In turns humorous, desperate, punky and anarchic, the work of legendary Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss is on view at New York’s Guggenheim. Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better (New York, February 5 – April 27) collects together more than three hundred sculptures, photographs, videos and installations from more than three decades of the team’s collaboration.
The Guggenheim states that rather than presenting the exhibition in a timeline, major works from different periods hang together, creating dialogues across different points in the artists’ careers. The museum states that that choice also reflects the overlapping nature of their production and underscores the coherence behind such a large body of work. That back-and-forth is apparent even though one of the pair, Weiss, died in 2012. The retrospective was initially planned during Weiss’ lifetime, but in his absence the exhibition was curated by Nancy Spector and Nat Trotman in collaboration with Fischli.
The pair is known for their use of wit and humor in their work, often to address questions that couldn’t be approached otherwise. At times, this led to people having a very surface-level appreciation of what was being said. The curators argue that there is much more:
“Never ones to issue statements or dictate meaning, Fischli and Weiss pondered questions great and small, sometimes imitating whimsical philosophers. Perhaps in part because they were a team of two, they challenged the idea of dualism, a cornerstone of Western thought. In one way or another, everything the artists produced playfully unravels what they understood to be “popular opposites”—labor versus leisure, fiction versus reality, kitsch versus beauty, and the banal versus the sublime, among others. Fischli and Weiss undid false divisions with the conviction that bewilderment itself might be a desirable state. They aimed to confuse hierarchies and values by creating systems doomed to fail and found beauty in states of imminent collapse.”
In his comprehensive and warm story about the pair, Randy Kennedy of the New York Times captured an honest and darkly humorous quote from Fischli as he was watching carpenters prepare the plinths for the exhibition.
“There’s a phrase in German — schiefe Ebene — which you kind of use to mean things going downhill,” Mr. Weiss said, taking a pen to spell the words in a reporter’s notebook. “And I think about this image of 30 years of art rolling down the hill. And I think, in this case, maybe it’s a good thing!”
That encapsulates something special about the work, not only as it is now after cancer has separated the two artists. There is doubt that looms large, bordering on absurdity, but there is also wonder.
We profiled one of their earlier retrospectives before, when Fischli/Weiss appeared at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Their exhibition Suddenly this Overview, said Amy Albracht, “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.” However, she said that this reaction comes from people mistakenly assuming that the 130 sculptures represented a finished product or object. That couldn’t be further from the truth, she said. In fact the sculptures are part of a performance, sketches that “merely document the process of thought. Releasing their work from objecthood allows it to live in the world of ideas.”
“Fischli/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 and David Weiss, often shortened to Fischli/Weiss, are an artist duo that have been collaborating since 1979, according to their biography. Their best known work is the film “The Way Things Go” (Der Lauf der Dinge). This was described by The Guardian as being “Post Apocalyptic” as it is all about chain reactions and the way in which objects fly, crash, and explode across the studio it was shot in. Fischli/Weiss have represented Switzerland at the Venice Biennale several times. Artist David Weiss passed away on 27 April 2012 at age 65 in Zurich.
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