Peter Fischli & David Weiss The Concept Of Undercutting

Fischli & Weiss

I have a cousin who, when he was about 5, made me hide in an airing cupboard and await his signal. The signal, he informed me, would come when “The Popes” came up the stairs and round the corner. He was to bravely use himself as bait, lure The Popes past my hiding place, and into the ambush. Tom and I triumphed.

One of the big ways a child develops emotionally and mentally is though playing, and the marketing of some toys make use of this to corral a variety of types of mother or father into purchasing them. Playing creates super-children as, I know anecdotally, does talking to them like adults, joking and making imaginative scenarios. Knowing this I can say that I have, in a very small way, contributed to Tom’s development. Perhaps somewhere along the line he will form a sentence that he would never have said without having met me, and that will be my contribution. I am starting to digress:

The point is that the relationship between playing and the benefits of playing is extant, but dependant on how you approach playing. Playing is a spontaneous activity done for enjoyment of it itself. If you approach it from the point of view of the benefits it will lend, then this is no longer playing but “fostering a creative temperament” or “brain growing”, or something else. You can’t really play for a reason, even though playing does have a reason. Similarly, art isn’t the spinach your mum makes you eat before you can leave the table – although most people who visit a foreign city perhaps end up seeing things that way. I’m not saying you should make “Art for Art’s sake”, but you should at least want to make art.

The concept of “undercutting” is slightly different, and maybe this is what Peter Fischli/David Weiss were famous for doing in their work: not taking the role of “The Artist” too seriously. It is to their absolute credit that they never did – an unshakable humour attended their work right up to the end of their collaboration: the death of David Weiss this year, on 27th April 2012, at the age of 62.

Their playing might not have a “point” aside from making sure they aren’t making “Art”. Their first collaboration ‘Wurstserie’ (1979) (“Sausage-series”) is a series of photographs where mountain views, cityscapes, landscapes and dramatic scenes are recreated, at home, using duvets as mountains, cardboard boxes as houses, and sausages as characters. Fischli and Weiss took vistas that had been treated majestically in the past by painters and recreated them with everyday objects, and humbled them.

Their most famous work was made in 1987 and was named ‘Der Lauf der Dinge’ (“The Way Things Go”), a film in which fire, fireworks, tyres, foams and gusts of air sustain a 30-minute chain reaction ending, ultimately, in a puff of smoke. This film became the inspiration for the even more famous Honda advert ‘Cog’, in which parts of a Honda Accord are used in the chain instead of fire and foam. Fischli and Weiss had previously declined offers to use their film commercially, and briefly threatened legal action against Honda for use of their ideas, although in the end no lawsuit was filed.

The lawsuit threat does perhaps hint that they took the role of the “Artist” seriously after all – or at least believed art to exist on a different (and defensible) hill from the “commercial world”, even if humour attended their version of it. (Actually, I do quite like that).  Although there is undercutting, humility, humour, and an appealingly sprightly energy to their work, they do still believe there is something at the core – something hard and uncompromising – that needs taking down a peg or two (and, by inference, exists to be taken down a peg or two). In order to undercut you need something to undercut. Are they doing something huge, in the background, which would be overcut? In this I detect a whiff of “Art”.

Frank O’Hara , a seriously playful man, wrote that ‘too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings’, and this is as true for visual artists as it ever was for poets. The issue for artists like Fischli/Weiss therefore becomes: does playing make a point, does their point make them play, or do they just play and wait for someone else to make something of it? (Like my cousin, Tom, who has inspired this stuff but probably won’t ever read it). So what is their point? And could it exist separately from the mode in which it was put across (which would make it a philosophic point, or an argument)?

I ask all this because their show at Spruth Magers seems to be more serious than their previous work with rat and bear costumes or a long, pointless, entertaining contraption. Their work before had a real air of Dada to it, of Duchamp. But not the Duchamp of the urinal, the Duchamp of ‘Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even’, or Picabia’s drawings of machines  – a kind of frenetic uselessness that seems to be almost the definition of “playtime”, and yet (or perhaps “and so”) comes with its own intrinsic, if secondary and hidden, benefits.

‘Walls, Corners, Tubes’ tells you most of what you need to know about this exhibition: it is a collection of Walls, Corners, and Tubes in both black rubber and unfired clay. The shape and form of the works in black rubber and clay are almost identical, with the idea being to throw attention onto the material. How does a material change the overall effect of a form?

Well: “With its synthetic materiality, the black rubber imbues the objects with an opaque, light-reflecting texture which ennobles them and transfers them into the domain of fetishistic commodities of mass industry. In contrast, the raw, unfired, mineral material of clay emphasizes the processual nature of the act of shaping and evokes a delicate, changeable consistency. The working with clay, one of the primary gestures of artists who use their hands and a typical characteristic of amateur culture, stands in contrast to the precise execution of the technique of casting in rubber. Inasmuch as the almost identical forms are created out of the two contrasting materials, there is an evocation of the differences between culture and nature, rapid technical production and slow meticulous craftsmanship, resistance and evanescence.”

Rubber is industrial, laser-cut, technical; clay is amateur, earthy, organic.  The effect of the exhibition, however, is something more akin to walking into a reclamation yard, or a building site on a Sunday when all the pipes and pre-fab stuff are sat still. Fischli/Weiss’ work in the past was consciously unspectacular, but this feels like more of a spectacle. The series of white pedestals, supporting black and grey things, all cramped together gave it the feel of a country churchyard – which is the same stillness that an empty building site or reclamation yard has. It has a kind of sadness that is bound up with a forever-more-stillness, like an elephant’s skull. (A human’s skull is more than this – maybe it’s too close to home.)

But there is also something silly about this exhibition. It claims the seriousness and pedigree or “an affinity to the objecthood of the Minimal Art of the 1960s”. But is it a little too cramped. There are slightly too many pedestals for the space. This isn’t a problem with the gallery being too small – there is more on the fourth floor of 7 Grafton Street that they aren’t using – rather there is a deliberate type of “cramming in” here, clown-car like, that makes the installation as a whole feel slightly absurd when you are amongst it. It is Minimal Art, but there’s lots of it.

And this is the fun thing about this exhibition really. 3 paragraphs above this one I quoted the press release at length. These things are always overblown, make claims that are either totally alien to or not borne out in the work, and written by the type of person who thinks that the more honest you’re being the more obtuse you have to be. This exhibition is the first exhibition I have seen that seems to actively take the piss out of its own press release. There is something different about this show – the manner of its being deadpan is different to the others. It is as serious as any other show, but there is something behind the straight face that isn’t mocking or laughter, but more like a warm, empathy-giving smile. It has to be serious now, it’s at work, but that isn’t all it is. It is “Art” that goes bowling after work, or goes over the top on Halloween.

The hard part is knowing what to think about what you can’t see – what this exhibition is like in it’s play clothes. ‘Walls, Corners, Tubes’ seems to make a point, but actually it is just playing at being an art exhibition. It isn’t about anything at all, but it seems so serious and seems to recall so much that there must be something here. I don’t think there is. I think this is a very serious game of “Art Exhibitions”. “You be the earnest gallerist, I’ll be the installation. We’ll get mum to come and review us.” A handsome, witty, bright, lithe friend’s favourite judgement is a damning phrase that she aphoristically quotes and I now aphoristically repeat: a “sphinx without a secret.”

Something enigmatic but has nothing encoded or a riddle with no answer seem good ways of looking at Fischli and Weiss sometimes, and actually of looking at Dada. Fischli/Weiss don’t ask the Postmodern “open question”, but just a question that doesn’t really make sense. They’re probably just playing after all.

Therefore ’Walls, Corners, Tubes” feels like an in-joke or arcane riddle: “the sphinx doesn’t have a secret; that’s the secret.” Mind you, I couldn’t see any Popes when I jumped out the airing cupboard, and I fought them with Tom anyway and didn’t like him any the worse for it. I believe Tom; I don’t know how to treat Fischli and Weiss this time. They want to play for playing’s sake, rather than just playing. They know there are no Popes to fight, but consider it important we fight them anyway. They still play, but now I feel like they have something only slightly short of a manifesto. Dada has grown up and put a suit on. The act is too good. Playing can’t have a manifesto – that’s called “unwinding”. This is an exhibition that has fun, sure, but right now has a job to do. The game hides the playing. As well it might.

In 2013, the Serpentine Gallery presents Rock on Top of Another Rock by Fischli/Weiss, the first public sculpture by the artists to be presented in the UK.

Fischli/Weiss, ‘Walls, Corners, Tubes’, Sprueth Magers London, 10th October – 10th November 2012

*** 3 Stars  Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012

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