The below essay was based on a research project regarding the sourcing of an innovative collaborative group who made a significant contribution to their time. It has since been edited down for a more blog-friendly article.
Fischli & Weiss
Swiss artists, Peter Fischli (born 1952) and David Weiss (1946-2012), commonly referred to as Fischli & Weiss, collaborated on photographs, sculptures, installations and the moving image together from 1979 onward. Their work has a performance quality the objects themselves entertaining or even ‘clever’. This can be seen in the strategic chain of events in ‘The Way Things Go’ (1987) film and the playful balancing of everyday objects caught in a state of ‘permanent precariousness’, in their photographic series ‘Equilibres’ (1984-87).¹ This performative quality with the absence of the artist is innovative for a period abundant in artist enacted performances such as ‘body art’ and ‘happenings’ which often involved bodily abuse. Their work has also been referred to as both incorporating the ready-made object whilst also inhabiting post-modernist ideas regarding the viewing of these objects as extensions of the body.
Installation, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Art describes it as a ‘term that came into vogue during the 1970’s for an ‘assemblage’ or ‘environment’ constructed in the gallery specifically for a particular exhibition’.² And ‘Assemblage’ as a ‘term coined in 1953 by Jean Dubuffet to describe works of art made from fragments of natural or pre-formed materials, such as household debris’.³ It goes on to describe ‘Environment’ art as a ‘type of art in which the artist creates a three-dimensional space pre-programmed or mechanically energized in order to enclose the spectator and involve him in a multiplicity of sensory stimulations – visual, auditory, kinetic, tactile, and sometimes olfactory’.⁴ Considering these terms, Fishcli and Weiss have not directly invited the spectator participation element of the 1960’s onward ‘happenings’ or ‘game’ Environment Art which is a divergence or innovation considering this period of performative works. They have instead precisely constructed an engineered environment for viewing via film or photography as documentation after the event as spectator inclusion would have offered the element of contamination of an exact, experimental and vast research based preparation. In spite of this there is a gentle interaction between the viewer and the work.
Conceptual Art is; ‘the term embracing various forms of art in which the idea for a work is considered more important than the finished product, if any’. ⁵ This idea began with Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and his ready-mades. However this is another example of the significant contributions that Fishcli and Weiss have made to their period as their works are a clear divergence from the static ready-made as they have infused the immobile object with a purpose to achieve an aura of cause and effect or chain reaction by either balancing everyday objects or orchestrating interactions between them. The objects become personified, performing astounding feats against gravity not un-like circus performers thus altering their intended functionality to that of a means to find equilibrium.
The inventive quality of their work is in embracing catastrophe through ordered chaos with the object performing and enduring the abuse in place of the human body indeed the work excludes the human body. However, the objects are arguably all ‘extending the sensorium’ a concept in keeping with post-modernist philosophies introduced by Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) and we find ourselves empathising with them. ‘Remediation, extensions of the human body and its senses’ and ‘the medium is the message’ is in keeping with a consciousness of post-modernity and a playful pursuit of its basic concepts at the very least with ideas of the ‘subject’ versus the ‘object’ and a preoccupation with comparability and opposites also evident in their work.⁶
This somewhat humble decentralisation of the artist and simultaneous elevation the object to infer cleverness is innovative and has often earned them a reputation for producing ‘post-modernist’ works. This could also be seen as reaction to the elevation of the artist to celebrity as seen in the preceding decades commencing with Abstract Expressionism with its masculine hero Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and later non-objective and experimental artist, Yves Klien (1928-62). So there is deliberateness to the absence of the artists which interestingly causes mystique and interest and great intellectual discussion, in itself a form of opposites.
One idea introduced in the period was that of the ‘clever object’ introduced by Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) in his 1983 text ‘‘fatal strategy’ in which the object is no longer passive but instead becomes clever’ and with an emphasis on ‘fate’ or chance in art making.⁷ Fischli himself stated; ‘we discovered that we could leave all formal decisions to equilibrium itself. There was apparently no way to do it better or worse, just ‘correctly’’⁸. ‘Fischli’ pointing towards objects potential cleverness seems to run counter to the current of conceptual art then, and its symbolic shift of the loci of the clever from object to subject. Rather, their creation of artworks in which objects gain independence and agency presents an artistic humility towards the cleverness of objects’.⁹ Further indication of the object as performative through questioning the necessity of the human element.
Alternatively the absent artist has been suggestively read as the ‘divine creator’ by art critic, Boris Groys (b. 1947) who ‘preaches that ‘we must not forget that the greatest, the supreme power consists of giving ones creations independence and freedom’.¹⁰ The objects in ‘The Way things Go’ although unmistakably orchestrated are given independence to ‘perform’ not unlike any human choreographed display and ‘by making balance its focus, ‘Quiet Afternoon’ photographic series ‘exploits the camera’s ability to elasticate time, presenting an eternal split-second and a permanent precariousness’.¹¹ The viewer internally hears the crashing of objects almost as passive and gentle audience participation as the objects undoubtedly must succumb to gravity milliseconds after the click of the camera.
Fischli and Weiss are a significant duo in the period for which they inhabited for their remediation of ideas that came before them. Their playful works ‘The Way Things Go’ and ‘Equilibres’ inspire enquiry into the pre-existing notions of; a redefining of the necessity of the human aspect of Performance-art, Duchamp’s ‘ready-made’, the ‘post-modernist’ philosophies of McLuhan, Baudrillard’s theory of the ‘clever-object’ and Groy’s ‘divine creator’. This is all achieved with an atmosphere of the elevation of the object in spite of any artistic aesthetic choices and a resultant performative quality by the object ensues.