For decades, the Swiss artist-duo Fischli/Weiss (Peter Fischli and David Weiss) tickled and befuddled art lovers with a mixture of encyclopedic ambition and comedic failure. (Their most famous work, the 1987 video The Way Things Go, is a carefully engineered but gleefully destructive series of chain reactions that's frequently compared to a Rube Goldberg machine.) On the occasion of the Guggenheim's Fischli/Weiss retrospective, Artspace has excerpted the Swiss artists' detailed Q&A with scholar Beate Söntgen from their Phaidon monograph.
Plotzlich diese Ubersicht (Suddenly this Overview, 1981), an installation consisting of approximately 200 sculptures made from unbaked clay, is a work in which subjects from everyday life, from the arts and from film history, biblical and mythological motifs and topoi all combine to form a mixture of banal things and grand sensations. Everything is handled in an egalitarian way within the same medium, using the same material. How did you become interested in this mixture?
David Weiss: The first outline for the project was called Die Welt in der wir leben (The World We Live In, 1981). 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.
Peter Fischli: It’s a very subjective encyclopedia. We were concerned with the simultaneity of the significant and so-called insignificant, minor as well as major events. We then proceeded from this point, working with whatever knowledge we’d retained about each of these topics—our fragmented memories are what flowed into the sculptures themselves. Let’s say we were creating a sculpture about, for example, the construction of the pyramids: we wouldn’t do any research or consult history books. The sculpture was simply based on what we retained as an internal image or memory of these things. Sometimes, as in the case of the pyramids, mistakes were made.
DW: Back then, there were no camels in Egypt. [Laughs]
PF: For “big” events, we also tried to capture moments that wouldn’t be viewed as significant within an official historical record—a moment in which things spill over into the private sphere. This was the case with Herr and Frau Einstein shortly after the conception of their son, the genius Albert, for, example. We didn't focus on Mr. Einstein Being Awarded the Nobel Prize.
DW: If the sculpture of the Einsteins were untitled, it would simply be two sleeping people. But one asserts something with the title.
Why did you choose clay?
DW: For the film Der geringste Widerstand (The Least Resistance, 1980-81), we made small sculptures out of clay that would act as the figures in the film: a rat and a bear. The experience of working with this good–natured, sluggish and somewhat taboo material brought us to the idea of Suddenly This Overview—forming a variety of anecdotes and situations and then placing them next to one another. The uniform, worthless material holds disparate elements together: The Invention of the Miniskirt is connected to Indigenous Forest Floor, which is the infant of the Modern Settlement and everything from Dr. Hoffmann on the Last LSD Trip to The Last Dinosaur. With clay you can work very fast, suggest or quote different styles, spring from one idea to another.
PF: One concern was to break away from particular styles again and again. There are sculptures that we created quite scrupulously and then there are wildly or hastily made ones. We tried to blur any definite distinguishing style because we had a certain distrust of stylistic consistency, and we wanted to create a kind of confusion on a formal level.
DW: Our aim was to incite flooding and confusion in the viewer. We wanted to make a lot of sculptures. Once, we set ourselves the task of creating ten good sculptures per day. We didn’t quite get that far!
PF: The viewer cannot simultaneously take all the sculptures or all the stories into account; one can’t maintain a grip on it all. Single sculptures are remembered, but all in all everything blurs together. And there’s this failure in Overview—the title describes the opposite of what is actually the case: the confusion and the swamp and the simultaneity of these things.
And this mixture of styles, the hasty work, fast tempo and fragmentation are part of an attempt to create a sort of authenticity?
PF: I think the intention to create something authentic is the prerequisite for creating something cunning.
DW: One sculpture is called St. Francis Preaches to the Animals on the Purity of the Heart. It’s difficult to lay claim to that for oneself.
The much later Findet mich das Gluck? (Will Happiness Find Me? 2001) could be seen as a sequel, almost a counterpart to Overview, using the medium of language. How did this emphasis on the linguistic aspect of things come about?
DW: Perhaps it just isn’t possible to formulate a question with a sculpture.
PF: Maybe we can answer by going back to the history of this questioning process. The questions and the linguistic approach in our work emerged for the first time in the context of the rat and bear film; it had its roots in writing the dialogue. In the accompanying booklet Ordnung und Reinlichkeit (Order and Cleanliness) there was a diagram called “Big Questions Small Questions,” where, for example, we set questions like “Is the bus still running?” and “Where is the galaxy going?” against one another. This approach emerged again around 1984 when we made Grosser Fragentopf (Big Pot of Questions). There, we placed less value on the friction between “bigger” and “smaller” questions. The questions became more egocentric, circling around a fictive “I” and inclining toward persecution-mania, self-pity and self-aggrandizement. About three or four years ago we revisited this topic, which resulted in the slide show that we showed in Venice, 2003: Die grosse Fragenprojektion (The Big Projection with Questions).
Was directly addressing the viewer important for you—“Hey you! We’re asking you a question!”?
PF: No, on the contrary. In the beginning, we simply wrote the questions on slips of paper, and then we looked for a suitable form. In the slide show we first attempted to present the questions in a typographically clean format. In this format, they demanded answers, but that wasn’t the most important element, so now, with these snaking, handwritten lines, which slowly emerge and then die away again, we take another approach to the questions: they don’t demand a response. What we wanted was to create a climate for asking questions. There’s a beautiful moment in a book by Boris Groys where he makes the distinction between two types of question. For example, between “What is the diameter of the Earth?” and “Why isn’t the Earth a cube?” With the first you say to yourself: “How many kilometres is it?” With the second, you start to think about the person asking the question, or about his or her condition, and this opens up a much larger field of ... I don’t know what you’d call this field exactly [laughs], but it doesn't just point to the answer of the question. It’s not like, “How long is the Nile?” but rather, “What sort of state of mind is that? What’s the mental state of the person asking the question?”
DW: In a certain way, it leads to a dissolution of the self if all of these things simply whirl about unanswered—a feverish, disorientated state that’s upsetting because it’s unstoppable.
PF: And because answering the questions is made impossible through the continuous emergence of new questions.
DW: On the other hand, the Viewer participates by way of this repeatedly asked “May I? Should I? Must I?”
You decided to include handwriting in Will Happiness Find Me? Did that have anything to do with creating a persona for the questioner, an actual person whom one imagines to be behind it all?
DW: We did in fact imagine a presence at the center of this multitude of questions, and we made speculations about the person. Most likely it was a man who lets everything run through his head before falling asleep—thus the projection of questions the dark, and the fact that the book is black. We’re not responsible for the questions ourselves. It’s this secret person. He’s so the absent one in Chamer Raum (Room in Cham, 1991) and other similar installations such as Raum unter der Treppe (Room Under the Stairs, 1993) at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt. The handwriting emphasizes the transience; it refers to the intimate and private, to taking personal notes, especially in cases where the questions are phrased in the first person.
PF: At the beginning it was necessary for us to maintain a bit of order so we made index cards for the questions. That was our personal archive. Each question was given a number. Then we worked on the formulation of the individual questions for quite some time and made corrections on each of the index cards. At some point we realized that we really liked these cards and that it would be possible to present them this way.
And the small pictures, the bird, the car, the milk jug that are also included?
DW: Those are pauses; maybe because birds or cars don’t ask questions, or because birds themselves aren’t questions, and cars are a reality that simply functions independently of us, out there in the world. One of the questions is: “Is the freedom of birds overrated?” and another is, “Should I remove my muffler and drive around the neighbourhood at night?”
PF: Maybe they’re like decorations on a Christmas tree; one doesn’t really need them but they somehow spread a good mood anyway.
DW: And we’ve had good experiences with the milk jug over the years!
In another conversation we’ve had, you said that you’d like to let viewers know exactly how much time they have to spend looking at a work.
DW: We make an offer to our viewers, and they can decide if they want to accept it or not. We also overwhelm people a bit. The videos in the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995 lasted for ninety-six hours (eight hours on each of the twelve monitors). It would hardly be possible to see everything, but you could choose whether you wanted to step in briefly or spend a few hours there. We like to flood our viewers with impressions, with information. This approach has proven itself somehow. And the parts that you miss become a space you can fill with your own imagination.
PF: It’s something like a department store where you’d have to spend a week visiting each department.
Does the relentlessness of abundant materials in this work reflect the overwhelming impressions and images offered by the world in general?
DW: The accumulations indicate how much time we ourselves have invested in the work. They’re a documentation of our efforts. We stopped making videos after the 1995 Venice work. Maybe we’ll do more, but viewing the world in such a passive fashion with the camera, simply watching other people as they work, or looking at how the world is, or how cows stand in a meadow, that’s gone now.
PF: In most of our pieces time is a very important aspect: the time you spend doing something. With the carvings there’s also the feeling that they took a long time to make. Among the questions there’s one in particular: “Is the nice thing about work that there’s no time left?”
Are you concerned with a particular quality of this lingering or is it more about the fact that one is always lingering in some way, even when one isn’t aware of it? Are you concerned with the time aspect, or with exactly recreating the quality of lingering?
DW: I think rather with the quality of lingering. In the case of the Venice videos, to be on the go with the camera and to be recording things during the drive turned the drive into something special. We were more awake, more focused. And everything I saw I could see again on the monitor in the studio. That changes your perception.
PF: In the equilibrium series Stiller Nachmittag (Quiet Afternoon, 1984), there’s a work entitled Die Missbrauchte Zeit (Time Abused). There’s certainly a subversive pleasure in occupying yourself with something for an unreasonable length of time. For the show in Venice we looked around the world for a year. We went on excursions and drove round in the car—or you could say, we “didn’t work” and “wasted time.” You could also view the carvings that we make as a waste of time.
The predominant question for us is, “Was it worth it?”—the question is literally imposed upon us, especially in the case of the polyurethane objects.
PF: Yes, it was worth it. I get a certain enjoyment from carving; I’m suddenly forced really to contemplate these plastic tubs. The imitation demands patient engagement with the object, an empathy. You could call it “appropriation of the object.” At best, I’m proud and get pleasure from my replica plastic tubs.
And was it important for you that they were everyday objects? They’re just things that are lying around your place. One can imagine objects that would have more appeal than a plastic bucket.
DW: It’s reasonable to falsify money and gold. If we imitate something valuable, the intention is always clear. If we falsify something worthless and misuse time, however, then there’s a bit of schadenfreude involved. On the other hand, these are all objects that we’re very familiar with. If we simulate some technical object, there’s a feeling of unease, because we don’t quite understand the secret of a radio, or other technical devices, and it remains hidden within the object.
What role does sincerity play for you? It’s a term that has disappeared from art but that at one point counted for something, didn’t it? Your works often seem to want to mislead at first, but this doesn’t have to do with trickery. This deception leads to some sort of revelation.
DW: The insincerity lies in the fact that we produce an illusion and then take it back in a cruel way. You suddenly recognize that what you see isn’t there at all, but you’re quite sure you see it all the same: this tool, this piece of wood—it’s quite clear that it’s a realistic image, or a partially realistic one, but it isn’t actually there. I don’t know if that’s sincerity or not; it’s deception—a sober illusion of conventionality. You produce things and situations that you’ve never mistrusted before.
PF: Part of the appeal of this deception lies in the slight deviation, the failure, the incompleteness. A gap appears between reality and reflection; strangely enough, this space in between can be exactly the point where you’re best able to access the work.
There’s an intimacy with these objects, an affection. For me, this idea of affection sheds a different light on Duchamp and the readymade. What’s your relationship with Duchamp? Is he an important figure for you?
PF: Perhaps our carved objects have more of an affinity with painted still lives. In the case of Duchamp the concept of objets trouvés, or “found objects,” is important whereas we try to create objects. Duchamp’s objects could revert back to everyday life at any point in time. Our objects can’t do that; they’re only there to be contemplated. They’re all objects from the world of utility and function but they’ve become utterly useless. You can’t sit on the chairs we carved. They are, to put it simply, freed from the slavery of their utility. Nothing else is left other than to look at this chair. What else can you do with it?
That’s an interesting reversal. The initial undertaking was an act of devotion, wasn’t it? To immerse yourself in an object that’s at first not especially appealing, and to set about carving it. So it was devotion on your side and then a certain compulsion or pressure on the observer to attend to this object that has amen from an act of devotion.
PF: Yet you could also say it’s a spitefulness towards the chair, because I deprive it of its raison d’etre, its right to exist. If I can’t sit on the chair, what good is it?
We've spoken about this spitefulness several times. Why are you interested in this sinister aspect?
DW: You could call it schadenfreude. You can’t answer the question posed by the work; you completely lose the “overview” if you continue to think about it.
PF: There’s also the pleasure of misuse. We performed the concrete misuse of objects in the film Der Lauf der Dinger (The Way Things Go, 1987), too, in which chairs and tyres were again used not for their intended purpose but for something else: namely, as components in a chain reaction. Part of the merriment in this film rests on this false use. Here, again, objects are freed from their principal, intended purpose. Perhaps this can be something beautiful. If you identify with these objects, it has a liberating effect. In Quiet Afternoon, which preceded the film, we discovered that we could leave all formal decisions to equilibrium itself. There was apparently no way to do it “better” or “worse,” just “correctly.”
DW: We didn’t have to give much thought to the composition of the piece itself. The fact that the objects would continually collapse gave us the idea for the film: to steer the objects in a certain direction during yet another of their inevitable collapses.
How would you describe your relationship to the “perceptible”? In Will Happiness Find Me?, for example, there’s the question: “Does reality really deserve such distrust?”
PF: When selecting a title for a work like Sichtbare Welt (Visible World, 1987-2001) one also refers to the invisible. We were interested in the uppermost layer of reality, how it offers us only the visible, the surface. It’s much like with the carved objects: on the uppermost, discernible surface it’s a chair, but immediately beneath is something else: namely, polystyrene.
DW: You can view the 3,000 images in Visible World in this way. On the jacket of the book there’s a hippopotamus whose head is peeking out slightly above the surface of the water, but the rest of this large, beautiful animal is invisible, below the surface.
PF: That may be a bit clumsy in the figurative sense, but as a sensual image it’s beautiful nonetheless.
There is, of course, the sense of the eyes and the water as a mirror.
PF: Hidden beneath the surface there’s a big, deep, dark space that we can each fill differently.
How did you come to create Visible World?
DW: We began Visible World, or rather the series of photos, in 1987 after working on The Way Things Go over a period of two years in the studio. We created a world, so to speak, and I think we also needed some fresh air, to get away from this incessant tinkering about, to go out with a camera, looking for interesting things in a passive sense. Using a camera turned out to be interesting. Those were the early stages. We photographed or collected whatever happened to be there—things that simply piqued our interest, even just the slightest bit—a strange car or a horse and carriage, for example without having anyone goal in mind. It was about the world out there as it is: a bird or a horse or a trivial deviation—or no deviation—from normality.
PF: During our first journey there was an intention to find pictures that already exist as such, that are broadly distributed and enjoy tremendous popularity.
Was it at any point possible to separate the deviations from the norm?
DW: At first, during the short trips we made, we sought out the normalcy of an airport or of gardens because we liked them in all their peaceful plainness. We went from the front of the house to around the house to around Zurich and then into the mountains. That’s when you discover that certain places have a title, an ego. They declare: “We are famous,” like the Matterhorn or Stonehenge. And you discover that there are other places that don't have titles but are also world famous: the forest, the sea, the mountains.
PF: There are pictures that can be clearly classified, but there’s also a space in between. At the beginning there were grand things—like Venice, the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower—the so-called extraordinary things. But we realized that we were taking just as many photographs on the way to these places of interest: the normality of a Cairo suburb, for example. These pictures flowed into the book Bilder, Ansichten (Pictures, Images, 1991) from this in-between space. With this perspective, we also photographed our own familiar surroundings, for instance the airports and suburbs of Zurich.
What role does the formal aspect play in these pieces? They have the deliberate appearance of snapshots, and the sheer quantity; they’re the opposite of composed photography, and yet they are, at the very least, selected according to formal criteria.
DW: The resistance to releasing the shutter is, as I said, low. We bring innumerable photos into the studio, where we compare and select them. The unspectacular ones have a good chance of being chosen: plainly composed pictures, taken mostly at eye level with normal lenses, imitating the view of a watchful passer-by, free of so-called photographic notions. However, we do particularly like certain light and weather conditions.
You collect and archive the material. Why?
DW: You can’t throw it away. It doesn’t take up much space and when you throw it away it’s gone forever.
PF: We’ve seen that our criteria can shift. It would have been a disaster if we’d thrown something away. In our latest piece called Eine unerledigte Arbeit (An Unsettled Work, first unfinished version shown in MACBA, Barcelona, 2000), we dug out lots of these pictures from the dregs of our archives.
There are some artists who work with specific methods of archival classification. How do you compare your work to, say, Gerhard Richter's Atlas?
PF: We’ve already spoken about passivity as opposed to actively producing a world in the studio. Visible World, or the entire book, originated from this aspect of passivity: simply to go out into the world without wanting to interpret something, or seeking to make a commentary on what we saw. Visible World describes a trip. And that’s where our work differs from a project like Richter’s Atlas. Richter, as far as I can remember, classifies according to motifs: the mountains go together, then come the houses, clouds and so on. I assume he follows an iconographic system of order. They’re investigations that he makes for his work. In the case of Visible World they’re so-called travel photos where the order is more or less chronological, strongly indicating the narrative act of travelling. On a long mountain tour you pass by many mountains, one after another. That isn’t ordering by motif but rather a reference to a period during which you had a nice time in a certain place.
You once said that, with these photographs, a marked time-index predominates. Does something melancholy accompany this new temporality? In my eyes, your pictures are astonishingly free of melancholy.
DW: I’m not so sure about that. The melancholy aspect of this work lies in the insight that you can’t be in every beautiful place at the same time. That’s what’s irritating about the table in Visible World, displaying the 3,000 slides—that it radiates and glows and offers so much beauty, and is an invitation to dream about each individual picture. In addition, usually the place you’re in isn’t so beautiful. Wanderlust is also a form of melancholy.
PF: Something that’s definitely a bit melancholy is that so many of these pictures are so full and yet so empty at the same time, because they’re normally misused and flattened by their context. We tried to retrieve that, to release it. That is, of course, difficult—to be astounded anew by old, used-up images. Their seductiveness can’t really succeed for more than a brief moment, despite one’s readiness to recreate their innocence. We found the actual encounter with the pyramids or with Monument Valley to be thrilling and overpowering even though we already knew almost all of these sites from pictures.
Of course, Siedlungen, Agglomerationen (Settlements, Agglomerations, 1991) consists of images that aren’t so used up.
DW: It’s similar to the airports: they lie fallow. These are our surroundings, our city, our everyday here-and-now. You know they’re there, and there are few reasons to hold on to or communicate them. They have this special aura; you don’t have to take a picture of that. It’s a type of architecture that results from a certain economic climate.
PF: It’s the opposite of exotic for us, and I always liked the idea that photos such as these hang in houses, in apartments, just as we created them back then: kittens, or big cities by night, for example.
They’re very tender pictures. There isn’t any sense of evaluation. I don’t see any element of reproach in the fact that some places look the way they do. You never photograph interior spaces, why not? Do you find that too indiscreet? Or are the palm beaches a sort of ersatz for the interior shots?
PF: Perhaps we think that whatever you project onto these pictures, any notion you already have about the design of apartments, is actually sufficient—or almost better.
[Laughs] That’s your exoticism!
PF: The interior spaces would be quite a different piece of work. We occasionally took photographs in furniture stores. In this roundabout way we show people’s interior spaces, but it’s about the collective rather than any specific person.
DW: With the exterior photography we made sure that the weather was nice, showing the houses in the changing seasons. We didn’t want to depict bleakness, but tried to show the houses as beautiful or perhaps simply tidy.
When I said “tender” just now, you made faces at each other [laughs].
PF: Yes, of course there’s a certain hypocrisy in that. We can’t deny that. If houses like that are photographed without a functional purpose such as the intention of renting them, they’re photographed critically. We did the opposite and attempted, beneath the mask of idealization to...
DW: To overcome them.
PF: ...To overcome or to show them. They’re represented as they were meant to be, and not as they are. The whole attempt to render them into something beautiful is what we wanted to represent. This stirs up even more mistrust.
DW: Some of the works are an attempt to idealize the common, to accept it, or just to see it.
PF: These photographs partly dispel notions of desire and what we perceive as beautiful. And because of this, a sort of transfiguration emerges.
And is this transfiguration there to serve the image or the people who live there?
DW: Anyone who wants to understand the full depth of this work should drive around Zurich and see what we didn’t photograph. There’s quite a bit that’s painful—more painful than the pictures and the arrangements of residential blocks we photographed. Our selection of houses corresponded to what we’ve considered to be modern ever since our youth.
PF: On the way to school I’d see construction sites like these every day. Many of these buildings are as old as we are.
In your most recent slide-show, Eine unerledigte Arbeit (An Unsettled Work), you completely unfolded a new pictorial world and a new pictorial language. Until that point you’d left the pictures as they were; they were put up and left for consideration without mediation. Now there’s an entropy, an implosion of meaningfulness. The pictures are cut together quickly, fading into each other. There are dramatic scenes or bloody scenes that haven’t been part of your world of images up until now. What led to this change?
PF: We ran Visible World through a mixer, cut it up, and then put it back together again.
DW: On the excursions, we photographed everything that was even of the smallest interest. This is how the remote and uncanny content came together: Holiday on Ice, Ghost Train, Display Window at Christmas Time, Catacombs, whatever had collected in the dark corners of the archive and had been unused until now. With the overlap of meanings we found an appropriate form with this slide show, this flow of images. Here it’s related to the non-reality of the early Fever sculptures of 1983.
PF: At the beginning this murky soup was a bit more dismal. But now a kind of weighty sweetness has come along.
Why did you render the dismal into something sweet?
DW: It shouldn’t only be macabre and easily discernible, but also a bit seductive. We wanted to lure with beauty so that the viewer stays inside the work.
PF: The unpleasant and pleasant should inexplicably overlap in a sort of beautiful, feverish madness, in the end imploding under an overwhelming number of interpretive possibilities.
What does beauty mean to you?
PF: In the flower pictures (Blumen; Flowers, 1998), beauty is important. It’s a peculiar, charming companion. That’s why we decided to get involved with pleasure. The appeal of the floral images lies in the fact that they depict an unsolved problem.
You speak of “wanting to seduce” and of “using beauty.” What do you want to seduce the viewer to do or see by using beauty?
DW: Maybe it’s a bit of a surprise attack.
PF: And it does matter that firstly we ourselves, as the authors of these works, feel captured, that we find them beautiful. This certainly happens with the viewer as well. For a moment, at the beginning, he’s a victim...
DW: Of himself.
PF: ... of himself or of this reflex. Here the question emerges: “Can I allow myself to do this?” A question in the book is: “Do I suffer from good taste?”
DW: Jean-Christophe Ammann once said, “Art begins where good taste ends.”
PF: Are you sure? Didn’t he mean, “Art stops where good taste commences”?
[Laughs] I like that. Most of your works are not, despite their subjects, made to be hung in private homes, but are conceived for exhibition situations.
DW: One never thinks about private homes while working.
We’ve discussed in passing your diverse modes of presentation. One form is the books. Why do you make artists’ books instead of catalogues?
DW: Because we think that we have to take part in the design. Otherwise information is included that we don’t want. We’ve noticed that pictures retain a certain aura when we remove or hold back certain information.
I’ve always sensed a mistrust towards the written word on your part, or towards art history or art criticism.
PF: One time we took the reverse route and created a catalogue for an exhibition at an art association in Munich with texts about us but without a single illustration of any of our work.
The first time we met, you said you didn’t like interviews. Does this aversion also have something to do with mistrust?
DW: Mistrust of our own statements, which are certainly only as good as the day they were made. One forgets the half of it; one clarifies too much.
PF: Yes, it’s a mistrust towards things that are said over and over again. During interviews you start to repeat yourself, and you think: “That’s not what I really meant to say.” You give explanations that you happened upon at some point, and these explanations are therefore a bit worn out. But once they’re in print, they function as if they were permanently valid. The good discussions are those where I end up discovering something for myself, something illuminating, but one already knows that it will lose this illuminating quality and will always remain dull.