THE TITLE of Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s current retrospective, “How to Work Better,” is taken from a ten-point list that the pair spotted in a Thai ceramics factory in 1990. Beginning sensibly enough with “Do one thing at a time” and ending with the banal management directive “Smile,” the list has cropped up throughout the Swiss artists’ oeuvre, most imposingly as a mural painted on the side of a non-descript office building in Zurich in 1991. Its slightly wonky font currently looms over the corner of Houston and Mott in New York, courtesy of Public Art Fund. At the Guggenheim, however, any incentive to industriousness is immediately undercut by the magnificent Rat and Bear (Sleeping), 2008, in which Fischli and Weiss’s alter egosan oversize rodent and a shabby pandanap on a pile of gray cloths, their stomachs gently rising and falling as they breathe. This (barely) animatronic sculpture, installed at the base of the ramp, is unabashedly cute; its prominent placement irreverently reminds us of the duo’s antiestablishment beginnings in 1970s Zurich, where Weiss (then a hippie) and Fischli (then a punk) met and designed graphics for local bands.
The ensuing collaboration lasted from 1979 until Weiss’s untimely death in 2012 and produced a rich and diverse body of work whose centrality to the story of contemporary art since 1980 is widely acknowledged in Europe. In the United States, Fischli and Weiss have received shamefully little scholarly attention, perhaps because anglophone art historians since at least the 1970s have been suspicious of crowd-pleasing art, generally privileging the rigors of overt criticality, self-reflexivity, and antispecularity. Certainly, the artists’ ironic/sincere sense of humor is easier to enjoy than to analyze. But hopefully “How to Work Better,” the duo’s first major museum exhibition in New York, will persuade my American colleagues to rise to the challenge and look more closely.
Curators Nancy Spector and Nat Trotman have chosen to focus on the pair’s sculptural output, which is placed in dialogue with photographic series and the occasional video. The resulting selection is highly monochromatic: polyurethane “Grey Sculptures,” 1984–86/2006–2008; black cast “Rubber Sculptures,” 1986–88/2005–2006; white plaster “Cars,” 1988, and “Hostesses,” 1988–89/2012; and unfired clay figures on a forest of white plinths (“Suddenly This Overview,” 1981–). At the top of the spiral, this tight installation devolves into a sequence of roped-off, half-empty bays containing paint cans, tools, badly made pedestals, and the occasional chair, as if somebody forgot to clean up before the opening. Of course, every single object in these installations, which the duo began producing in 1991, was meticulously handcrafted in polyurethaneits arduous, pointless illusionism flouting all logic of art after the readymade.
The heart of the exhibition is the artists’ antimasterpiece, “Suddenly This Overview.” Comprising some six hundred scenes in unfired clay, of which around 160 are on view at the Guggenheim, the work attempts to convey nothing less than a spontaneous history of the world. Quotidian objects (Bungalow, Peanuts, Swiss Freeway) are given their Platonic form, as are generic experiences such as Waiting for the Elevator. Undeniably significant events are represented in amusingly humdrum ways, such as a couple in separate beds, titled Mr. and Mrs. Einstein Shortly After the Conception of Their Son, the Genius Albert. Numerous figurines present “Popular Opposites”Work and Leisure, Clean and Dirty, Theory and Practicebut the conceptual basis of these scenes is less striking than the variety of their execution, which ranges from precision smoothness to frenzied texture (seen at its best in Motocross).
Begun at the dawn of the 1980s, this highly subjective tour of Western European collective consciousness is both an archive and an idiosyncratic minor history, and, as such, anticipated impulses that would predominate in the art of the ’90s and 2000s. On one level it’s also textbook postmodernism (collapsing high and low, deconstructing binaries, etc.), but that hackneyed label doesn’t get close to accounting for the heartbreaking and regressive delight it instills in me. Its emotional impact has much to do with the materiality of unfired clay and the work’s status as an unstable collection of fragile objects. When previous versions cracked, the artists remade the scenes; Fischli added four new ones for this installation. Set on narrow plinths, these deft clay snapshots seem especially vulnerable during peak times at the museum.
Part of what makes “Suddenly This Overview” so wonderful is the image it conjures of two artists beavering away in the studio, each interpreting a list of topics in a way that would tickle the other’s fancy. The pair’s very first collaboration, “Sausage Series,” 1979, also gives this impressionit is a group of photographs in which various forms of Germanic processed meat, along with other foodstuffs and household objects, are arranged to create ambitious diorama-like landscapes in the confines of an unremarkable apartment. This sense of relentless indoor tinkering is fully fledged in the elaborate garage setup of the artists’ much-loved, much-copied video The Way Things Go, 1987: a mesmeric chain reaction of objects set into motion via spillages and explosions, its cobbled-together devices constantly on the brink of failure. The video took two years to make and is gloriously self-sufficient; it’s also one of the earliest and only works of video art to be commercially accessible to the public (currently $14.99 on iTunes). These works position Fischli and Weiss in a lineage of artists who thrive in the studio, but instead of making work about not knowing what to make, as Bruce Nauman did so poignantly in 1969, the duo seem unburdened by time or the pressure to produce meaning. The Way Things Go is a labor of love whose obsessiveness is immediately recognized by viewers, who are often unable to tear themselves away (hence the unusual decision to install the work twice).
At the end of the exhibition, in the Tower Gallery, is the black-and-white (and possibly too-cute) installation Questions, 2000–2003, which flashes hundreds of polyglot queries across the wall. I would have rather seen this space used to present Visible World, 1986–2012, in its best-known format of three thousand photographs on a seventy-two-foot-long table, rather than half-buried on three modest plasma screens halfway up the ramp. While the work was first seen as a slide show on late-night television in Germany (during Documenta 10), the present installation is a little too close to a screen saver, losing the sense of information overload that arises from topographic sprawl. Someone once asked Fischli where he’d downloaded all the images that compose the work; in fact, the artists visited hundreds of tourist destinations across the globe, from Stonehenge to Brasília, as well as many more obscure sites, in order to capture the same postcard-worthy views snapped by millions of visitors every day. The end product is less an ironic compendium of clichés than an appreciation of visual pleasure and the sublime, one that refuses to look down on popular imagery. Like the polyurethane installations, it’s also an exercise in apparently redundant effort: Why undertake all this travel to produce yet another photograph of the pyramids? As the question put to Fischli indicates, Visible World was post-Internet before the Internet. It’s a crucial work, anticipating not just Google image search but the whole archives-and-collections tendency that arose in contemporary art in the wake of networked technology.
“How to Work Better” inevitably foregrounds the question of work: the how and what of labor, artistic and otherwisefrom the information navigation that now constitutes so much artistic and salaried labor to the materiality of industrial production that continues to prop up the global economy (as in that Thai ceramics factory). Viewers won’t find the denunciations of precarity that have appeared in engaged art practices of late (e.g., Gulf Labor’s intervention at the Guggenheim last year). Rather, Fischli and Weiss specialize in equivocation and indeterminacy: The fifty-nine-minute video Atelier/Bus, 1994, dutifully documents the creation of the objects in a polyurethane installation, intercutting footage of the unbelievably laborious process of carving a simulacrum of a cheap plastic mixing pot with long, boring shots of people traveling to and from work on public transport. Is this, like Rat and Bear (Sleeping), a wry repudiation of the “How to Work Better” ethos, or an endorsement? And is the list itself an inspiring distillation of timeless wisdom or a depressing exemplar of patronizing corporate platitudes? “Accept change as inevitable” intones the sixth instructionwhich can be read positively or negatively. Either way, it’s a maxim for surviving in today’s neoliberal economy.
Fischli and Weiss offer no grand critique of the conditions their art apprehends so presciently, and for that we should be grateful. Although their output is deeply rooted in middle-class, mitteleuropäisch life, with its modest means and relentless normcore, it also opens the door to other experiences: the opportunity for unexpected, unalienated pleasures in the least likely places. Kanalvideo, 1992, for example, shows an interminable blurry passage through circular tunnels that manages to prompt thoughts of the afterlife despite being filmed in Zurich’s sewers. As John Kelsey points out in his catalogue essay, the artists operate “at the pedestrian level of middle-class enchantment . . . using techniques familiar to any tourist or hobbyist.” A politics of the ordinary emerges in their work: a model of the artist not as a heroic figure or demystifier of social truths, but as a vehicle for collective recognition, a facilitator of the low-key elations to be discovered in our everyday lives. The best works of Fischli and Weiss remind us that artistic creativity isn’t about mighty materials and enormous resources, but a way of thinking with others, unhurriedly, over time.
As you walk down the ramp to the exit, you pass Rat and Bear (Sleeping) once again. After the death of Weiss, this sculpturealready a conduit for multiple emotionshas become even more acutely moving: an allegory of seemingly incompatible yet contented lifelong collaboration. It prompts the thought that one corny but sincere addition to the list of workplace advice might be a single word: “Together.”
Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York.