PRINT Summer 1996

Child’s Play

CONSIDERING THE WAY THINGS GO, I struggle with a troubling memory. I remember lap dissolves. They prove that the film’s sequence of marvelous destructions did not occur in one take. I don’t want this to be so. Common sense chips in that, even if rigged as a continuum, the delicately triggered collapses, spills, and explosions had to misfire at least as often as not. Surely the engineering of the project was to Murphy’s Law as the voyage of the Pequod is to Moby Dick: just asking for it. I abhor this common sense, which Fischli and Weiss take no special pains to conceal.

I want The Way Things Go to have started at the beginning of time and still to be going on, without a hitch, right now. That is, I am plunged into the lust for magical perfection that governed my play life as a child and that persists somewhere amid my neuronal wiring. Fischli and Weiss put lots of people in such a state—from which, as an actual child or a blissfully regressing adult, one is loathe to budge. In much writing about the Swiss pair, a faintly hysterical undertone recalls the fervor of belief that is whipped up in the audience to “save” Tinkerbell in the stage play of Peter Pan. We needn’t forgive Fischli and Weiss for being professional artists and Tink for being a lighting trick if, cocooned in rapture, we can dodge less credulous recognitions.

As professional artists, these guys are pretty jejune. Their ideas are hybrids or retreads of precedents they don’t advance or otherwise alter significantly. Of course, originality is out of the question in the forms of childhood play, which I’ll bet were fully crystallized in the first child (baby Cain). Children at play despise nothing so much as innovation. They observe iron predictability in an unvarying principle: What I can’t help but wish can’t help but be so. I think Fischli and Weiss flog this kid ideology.

The proof is what a drag it is to admit that they are adults who, by definition, have accepted the chastisement of their wishes by reality’s awful indifference. This means that our ardor for their work demonstrates susceptibilities of ours that, as pros, they have learned to exploit. They orchestrate states of hypnotic fascination, whether with the journey of a camera through Zurich’s sewers, or with the old reliable frisson of trompe l’oeil objects that are not what they appear. I wonder if the artists are ever appalled at how easy it is—what pushovers we are. (One of life’s ugliest secrets is the melancholy of magicians.)

In the art world, Fischli and Weiss have ascended to a Tinkerbellish status—somewhere between shamans and mascots—that is always uniquely available to artist duos: Komar and Melamid, McDermott and McGough, William Wegman and Man Ray. The members of an artist pair project an emotional repletion, from being apparently sufficient to each other, that no individual (except the certifiably honkers outsider artist) could command. Tacitly lonesome and needy, the individual artist seeks consummation in our response. This may arouse anxiety and even resentment, as in any case where someone confronts us with a proposed relationship—something distressingly adult, often. (Maybe adultery.)

A two-artist team offers itself as an already consummated tiny community that does not reach out but, rather, invites us in. By agreeing to its predilections, we get a carefree sense of belonging. It helps if the two are the most popular kids on the block.

Therefore, the gaga responses that I, too, have had to Fischli and Weiss seem fairly cheap. These responses have, as well, the delusively self-congratulatory air of all attempts to posit communities of or within the art world, ignoring that the art world is a plexus of business and bureaucracy. Face it. There’s nobody here but us grown-ups.

Peter Schjeldahl is a poet and senior art critic at The Village Voice, New York.