Fischli and Weiss: Creative pile ups

by Andrew Maerkle

I n 1987, the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss completed a film of what can best be described as a dysfunctional experiment carried out in an anonymous warehouse space.

Titled “The Way Things Go” (1986-87), the roughly 30-minute film comprises footage of a chain of ingeniously staged reactions involving an assortment of fuses, flammable liquids, planks, timber, tires, kettles, makeshift rolling devices and jerry-rigged catapults engaged in a continual exchange of kinetic energy.

Though the film does not build toward a single, lasting image, it is sure to leave an impression on anyone who sees it — from curious children to the most hardened art skeptic. Indeed, the work is representative of Fischli and Weiss’ consistent inversion of the incredulity that so often greets contemporary art — “Is this art?” — into a hypothesis for positive engagement: “This can be art.”

“The Way Things Go” currently occupies a central room in Fischli and Weiss’ eponymous survey exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.

Organized by museum curator Chieko Kitade, the exhibition is the art duo’s first in a Japanese institution, and it provides visitors the chance to see in person some of their most significant works to date. These include their first collaboration, “Sausage Photographs” (1979), featuring deli meats, cigarette butts and other common household objects arranged in various mise-en-scenes, as well as groups of clay sculptures depicting an irreverent scattershot of moments from world history, “Suddenly this Overview” (1981/2006); and two short films following the misadventures of a man-sized rat and bear (played by the artists), “The Least Resistance” (1980-81) and “The Right Way” (1982-83).

The pair sat down with the Japan Times in Kanazawa to discuss their decades-long career together and the intricacies of their collaboration.

You have been working together now for more than 30 years. Can you discuss how you approach the collaborative process?

Peter Fischli: When you work in collaboration, language is a very important tool. Talking is the beginning of every work we do. Maybe up to half the time we are in the studio is spent discussing ideas before we get around to making works.

Can you recall the kind of conversations that led to specific works, such as the “Equilibres” (1984/85) series of photographs of household objects piled into sculptural forms that seem to anticipate the film “The Way Things Go?”

David Weiss: “Equilibres,” I think, is an example of a situation where we had to wait around in the studio and just started to pile up things. I can’t remember the real conversation that led to the project or who started it, but once we made the first constructions, we talked about them, thought they looked good and started to build more. Then the interpretation and the judgment started. Does it look good? How far can we go?

We have a messy studio, so with all these things lying around, suddenly there is this — it’s not a vision, but we have to decide whether something has a value or not, whether it’s worth continuing. When the energy is there and you continue, then you end up making it.

Along those lines you often produce works in large groups. For example, “Suddenly this Overview” comprises around 90 individual sculptures, while some of your photographic projects include hundreds of photographs. Your installations of common objects carved from polyurethane and then realistically painted — like the untitled work here — also painstakingly recreate the clutter of the everyday environment. What drives you to make all this “stuff”?

D.W.: Depending on how precisely you paint it, it takes around three hours to make a plastic bowl from polyurethane, and that consumption of time is a kind of schadenfreude: It’s the pleasure you derive from knowing you could simply go out and buy a plastic bowl for two or three francs if you wanted.

P.F.: Because we did not initially plan to collaborate for so many years together, we had to find a system for working together without getting on each other’s nerves, or at least not too much. I think we found a good model for working together from doing the clay figures for “Suddenly this Overview.”

We began by talking and then found a direction. From that moment on, we acted like single entities: David was doing his own sculptures and I was doing my own sculptures. Otherwise we would have started to argue about how to make a sculpture correctly, and then even if we only needed to make three clay figures to represent our idea, we would never have been able to agree on how to go about it.

By making an excess of figures each on our own, we found the space to accommodate both our ideas. He comes up with ideas and I come up with ideas, and if he wants to do it his way then fine. I might not like it, but it’s OK.

D.W.: Plus, if he comes up with a good idea — let’s say in making “The Way Things Go” — it’s better to have more and more ideas adding up together. So this is why the system of piles is there in most of the works.

Pieces such as your photographs of airports on display here, “Airports” (1987-), can be disarmingly simple, upending preconceptions about what art should be and what kind of statements it should make. It’s easy to come away from viewing such works with the sensation of having “missed something.” Are you consciously playing with different degrees of transparency and depth?

P.F.: An experience I often have with art I like is that I miss something. In fact I sometimes critique other artists because I understand only too well what they are doing and what is going on in their work.

When you look at something like the “Mona Lisa,” you miss something. That is one of the main points in art, this missing aspect that makes you wonder and engages you to produce your own meaning.

D.W.: It brings us back to the question of language. We realized when we started making “Airports” that it’s better if we don’t identify the airports in the photos. Normally people want to know whether it’s a photo of Heathrow or JFK, and then they’re happy. But if you have an airport without any identification, it expands the possibilities.

I understand our works as an invitation to “get in” and then it’s up to you or anybody else what to make of it. It’s a temptation, perhaps.

“Peter Fischli David Weiss” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, runs till Dec. 25; admission ¥1,000; open daily 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit