From Here To Banality

Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss explore the increasingly exotic margins of normalcy.

           The assignment from our high school social studies teacher, Mr. Reese, was something involving a slide show. After procrastinating till the last possible day, my partner, John, and I suddenly decided that our project would capture the Life of the City. We went on a mad scramble around Denver, taking pictures of people getting off the bus, a smashed bottle of Polo cologne outside a department store, the glorious sunset backdrop on the grimy Colfax Avenue strip. We snapped panhandlers, secretaries, cops. Everything became thrillingly significant; we got hooked on trying to record it all. We also, for some reason, got a really bad grade from Mr. Reese.

           The Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss did a much better job portraying the life of Zurich. For an installation piece that's part of their retrospective at Walker Art Center, they videotaped dump trucks, discoteques, snowy nighttime drives, soldiers, restaurants, squirrels, bicycle racers, and on and on and on--some 96 hours' worth of this stuff, fed through 10 monitors. Whereas John's and my slide show was a hastily assembled blip of banality, Fischli and Weiss's untitled project, originally created for the prestigious Venice Biennale last year, is monumentally, hypnotizingly Banal.

           Most of us counteract the untold hours of passive ordinariness in our lives by seeking out the subversive, the outstanding, the provocative, the unique, the sublime--isn't that, ideally, what art's about? Fischli and Weiss may be on the same mission, but they take a rather curious path to get there. Check out the dimestore psychedelia of "Le rayon vert (The Green Light)," created with a tipped-over plastic cup, a small turntable, and a pocket flashlight; or "Kanalvideo," a journey through Zurich's sewer tunnels that's edited into an entrancing loop of ever-expanding circles. A 1981 project, Suddenly This Overview, was fuelled by the same low-key but ambitious energies that would eventually create the Biennale videos. It's comprised of some 250 small, unfired clay sculptures whose goal seems to be depicting everything one could think of in a given moment: "Bread," "Indigenous Forest Floor," "Modern Development," "Street Musician," "Semi-Automatic Machine Gun," "Strangers in the Night, Exchanging Glances." These crude, often quite funny pieces were originally shown all together--thus, Suddenly This Overview--but unfortunately, their delicacy prevents them from extensive travel, and only nine are on view at the Walker.

           Fischli and Weiss are bent on, to borrow a British-ism, taking the piss out of Art (and their concession to fine art dictates intended to preserve their work is just one of the paradoxes they invoke). They've been working together since 1979, a nearly unique art partnership that puts a damper on grandiosity or solipsism: These two are wary of art that conveys big messages, which, as Walker curator Liz Armstrong points out, they refer to as "Bedeutungskitsch--the kitsch of heavy meaning." Which is to say that their retrospective, Peter Fischli and David Weiss: In A Restless World is about something really novel: fun. Not a wacky, smirky, loaded-with-entendres-and-innuendoes kind of fun, but an honest-to-goodness playfulness. Even though irony abounds in this work, I can't remember when I last saw art that produces such unselfconscious smiles.

           Beauty is not a goal of Fischli and Weiss; if it's there, as in "Kanalvideo," it's a happy accident. Nor are they really espousing some hip anti-aesthetic--a mellower version of blood-guts-sex-and-trash art. This duo aims to disarm with simple charms: Everyone, big and small, peers over the edge of the folksy, four-foot-tall "Fragentopf (Question Pot)" in the same way, looking down at a swirl of questions both big (Am I Connected Up With Everything?) and small (Should I Go to the Zoo?). With an aesthetic defined by cheap, malleable, and utilitarian materials such as polyurethane, rubber, modelling clay, and video tape, the artists create a humble, rather homely context that elevates the commonplace, and knocks everything else down a few notches. In Suddenly This Overview, for instance, a dish of peanuts is no more or less important than the moment described by a sculpture of "Mick Jagger and Brian Jones Going Home Satisfied after Composing 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction'."

           They also toy with the conventions that monumentalize art, placing objects under ultra-dramatic spotlights, making things impossibly long (the Biennale videos) or numerous (Suddenly This Overview). Then there's the Airports series of photographs, about which there is absolutely nothing special. These shots of planes sitting on tarmacs are as boring, unremarkable, and anonymous as possible--any of these airports could be anywhere in the world--and at the same time, they're blown up into gorgeous Cibachrome prints on a scale commensurate with Old Master history paintings. As well they should be: For these individual images, along with still more deliberate banality in the Suburbs and Images, Views photo series, don't represent themselves so much as the sum total of the non-artistic images, real and contrived, that demand our attention continuously. Fischli and Weiss are depicting the act of seeing pure and simple, all pretense to art eradicated--except, of course, for the fact that it's art.

           The so-called progress of art has always been about overthrowing the status quo, usually by looking to subcultures for the marginal and ignored. Yet in the wake of the mainstreaming of "alternative," and with the "cutting edge" cutting a ever-widening swath through the culture, it's the utterly normal that's become overlooked. As Boris Groys wrote in the exhibition catalog for In A Restless World, "banality is becoming mysterious at a time when mystery has faded to banality." Fischli and Weiss aren't the only artists to sense this; making the familiar strange is a tried and true postmodern concept. But this pair is not so much expanding the boundaries of what art can "get away" with, in the manner of brilliant cons like Jeff Koons or Mark Kostabi; rather, they seem to simply take delight in what they do, and they want to share that delight.

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