This is CFile’s third post looking at the presence of clay and ceramic mediums in last year’s Venice Biennale. Fischli and Weiss’ installation Suddenly this Overview (1981/2006) is exactly the kind of work that sets the more traditional side of the ceramics world on edge because it seems too rudimentary, unskilled, and naive. In part, this reaction is due to the fact that this contingent views each of the 130 small sculptures as a final product, a finished object. But that is not the Swiss duo’s aim nor what interests them. Suddenly this Overview is, in essence, a performance piece and clay sketches merely document the process of thought. Releasing their work from objecthood allows it to live in the world of ideas.
Fischli and Weiss aren’t tricksters, concerned with what they can get away with or what can be considered art: though they often employ mundane, everyday materials and wit and humor are in large supply in their work. High and low aren’t concepts to be pitted against each other but rather the nature of life, which is the subject of their work and this piece. Peter Fischli (b. 1952) and David Weiss (1946-2012) made their artistic debut was with Suddenly this Overview at the Galerie Stähli, Zurich in 1981. The piece, which spanned from 1981 to 2006, consists of around 200 hand-modeled unfired clay vignettes. Tiles range from the epic and ephemeral like, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones going home satisfied after composing I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and Herr and Frau Einstein shortly after the conception of their son, the genius Albert to the straight forward, Rock Crystal and Loaf of Bread.
When the piece was shown in Fischli and Weiss’ retrospective, Flowers and Questions, at the Tate Modern in 2006 the duo described it thus:
The intention was to accumulate various important and unimportant events in the history of mankind, and of the planet – moments in the fields of technology, fairy tales, civilization, film, sports, commerce, education, sex, biblical history, nature and entertainment. David Weiss
The viewer cannot simultaneously take all the sculptures or all the stories into account…The title [Overview] describes the opposite of what is actually the case: the confusion and the swamp and the simultaneity of these things. Peter Fischli
This retrospective traveled to the Kunsthaus Zürich and the Deichtorhallen Hamburg and in 2008 it was transformed into Other Flowers and Other Questions by the curators Massimiliano Gioni, Bice Curiger and Vicente Todolí, at the Palazzo Litta in Milan. Massimiliano Gioni curated the 2013 Biennale and Suddenly this Overview was a perfect fit for his theme, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace).
Fischli and Weiss may be best known for their 1987 film, The Way Things Go, a series of extremely long takes of Rube Goldberg-like contraptions assembled from household items and studio detritus in action. (You can find a link to an excerpt of the film below.) The action is slow but there are excruciating periods when the viewer on pins and needles wondering if the full trash bag held up by a rope will keep unwinding in such a way as to start the tire down the makeshift ramp that will allow the continuously precarious sequence to continue.
In Richard Dorment’s review of Flowers and Questions that appeared in The Telegraph on October 8, 2006, he described the video—and their work—this way:
And in their best-known work, The Way Things Go, they attempt to make the debris lying around their studio move by setting off a series of chain reactions, rolling an old tire down a ramp that turns over a bottle that spills flammable liquid that catches fire and burns a string that holds up a chair that crashes to the floor. The whole sequence lasts four seconds, or less. This is art as goofing around, the kind of thing bored teenagers get up to on a rainy afternoon. But a recently rediscovered film showing the artists at work on The Way Things Go reveals how hard they had to work – and how often they failed – in order to get their inert materials to move at all….Fischli and Weiss are secular saints. They efface their own egos to show us the wonder and beauty of life. The moral heart of their work is the simple proposition that, if looked at correctly, virtually everything in the world is miraculous.
The work of Fischli and Weiss has been exhibited at major museums and biennials around the world. The artists represented Switzerland at the Venice Biennale in 1995 and were awarded the 2003 Golden Lion for Questions (1981-2002), an installation of more than a thousand existential queries collected over several years. Fischli and Weiss also took part in Documenta 8 (1987) and Documenta 10 (1997). Their retrospective In A Restless World was organized by the Walker Art Center in 1996 and traveled to San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston. In 2006 Tate Modern presented another retrospective, Flowers and Questions, which traveled to the Kunsthaus Zürich and the Deichtorhallen Hamburg. More recently, they participated in Venice’s 2012 Architectural Biennale and have had exhibitions at the Art institute of Chicago (2011) and the Serpentine Gallery, London (2013). Peter Fischli lives and works in Zurich.
Amy Albracht is the General Editor at CFile.
Above image: Fischli and Weiss, Brunelleschi Invents Perspective from Suddenly this Overview, 1981-2006. Courtesy of the artists and Matthew Marks Gallery.