From Here To Banality

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

           Fischli and Weiss are also heirs to a long tradition of making everday objects into art. But if Duchamp pioneered appropriation as a key art form, waving his artist's wand to make a shovel into a Readymade, then Fischli and Weiss took the next step, creating hand-crafted likenesses of appropriated goods, either casting them in rubber (a dog bowl, or a record that really plays), or making them from carved and painted polyurethane. In the latter category is a notorious piece in the Walker's Gallery 6, a room littered with polyurethane imposter-objects--a drill, 2-by-4s, buckets, cigarette butts, light bulb boxes--as if it's being prepared for an installation. At New York's Sonnabend Gallery, where the installation was first unveiled, many visitors assumed the show wasn't up yet and left; like all trompe l'oeil art, this joke is best played on the unsuspecting (a difficult thing to do in a museum context). But take another look at those cigarette butts. Not all of the objects are painstaking reproductions, as filmmaker cum art critic John Waters, a fan of Fischli and Weiss, observed: "You had been fooled by the exquisite bait left behind by these great impostors, but not by their craft, only by their effortless understatement."

           Indeed, seeing as how these artists are so adept at overwhelming understatement, In A Restless World appropriately and casually pervades the entire museum: from the Airports photos in the Gallery 8 restaurant, to the installation in Gallery 6, to the selection of photos from the Stiller Nachmittag (A Quiet Afternoon) series in the museum lobby. The bulk of the show, however, is in the lower galleries: While those original hipsters, the Beats, will soon be paid tribute in the Walker's most prominent galleries, Fischli and Weiss are the mischievous, somewhat dorky teenagers goofing off in the dimly lit basement. Looking at their photos in the lobby, you might even hear, floating up the stairs, strains of the cheesy soul song playing endlessly on that rubber-cast record. Like a suburban rec room--or as Peter Fischli noted, a chill-out room for peaking and freaking rave kids--In A Restless World offers the aura of both safety and escape (to say it's a "meditative" space, however, would be succumbing to bedeutungskitsch).

           The art here is not all simple innocence and child-like wonder, however. If Fischli and Weiss are making art "easy" in the tradition of their Fluxus forebears, they're also employing sly and understated means to get at a dis-ease that earnest, self-important bedeutungskitsch can't. In the beloved film The Way Things Go, for instance, a slew of studio objects are set up like a falling wall of dominos, jiggling, rolling, sliding, and soaring into each other in a slapstick chain reaction that threatens to become chaos. One of the artists' most intriguing pieces is not on view, but is pictured in the catalog on page 20. It's an ugly cloth doll sewn from dirty rags and stuffed with coins, making it a rather unwieldly playmate. Plopped fatly on a table with more coins strewn across its lap, it's part of an installation commissioned by the Zurich stock exchange; this particular piece, however, is "installed" somewhere in the basement where no one really sees it. Sitting all alone, it acts as a kind of a voodoo doll, sanctioned (and probably handsomely paid for) by the very institution it curses.

           And what about those endless videos of lumberjacks, animal clinics, cheesemaking, and dentists? After 96 hours, a bemused smile would freeze into a psychotic grin. This, finally, is the great thing about Fischli and Weiss: It's hard to see their art as anything more than studiously bland, amusingly quaint, or simply delightful. But look again, and you'll see these pranksters aren't so harmelss after all. In the restless world of Fischli and Weiss, fun and games are in the eye of the beholder. CP

           Peter Fischli and David Weiss: In A Restless World is on view at Walker Art Center through August 11.

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