Fischli & Weiss

Palazzo Litta

IN HIS ESSAY on the uncanny, Freud tells the story of a young couple who move into a house in which there is a wooden table with carvings of crocodiles. “Toward evening,” he writes, “an intolerable and very specific smell begins to pervade the house; they stumble over something in the dark; they seem to see a vague form gliding over the stairs—in short, we are given to understand that the presence of the table causes ghostly crocodiles to haunt the place.” Something similar happened this past winter at the Palazzo Litta in Milan, a stunning Baroque building in which the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi installed an extended and radically transformed version of the retrospective of the work of Peter Fischli and David Weiss previously on display in London and Zurich (and opening at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg this month). When I entered the space, several crocodiles were emerging out of an elaborately patterned stone floor. Only a few inches of their bodies were visible, and yet, as in Freud’s story, one tended to believe that the beasts continued beyond that which was immediately evident. A number of large hippos were likewise gradually coming into view. Was the whole palazzo about to come alive?

A fraction of a hippopotamus is also depicted on the cover of Visible World (2000), the artists’ book of thousands of photographs that comprise their work of the same name. When speaking of this image, Weiss has said that although part of the hippo’s head is all that peeks out from the water, “the rest of this large beautiful animal is invisible, below the surface.” In fact, the emphasis on the surface of things throughout Fischli & Weiss’s work inevitably hints at what is hidden beneath the uppermost layer. The rest of the book, for example, contains several thousand really unexciting photographs—of cities, buildings, landscapes, and bodies of water all over the world. The images excel in their lack of individuality, and yet something larger seems implied. Even here, however, regardless of how much pleasure we may find in immediate appearances, a lingering doubt remains: Do we really know that there is more?

Altri fiori e altre domande” (Other Flowers and Other Questions) was organized for the Fondazione Trussardi in collaboration with Tate Modern and the Kunsthaus Zürich under the curatorial stewardship of Bice Curiger, Massimiliano Gioni, and Vicente Todolí. In addition to the classics of Fischli & Weiss’s oeuvre, the exhibition featured several new works (including clay sculptures of a jar, an ax, and a giant shoe) and little-known earlier pieces such as the multipart sculpture Objects from the Raft, 1982, the artists’ first polyurethane work, which consists of a large number of carved and painted objects—a skull, a bottle, a piece of cheese, a small cannon, and many other items, not least the crocodiles and hippopotamuses mentioned above. Especially in the setting of the Palazzo Litta’s imposing architecture, the show revealed a new dimension to the explorations of the zero degree of artlessness that make up so much of Fischli & Weiss’s work—which is, as the artists have said, intended to actively avoid Bedeutungskitsch, the heavy pretentiousness of much recent artistic production and the discourse surrounding it.

In one room, the costumes of Rat and Bear, the anti-heroes of the artists’ first films of the early 1980s, hovered mysteriously in two large translucent black Perspex showcases. In The Least Resistance, 1981, these two naive figures, played by Fischli & Weiss, decide to make it in the art world, and the installation showed them to have succeeded to the extent of becoming museum pieces themselves. In the same gallery, Rat and Bear could be seen wandering through the Swiss countryside in The Right Way, 1983, while in an adjacent room the slide projection Questions, 1981/2002–2003, was on view—one of those rare works that prove that relevant art can indeed be humorous, not just for a split second but repeatedly, even after many viewings. (I remember hearing loud laughs in the dark when the piece was on view in Venice in 2003 and soon realizing that it was the artists themselves who still found it hilarious.) Among the hundreds of questions in this work, some of which have also been presented in a small black book, Will Happiness Find Me? (2003), are everyday questions such as “Where are my keys?”; weird questions such as “What happened 4.56 billion years ago?” and “Why do I live in an animal body?”; and questions that make you wonder, perhaps with some unease, what might be going on in the head of the person asking them, such as “Is it true that traces of aliens have been found in yogurt?” and “Is life a strange system of caves?” The mysterious individual behind such queries as “Is Mr. Insanity at the door?” and “Should I switch over to the invisible world?” is apparently not quite normal. In an interview with art historian Beate Söntgen in a monograph on the artists published by Phaidon in 2005, Fischli & Weiss elaborated on the nature and origin of the queries:

Weiss: 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 in the dark, and the fact that the book is black.

Fischli: We’re not responsible for the questions ourselves. It’s this secret person.

The Palazzo Litta used to belong to the national railway company (Italy is a weird nation), which led me to wonder whether a slightly unbalanced “secret person” who was perhaps once responsible for timetables or repairing locomotives might also have been responsible for this exhibition. There were many strange objects in surprising places, like the giant shoe mentioned above, which was displayed in a fireplace, and a sow suckling piglets on the luxurious floor of a splendid room decorated with mirrors and golden ornaments. In the most lavish of environments, among fancy old furniture and Baroque adornment, there were tools and everyday things that looked like litter to me. A normal white cat enjoying some milk was projected onto a wall of a sumptuous room worthy of, at least, a lion.

The boundaries of the exhibition have always been blurred in Fischli & Weiss’s work: What is staged, and where does reality start? But the layers of nuance involved in an ordinary-looking object sculpted in polyurethane and painted to look just like the real thing become even more puzzling when such work is removed from the white “neutrality” of the typical contemporary art space and transplanted into the radically different context of a Baroque palazzo. Much has been written about Fischli & Weiss’s relationship to the Duchampian readymade, but there seems to be no real agreement about whether these works should be considered simulated readymades that exist as such in the gallery, or whether they in fact simply replicate the ordinary objects themselves—and this quandary became significantly more pointed in such an unconventional venue. The architecture did not really intrude on the art, as one might have expected, but instead pushed the work, making it come into its own, so that it seemed even more itself: The totally convincing fake readymades, if that is what they are, here looked extravagantly ordinary. Indeed, the “secret person” in this palace who collected these prosaic objects and pictures that happen to be works by Fischli & Weiss really must have had an exquisite taste for the utterly unexciting. Was this an inverted Wunderkammer—a cabinet of banalities for those of us who cannot stop marveling at the inscrutability of the ordinary? Even so, there was the occasional surprise, such as the crocodiles emerging from below. That’s when the “secret person” probably began to wonder, “Is it all in my head?”

A comment made by Rirkrit Tiravanija in an interview with the artists in Artforum in 1996 goes some way in condensing the lesson that Fischli & Weiss can teach us. He said, “So it’s like the ‘big questions’ and the ‘small questions’ are collapsed into one plane. ‘Small questions’ asked at the right moment can become bigger than the ‘big questions.’” Put differently, there is something metonymic about Fischli & Weiss’s work. And they certainly prefer adding more and more examples to synthesizing things into a formula. You’re always guided from one thing to the next, from one interesting item to another equally fascinating object. Jorge Luis Borges writes that all of those things that are next to one another we call the universe, and it is this relation of adjacency that Fischli & Weiss explore. If they have an ontology, it is one that insists on the necessity of spelling out the qualities of each individual thing in the world. The early work Suddenly This Overview, 1981/2006, displayed in Milan on white plinths in a large space with opulent chandeliers, is an assemblage of dozens of such individual things, all sculpted in clay. Visitors walked from piece to piece laughing out loud at the (separately titled) components such as Mr. and Mrs. Einstein Shortly After the Conception of Their Son, the Genius Albert and Mick Jagger and Brian Jones Going Home Satisfied After Composing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Critics have suggested that the work is an attempt to give a reply to the simple question “What is there?” The most accurate and convincing answer is obviously “Everything.” In language, the question can be answered concisely; clay is less efficient and so necessitates an infinite task. To take the examples in this piece—well, there are guitars, cars, soccer games, bread, old weapons, Dr. Hofmann (inventor of LSD), and, of course, Mr. and Mrs. Einstein. Wait a second, there is more—an airliner crashing into the sea, a cooking pot, a freeway, Saint Anthony being tempted in his cave, and, and, and . . . Seen this way, Fischli & Weiss have made good progress in documenting everything. They have also been almost everywhere, photographing and filming all the things they saw, wasting their own time and that of the viewer who will never manage to see it all. But as this unusual and brilliantly installed show proves, wasting one’s time in their presence is one of the highest intellectual pleasures.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.