischli and Weiss’s own work ethic has been formidable. While the archive is a popular trope—On Kawara, Joachim Schmid and Gerhard Richter are only a few of the many artists who have assembled found photographs—Fischli and Weiss are unusual in having produced the contents of their collections from scratch. Ultimately, they exercise us too, encouraging exploration of the merits of firsthand viewing (theirs) in a world where little remains untouched by the camera’s eye.

The installation at the Guggenheim is arranged neither chronologically nor by medium; instead, its more than 300 pieces are deployed with the nonlinear, cumulative logic of the duo’s work. The exhibition begins, in the lobby, with slightly under-human-size stuffed-cloth rat and bear figures lying asleep on their backs, as if exhausted by putting the show together. Nearly imperceptibly, their stomachs rise and fall; the effect is unreasonably moving. 

In the topmost ring of the rotunda, we see what look like several roped-off bays containing beat-up display pedestals, drywall and construction tools, in increasingly attenuated arrays; they are in fact trompe l’oeil sculptures. Behind one metal rope is an upholstered chair, and beside it an overturned pedestal sheltering child-size boots and a goofy figure resembling one of the bowler-hatted men in Repetition and Difference. A pair of adult-size penny loafers, well-worn and paint-spattered, appears in the final bay. These convincingly illusionistic pieces—from a body of work (1991-ongoing) that shows the artists putting Weiss’s Hollywood prop-making skills to good use—are made of carved and painted polyurethane. Weiss said, of another series of similarly hyperrealistic works, “For me the main focus with the objects is that you ‘see something’ that you also know is not there. Of course, it is there, but the chair is not a chair, the table is not a table.” 13 Even without ascribing such ghostliness to the polyurethane sculptures, these bookended works—Rat and Bear asleep, empty shoes—combine to create a muffled sense of elegy. 

Fischli and Weiss’s work as a whole argues strongly against such emotionally tidy readings. But a kind of two-part coda in the museum’s last, darkened tower gallery undermines the mood only a little. “Question Projections” (2000-03) consists of projected queries, some big and some small, that drift multilingually across the wall: “Should I pay more attention to my feelings?” “Did something go wrong shortly after the big bang?” “Should I get drunk?” “Has the last bus gone?” The final installation is the painted-polyurethane The Raft (1982). A vision drawn from Gericault by way of Disneyland, it’s jammed with incompatible things: a sow on her side suckling a litter of piglets, a pair of red ladies’ pumps, an engine, a life preserver, a gun. On the floor around the planks that make up the raft are low dark blobs that, on further consideration, become the tops of hippos and toothy crocodiles, just breaking the water’s surface. The sharks are circling, these final rooms seem to say. The questions remain unanswered; the work—in Fischli’s own account of The Raft’s placement at the exhibition’s conclusion—is drifting away. 14

Collaborations, like archives, represent ideas and experiences arising between and not within single entities. Fischli and Weiss’s relationship was not romantic (each was married to a woman), but they flirted with the idea of flirtation from the beginning. (The Least Resistance and The Right Way are nothing if not buddy movies.) That the flame, as it were, never goes out in The Way Things Go—the metaphorical torch is carried from object to object and, implicitly, hand to hand—is another expression of the spirit of collaboration. When two artists work together, they form a wobbly circuit around two centers. And in art that develops as a conversation, we viewers often find ourselves addressed in a particularly direct, colloquial way. Perhaps the closest parallel would be the work of Komar and Melamid, but it is also true of many collaborative artists who are also life partners: Christo and Jeanne Claude, Allora and Calzadilla, and Gilbert and George come to mind. The partnership of Fischli and Weiss was distinguished (and probably greatly helped) by their humor; by the emphasis their sometimes herculean (Sisyphean?) undertakings place on the challenge of working, and of working together; and perhaps above all by their charm. A sometimes hard-to-define kind of attraction—it is one of six flavors of quark, in physics—charm is a very tricky thing to sustain. Fischli and Weiss have done so with what seems like magical ease. 


“Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better,” at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, through Apr. 27.