Fischli & Weiss, Flowers and Questions: A Retrospective

Artvehicle 4/Review

11th October 2006 — 14th January 2007

If you can fight your way through the hordes of screaming kids (and big kids) currently enjoying Carsten Holler's slides at Tate Modern, then an equally diverting, if a touch more cerebral experience is to be found in a retrospective of Swiss duo Fischli & Weiss. Having collaborated since the late 70s, and working across a range of media (sculpture, photography, film, video and others), this terrifically enjoyable exhibition provides a good overview of their engaging, funny, and often fiendishly clever creations. Throughout the eleven rooms of the exhibition, there is much that makes one smile and often laugh out loud, but there is far more to their work than just jokes and playful irony - although their delicious sense of humour is clearly an integral part of what they do. One of their many talents lies in making complex ideas and compositions seem deceptively simple. This is exemplified in their most famous work, The Way Things Go (1986-7), their ingenious and painstakingly constructed film of cause and effect, the idea later hijacked for an advertising campaign. For thirty minutes, the laws of motion and chemical reaction are delightfully harnessed to compel an intricate chain of objects and substances to move ever onwards across the artists' studio, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Various liquids seep and spill, things snap and smash and catch on fire. There is something quite magical in witnessing hundreds of usually banal things - tins, pots, buckets, bottles, kettles, tables, chairs, planks, random odds and ends - being made to move and function in odd, unexpected ways, and sometimes (memorably a step-ladder) being wonderfully anthropomorphised. There's a striking juxtaposition and pathos here too: the grimy, messy nature of the objects along with the absolute precision that they momentarily embody, after which, having gloriously fulfilled their function in the chain, they inevitably fall, often literally, back to their mundane, ignoble state.

An interesting decision has been to screen the film directly next to video footage showing the artists in the process of making an early version of it. This proves to be a fascinating work in its own right, documenting the hours of trial and error spent trying to get a sequence to occur successfully - a study in the processes of learning and adapting, and in the satisfaction of things going right eventually.

The other film here is The Right Way (1982-3), in which the artists are dressed in animal suits in order to become their preposterous alter egos: Rat and Bear. The film depicts a supposedly epic journey across various landscapes as the two of them traipse up mountains, through rivers, across fields, towards some undefined place. They variously get lost, encounter other (real) animals, forage for food and play tricks on each other. The result is an eminently watchable film that succeeds both as an absurdist buddy movie and a very amusing, ironic Odyssean fable, but beyond that (and also encompassing it) as a surprisingly moving meditation on our sad detachment from nature, our often wrong-headed relationship to the land around us, and of an atavistic yearning to reconnect. It's a compelling combination of the daft and the poetic, of comedy and myth.

Profundity and silliness are again compounded in Questions (2002-3), wherein hundreds of questions in several languages are projected onto a wall, such as: 'Why does nothing never happen?' 'Should I fly to India in a balloon?' 'Have I ever been completely awake?' and 'Should I make myself some soup?' Like many works in this retrospective, it is a piece that mainly serves to inspire further questions in the viewer. I found myself asking: 'Do I ask enough questions?'

The notion of deceptive simplicity recurs throughout, not least in the re-creation of the artists' studio and its accumulated junk, which consists entirely of sculpted polyurethane reproductions, but which are utterly indistinguishable from the real thing. As well as demonstrating impressive craftsmanship, it becomes a perverse celebration of the slippery nature of perceiving what is 'real', and the acknowledged deceitfulness begins to feel queasily sinister. Something that is remarkable about these artists is that just when it seems you've pretty much grasped the mischievous way that their minds work, they hit you with something incongruous, such as Apartment (1985), a disarming sculpture depicting a bleak, entrapped maze of grey, barely functional rooms. It's suggestive of a terrifyingly blank, clinical consciousness - the sprawling residence in miniature of some absent psychopath.

There is much else here besides, including a series of forty little clay tableaux which are enormous fun, and a great deal of photography: from rather unpleasant double-exposures of gaudy flowers, to melancholic shots taken at airports, to insanely balanced assemblages of household objects, and a pointless, interminable eight-hour slideshow displaying thousands of varied images (perhaps the sole low point of the show).


Tate Modern
London SE1 9TG

Daily, 10am-5.50pm

Fischli & Weiss, Flowers and Questions: A Retrospective — The
            Right Way, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, 1983 16mm film, 55 minutes Copyright The Artists

The Right Way, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, 1983
16mm film, 55 minutes
Copyright The Artists