Artists & Designers

Fischli/Weiss (1979-2012)

This essay is an excerpt from the publication Concentrations 19: Peter Fischli, David Weiss_, published in conjunction with the 1988-89 exhibition._

"Reordering the ordinary" is a phrase that aptly describes the art of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, two Swiss artists who worked collaboratively together from 1979 until Weiss's death in 2012. The true banality of their subject matter (a chair, a shoe, a dog dish, a cutlery divider) and the unpretentious, witty combinations and presentations of these objects, in photographs, sculpture, and film, make their art both utterly ingratiating and wholly disconcerting. In a world of universal confusion, Fischli/Weiss establish a tenuous clarity and harmony—for an instant. Searching for the ever elusive order from chaos, the artists' comic and clever creations nevertheless reveal a learned, masterly vision. In their eccentric world, all makes sense. Everything is under control for a brief moment. And, that moment is visually presented so simply and directly that its influence remains with the viewer long after the immediate images fade from memory.

The artists' first collaborative project, the Wurst or Sausage series from 1979, consists of 10 color photographs, each of tableau in which they staged various scenes using sausage slices, cardboard, cigarette butts, egg cartons, and other kitchen paraphernalia. Sturdy chunks of wurst, caped in slices of sausage meat and sporting bottle caps as headgear, parade in The Fashion Show. Other theatrically staged scenes include a pickle visit to a sausage carpet shop, a fire catastrophe, and a snowed-in mountain world consisting of pillows and pieces of cheese. These early, playful narratives suggest the artists' personal vision in which everything is possible and nothing too absurd; where mischief and mock-order reign supreme.

Their work from 1981, entitled Suddenly It All Makes Sense, continues to explore a reinvented world where the improbable is truly the most likely outcome. The piece presents 250 tiny unfired clay sculptures on pedestals that matter-of-factly depict the "little" moments of world history. Among the scenes represented are the invention of the miniskirt, Anna O dreaming the first dream interpreted by Freud and Mr. and Mrs. Einstein in bed after the conception of their genius son, Albert. In this group of works Fischli/Weiss invite the viewer to look again and reconsider accepted historical foundations. Perhaps the conventional events one assumes to have shaped present lives are not, after all, the most influential moments of world history. Twisting, turning, and in general, wreaking havoc with all traditional notions is the essence of Fischli/Weiss's art.

The idea of collaboration, too, strengthens the artists' intentions. Their reciprocal challenging of each others' positions unleashes more than a double dose of energy. Ideas occur as a result of dialogue and works are produced which two hands alone literally could not create.

Such is the condition with the photographic series Quiet Afternoon from 1984-85. Within the images, Fischli/Weiss have poised objects of extreme banality—a chair, a knife, a tin can, a carrot, a bit of wire—in positions of precarious balance, suggesting imminent collapse. With the determination of a high wire act the artists have assembled these objects as sculpture, establishing a momentary equilibrium and then photographically capturing that instant. The documentation of these ephemeral, witty depictions are still-lifes that imply the very precariousness of their existence and also establish new metaphorical relationships—both among objects and between the image and viewer. After their short sculptural lives these transitory works naturally fall apart. Thus the previous artistically anarchic order is reestablished. Additionally, the titles for the individual photographs especially capture the artists' sensibility. These suggestive titles—Triumphant Carrot, Ben Hur, Early Wisdom—were composed by free association after the images were made. Typical of Fischli/Weiss, their appellations endow the constructions with an added poetic dimension. By implication they define a more significant set of aspirations than would otherwise be associated with their small endeavors pursued on a "quiet afternoon."

More recently Fischli/Weiss have created a series of black rubber sculptures emphasizing the thingness of the objects they represent: the vase, the ottoman, the dog bowl, the cutlery divider. These simple rubber surrogates still retain a utilitarian aura yet are re-contextualized by being placed on white pedestals and presented in the most museologically correct manner. The kitsch objects, taken out of context, represent for the artists the desires and emotions of the ordinary Swiss citizen. "We sympathize with ordinary feelings," Peter Fischli said in a recent interview. This wide-eyed acceptance and reevaluation of life around them is both hilarious and truly affecting.

In their film The Way Things Go Fischli/Weiss animate the frivolous/ill-fated constructions of the Quiet Afternoon photographs. This film about chain reactions plays with the aesthetics of cause and effect relationships. In what seems like a completely circumstantial way one object gently taps another, which abruptly and surprisingly collides with a third. The film staging has been exacting and only through such tight control is tension and suspense maintained. Filled with anxious expectation, humor and ingenuity, the narrative sets out to use the activity of collapsing objects to establish a new way to express the power of energy and movement. Appearing to violate all laws of physics, the film's elaborately contrived set-ups of anticipation and cathartic release are the stuff of which high drama is made.

In his recent best-selling book, Chaos, the author James Gleick presents an account of a fast developing new science involving disorder, arrhythmia and the bizarre and random in nature. Given the ubiquity of chaos as Gleick describes, the art of Peter Fischli and David Weiss also searches for new meanings in this increasingly jumbled world. Their pseudo-scientific approach to art making, the paradoxes involved in their use of ordinary objects to express complex ideas, and their clever ability to make the psychological literal all empower their art with the essence of life's moral ambiguity.

Excerpt from

  • Sue Graze, Concentrations 19: Peter Fischli, David Weiss, October 15 1988 through January 8, 1989, Dallas Museum of Art.

Web Resources

  • Guggenheim
    Learn more about Fischli/Weiss and their projects.