As French theorist Gilles Deleuze mused in 1977, “Many people have worked in pairs: the Goncourt brothers, Erkmann-Chatrian, Laurel and Hardy. But there are no rules, there is no general formula.”1 Deleuze spoke from experience, as he himself was already operating as part of a celebrated philosophical tag team with Félix Guattari. His seemingly innocuous remark on the nature of collaboration conjures a fitting epithet for the careers of the most thoroughgoing artist pair of our time. Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss delight in the marvel of everyday life, exploring seemingly trivial subjects with the innocence of daydreaming children. Caught snugly somewhere between the often-inscrutable Deleuze and Guattari, and the bungling of Stan and Ollie, their practice mixes the profound and the inept in equal doses.
Despite their diversity in both the media they employ—16mm film, photography, carved and cast sculpture, video installation—and the range of subjects they have tackled, their works nonetheless are infused with consistent themes. Or rather, in a natural affinity for the “no rules” and “no general formula” that Deleuze describes, motifs echo with casual wonder and for no particular reason. Cats reappear several times throughout their oeuvre—recently in the 2001 video Büsi (Kitty), which petitions us to relish, as the artists must have done, the simple pleasure of watching a domestic feline lapping up a saucer of milk.2 Caves, tunnels, and sewers are another particular obsession—a testament to Switzerland’s alpine wilderness, the country’s engineering prowess, and the modern mythology of Swiss cleanliness and efficiency. Indeed, Fischli and Weiss’ work also embraces an earnest yet gently mocking celebration of the Swiss nation, its historic political neutrality as much as its picture-postcard scenery and cuckoo-clock clichés. The artists’ tunnel fixation is most evident in Kanalvideo (Canal Video) (1992), in which the artists appropriated footage shot by remote control to check for cracks in a drained underground sewer. More than an hour in length, the videotape unfurls like a low-budget attempt at a time-travel special effect. We appear to be sucked into the screen as we trundle down this “black hole,” replete with weird sci-fi color changes, exaggerated from the video camera’s struggles with the gloom.
Fischli and Weiss began collaborating in 1979, and spent periods of the next three years in Los Angeles before both settling in their native Zürich, where they continue to live and work. Wurstserie (Sausage Series) (1979) was the first series of works the artists produced together, and the Walker Art Center acquired a set in 1993. They are technically unpretentious photographs—indeed, their competence as studio-based still lifes seems completely inconsequential—that document the result of an activity deemed somewhat inappropriate for all grown-ups with supposedly good manners: playing with your food. Cold cuts and frankfurters, wieners and other processed meats—alongside cigarette butts pressed into service as surrogate people—become the props and protagonists in dramatic dioramas. The comical use of the “wrong” materials for art-making and the technically cavalier execution of the photographs seem to conflict with the often disastrous events they wish to portray. Fittingly, Der Brand von Uster (The Fire of Uster) from this series commemorates an event from 1832, where a desire for technological efficiency was similarly spurned. In protest against the mechanical cotton-spinning machines that were threatening their craft, textile workers in a Swiss town burnt their factory to the ground with Luddite petulance.
Made two years later, Plötzlich diese Übersicht (Suddenly This Overview) is a series of more than two hundred clumsy sculptures rendered in unfired clay, a familiar medium of classroom art. With a willful mediocrity characteristic of their work, Fischli and Weiss depict unremarkable objects and scenes (Peanuts, Bread, or Woman in the Supermarket) as well as imagined “Eureka!” moments from history (such as Marco Polo shows the Italian spaghetti, brought back from China, for the first time). Such attempts at encyclopedic production—a twist on the relentless seriality of the Minimalist “specific object,” perhaps—has the compelling charm of a child trying to imagine everything in their world, all at once, or recounting their day in a tumble of “and then … and then … and then… .” In a similar way, Le rayon vert (The Green Light) (1993) exploits the ability of the humblest of materials to imagine the grandest of events. In a darkened space, a flashlight points toward a “cut-glass” plastic cup that spins on a record turntable to make a kaleidoscopic pattern on a nearby wall. Referring to an elusive, almost mythical meteorological phenomenon, where the setting sun dips below the horizon to produce a green glow, Fischli and Weiss allude to spectacular nature through bathos, doing “the best they could do.”3
The premiere survey exhibition of their work, Peter Fischli and David Weiss: In a Restless World, opened at the Walker in the spring of 1996, which also marked the first time the artists’ work had been seen in-depth in the United States. From their early cast-rubber sculptures to their most famous film, Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) (1987), the exhibition was largely designed around a series of illuminated “moments” of artworks, encountered in dimly lit, windowless galleries as if caught in shafts of light in a magical cavern. The show included an adapted version of their untitled project for the Venice Biennale the year before. Several days worth of videotape presented on multiple monitors—a visit to a cheese factory, a diversion to a favorite grotto, or Fischli’s idle half-hour spent filming Weiss’ trip to the dentist—commemorate wanderlust and sheer ordinariness.
Empty Room (1995–1996) was commissioned especially for the exhibition and later acquired for the Walker’s collection. Part of the artists’ ongoing series of trompe l’oeil studio paraphernalia, the work comprises some one hundred fifty hand-carved polyurethane sculptures that together mimic a room still in preparation. Pieces of board and two-by-fours, paint buckets, boxes of tools, coffee cups, and brushes were modeled on objects used by the Walker’s exhibition crew and those from the artists’ studio. The crafting of these items, lovingly shaped and rendered to exactly resemble these most lowly things—a way in which the artists “misuse” their time—entails an uncanny transubstantiation. Empty Room was later reconfigured to create the illusion of workshop storage under the stairs and was on display in the Walker’s galleries until 2004.
Gilles Deleuze, Dialogues (Paris: Flammarion, circa 1977; reprinted in New York: Continuum, 2002), 16. ↩
Büsi (Kitty) was first shown on the giant screen of New York’s Times Square. The Walker owns one of the subsequent DVD editions. ↩
Fischli and Weiss discuss this “the best they could do” attitude in their interview with artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, “Real Time Travel: Fischli and Weiss,” Artforum 34, no. 10 (Summer 1996): 78–86, 122–126. ↩