A polyurethane-and-cloth behemoth poses as a massive ceramic vessel in Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s retrospective, Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better. This is “Large Question Pot” (1984), named for the neatly painted queries that coil and accrue along its interior. They range from the metaphysical to the mundane and run the gamut of inconclusiveness, from “To whom is the moon useful?” to “Is everything predestined?” to “Am I torturing myself for nothing?”
Considering Fischli and Weiss’s oeuvre as we circle the Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda, we find ourselves in a question pot of our own. What constitutes an art object, and how does it communicate its objecthood? What value do we ascribe to labor in art? Can boredom be a generative — even profound — condition? How does collective consciousness crystallize into clichés, or how do minute differences metastasize into diametric oppositions? The duo’s impish oeuvre pushes viewers to consider these questions and then volleys them back at us with a cryptic grin. Their sprawling retrospective creates a viewing experience that is funny, frustrating, belabored, and, ultimately, I think, productively unsettling.
The Swiss artist pair was certainly overdue for its first New York survey. Beloved by artists, critics, and art historians alike, Fischli and Weiss were collaborators for 33 years, brought together by the Zurich punk scene in 1977 and parted by Weiss’s death in 2012. They produced their first joint work, Sausage Series, in 1979. Gleefully deadpan, these chromogenic prints depict narrative tableaus with sausages, cigarette butts, and their non-human ilk as protagonists. Aesthetically, Fischli and Weiss’s oeuvre tends toward the extremes of amateurism and technical perfection; these playful photographs certainly fall in the former category. The retrospective’s meaty exhibition catalogue fusses over the relationship between wurst, or sausage, and the verb wursteln, German slang for working on something in an amateur manner. Is this wordplay intentional, and if so, does it add depth to the work or lure overanalyzing curators and critics into inconsequential discursive diarrhea? That’s one for the question pot.
To my eye, there isn’t a clear linear progression to Fischli and Weiss’s work; if anything, it opposes progress, tending more toward the cyclical (one of the reasons the ever-contentious Guggenheim rotunda works here more than it distracts). The pair’s various series converge and cross at intriguing junctures. For example, the interest in stage sets and narrative theater that figures so prominently in Sausage Series reemerges in filmic works such as “The Least Resistance” (1980–81). A meandering, absurdist detective film shot in grainy Super 8, “The Least Resistance” features the artists’ furry surrogates, a shabbily costumed rat and bear who crop up several times in the retrospective. Buddy-comedy style, Rat and Bear search for an “in” to the seedy Los Angeles art scene, hoping to make easy money for their art. In a moment of bogus enlightenment, they believe themselves to have uncovered the order underlying the universe. Rat and Bear go on to produce a faux-academic, jargon-ridden discourse through which they can disseminate their new doctrine. In a particularly funny scene, operatic music swells as the animal-suited artists helicopter away with a suitcase of philosophical, diagrammatic pamphlets that they intend to sell as high art. (Fischli and Weiss actually sold facsimiles of this pamphlet, entitled “Order and Cleanliness,” at the film’s premiere, and diagrams from it bedeck the walls of the retrospective.) “The Least Resistance” mocks the art world — its nonsensical, insular patois and astronomical prices — while spotlighting its own real participation in that same machinery.
Sewers are a notable motif in Fischli and Weiss’s work, cropping up in “Walls Corners Tubes” (2012), Grey Sculptures (1984–86/2006–08), Suddenly This Overview (1981–present), and “Kanalvideo” (1992). The pair’s decades-long homage to Zurich’s sewer system feels as sincere as it is ironic. The hypnotic “Kanalvideo” resembles an endless journey through an abstracted, grainy wormhole. The wall text reveals that the projection is composed of found footage of Zurich’s sewer system, filmed by the Public Works Department’s remote-controlled robots during inspections. Masterfully stitching together and editing the footage for a seamless flow, Fischli and Weiss draw out the extraordinary in the ordinary as they pay tribute to an underappreciated form of infrastructure upon which civilizations have been built. At the same time, they poke fun at art world pretensions by leveraging abstraction and a fine art context to lure the (frequently unsuspecting, I’d suspect) viewer into marveling at a conduit for waste for an hour as he or she grasps at metaphysical or art historical interpretation. The joke may be on us, but the canny conceptual trick nevertheless makes us see how beautiful the sewer was all along.
The greatest testaments to the pair’s technical skill are their various polyurethane facsimiles of studio bric-a-brac, produced between 1991 and 2013. Fischli and Weiss carved and painted polyurethane — a material mainly used for insulation — to perfectly resemble the items laying around their studio, from paint cans and two-by-fours to cleaning products and coffee mugs. They arranged masses of these facsimiles to simulate a studio space or an exhibition installation in progress. Ordinary objects that initially read as readymades reveal themselves to be painstakingly made artworks emptied of their original function. On one hand, these polyurethane pieces poke fun at the fetishization of studio practice (Jackson Pollock’s floor, anyone?). On the other hand, Fischli and Weiss have produced remarkable, impeccably made sculptures that evidence not only their skill as craftsmen but also the time they’ve spent closely observing everyday objects, looking at them to the point of nourishment. Through their art, Fischli and Weiss open up a space for us to really look at them too. Or at their absences — that’s another one for the question pot.
Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better continues at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 27.
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