Peter Fischli and David Weiss

Though articulated around a single new work, Món visible (Visible world), 2000, Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s MACBA exhibition of the same name took on a selectively retrospective character. Indeed, the imposing centerpiece (realized in an edition of three and shown simultaneously at ARC Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris) acted as a survey in itself: Fourteen vitrine-like light-box tables lined up in the dark displayed 2,800 slides taken by the duo since 1987, images recalling stock tourist snapshots that range from sunsets to farm animals to the Sphinx.

This show, the artists’ first in Barcelona (their previous Spanish retrospective was a decade ago at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern), reminded us just how resistant Fischli and Weiss’s work is to programmatic interpretation: Indeed, it is the work’s elusiveness that occasions a measure of disquiet in not only the museum-going public generally but the cognoscenti as well. Without a doubt, their work contains a critical element, but it is filtered through a kind of deadpan “attitude”: The subject matter tends to be concrete; there are no complex messages secreted within their deliberately simple iconography. And yet it is precisely at the level of this attitude, with its certain ironic grounding—however subtly manifested—that one glimpses their engaged disposition. Each work seems to move beyond its particular connotations, drawing on a mixture of lazy wakefulness, jealously maintained distance from the ideological, and passion for play and immediate experience. The attitude keeps any connotative density light, as if the very possibility of meaning were brushing against its absence; indeed, the result is a denotation that resists willful dramatization or iconic “presence,” particularly in the initial encounter. Fischli and Weiss do more than exalt the banal in the consecrated context of art; they trade in raw verification, sidestepping those refined concessions to that which occupies art in the aftermath of the positivist project of modernity. However, this approach inevitably opens a metonymic void—an absolute outside—where all critical readings reside, held at bay with respect to the sense of transparency and immediacy these artists convey through image and materials.

The show included three seminal 16 mm films: Der Geringste Widerstand (The least resistance), 1981, Der Rechte Weg (The right way), 1983, and Der Lauf der Dinge (The way things go), 1987. In the first two, the artists, disguised as animals, explore a pair of divergent realities: the first, that of the art world—specifically ’80s Los Angeles—with its complex institutional framework and pointedly strategic character, here parodied in the film’s detective-story plot; the second, a wilderness scene describing an elemental universe of things endowed with innate vitality. The third film—comprising a series of staged low-tech chain reactions—abounds in quotidian objects and apparently simple causal effects, yet it renders everyday reality precarious via the chaotic concatenation that escalates into spectacular catastrophes, which seem wholly removed from the modest operations that occasioned them. A certain melancholy emanates from all three films, but it is balanced by an optimism as unlikely as it is willfully fabricated, depending on the power derived from its apparently makeshift quality. Perhaps this balance corresponds to the relationship of the two artists, united as they are by shared skepticism—or better, by a sort of nihilism whose leitmotif is less the “void” than a deliberately nurtured, pragmatic openness to all that reality has to offer.

The matter of technique as it relates to the question of what constitutes art and the issue of the replica as it relates to the problematic of kitsch occupy an essential place in the Fischli and Weiss oeuvre; in fact, their gestures suppose a connection between the poles of art and artlessness as evidenced in The Least Resistance and The Right Way. The MACBA show did not include the duo’s objects formalized in patinated polyurethane or the original stagings in prefired clay, but we did see a couple of plaster pieces, some of these also realized in rubber. In the series of life-size everyday objects, 1986–87, the simulations dramatically alter the aesthetic nature of their models, based on a perverse play between their legibility as identifiable objects and their formal elaboration as replicas. The results are anti-readymades that resist the aesthetic anesthesia from which their forebears emerged and anti-Pop devices that distance themselves from mere celebration. In both cases, the work wallows in the kitsch in which the ubiquitous conception of the artwork as an object in a world of objects is mired. Moreover, the dispersal of groups of objects through the exhibition space reveals the same indisputable love of landscape that informs Fischli and Weiss’s endless series of slides and video takes. For them, landscape has less to do with actual geography than with the ready-made terrain of the tourist’s snap, the view of the casual passerby, which the artists enter, fully cognizant that they shoulder the weight of convention, of language, to linger over things and their “secrets” slowly, leisurely, but eschewing the praise that would exalt them.

It was vision that begot reflection and abstraction and made the search for causality possible; language likely appeared on that same road, so our metaphysical relationship with things is imperative because it is biological, not because it is transcendental. Modern rationalism forgot all this; it put Logos before contingent nature and before the precariousness of landscape, attempting to manipulate the environment when in reality language and matter lived together inside an immense loop. Fischli and Weiss understand this reciprocity, and thus their efforts are absent of all traces of tragic sentiment, finding a basis in play and serendipity instead. Their “attitude” involves neither pure negation nor promiscuous affirmation but rather is imbued with their particular irony, the cultivated poise that characterizes their inquiry into the visible.

Gloria Moure is a critic and curator based in Barcelona.

Translated from Spanish by Vincent Martin.