In July we traveled to Zurich to talk to Fischli and Weiss about their forthcoming retrospectives at the Zurich Kunsthaus, Tate Modern and Hamburg Deitchtorhallen. We looked at polyurethane sculptures in the ‘dirty studio’ and photographs in the ‘clean studio,’ the conversation ranging from Zidane’s headbutt to Peter’s latest reading (Alpine hiking manuals). We never made it up the Matterhorn.
Claire Bishop: Can you tell us about your plans for the forthcoming retrospectives?
Peter Fischli: The title of the show will be “Flowers and Questions” and it will also have a small subtitle, “A Retrospective.” This title already makes you see this is not a conventional retrospective; we, as the artists, are ordering it ourselves. It’s not arranged by chronology — we mix things a little bit.
Mark Godfrey: What was your main problem with doing a chronological arrangement?
David Weiss: We don’t think chronologically, and we don’t see our work developing in a linear way. Some works in the show will be old, and it helps to place them next to new works.
PF: By doing this, works that have become stiff are made liquid again. This is the idea we are working with.
CB: What has it been like to look back at your old work in preparing the show?
DW: One thing that’s happened is that we found old films and negatives from the Equilibrium series. We realized in looking over them that we didn’t print some of the very nice ones; it’s nice, after twenty years, to see that some of the constructions that we had discarded are pretty good.
PF: In some ways, we have always worked like this, though. We don’t alter our back catalogue, but bring out hidden sides of old projects when we return to them. When we began Visible World we started with the idea of photographing airports and famous monuments and places. We would also take other shots on our travels and ten years later we looked at these old photographs and realized that the first selection was not the whole story.
MG: Let’s go back to your first works. One thing that strikes us is the differences between your late ’70s works and other practices of the time. The “Wurst” series marks a real departure from the drier, more mundane approach to photography typical of artists like Smithson and Huebler; was your series made as a conscious departure from conceptual photography?
PF: Of course we were aware of Conceptual art; I saw “When Attitudes Become Form” when I was 16, and this was one of many doors that opened for me. But we didn’t make the “Wurst” series because we were thinking about conceptual photography: it began through our attraction to trivial things that we came across outside the art world. We also wanted to work with narrative.
DW: In that series, the medium was less important than the mentality; the series is close to Polke, even if it is photographic.
CB: Suddenly This Overview seems a typically postmodernist work: did you think that these 180 unfired clay tableaux demonstrated that all subjects and all materials were now possible for artists?
DW: Well, as a material, clay didn’t have a very high image.
PF: Like sausages in a way — clay was a forbidden material, not associated with high art, but more with craft. People used clay in their free time to be a bit creative.
DW: It had a pathetic image. But it was also a material which we found was good to work fast with, and to tell a story with.
PF: We had this idea of making something you could call a private lexicon of the things you have in your mind, things you learned in school, things you know from mass media, things you know somebody told you. You have all these themes like sport and fairytales and science or whatever. We wanted to bring all these different things together, not making a selection, but creating a big mess of different themes at the same time. And clay was just the material we could use to make everything out of: clay is earth, after all. And we wanted to jump about not only through themes but through different styles: between the ones that are carefully made, and the so-called wild ones. Some are very sketchy.
MG: These two series — Wurst and Suddenly This Overview — are quite humorous. In many other places, you seem to make works of very traditionally beautiful or even kitschy subjects. I’m thinking of some of the photographs in Visible World. Can you talk about your strategies of using beautiful images?
PF: We were aware of critical images of the tourist industry when we began this series. A photograph of tourists getting out of a bus in front of the Pyramids, for instance. But this kind of critical photograph is easy to make, and just as much of a cliché as a beautiful photograph of the Pyramids.
DW: And the ‘critical’ image doesn’t explain the fascination of the Pyramids in any case. There is a reason why the Pyramids are famous. When you go there, no matter how many photographs you’ve seen of them before, you realize that the Pyramids are unique, and that you don’t understand them. There is a reason why these sites are powerful; there’s a reason why the waves in the sea are emotionally attractive, and we wanted to explore these images, knowing that they were in some ways forbidden fruits.
PF: It was as if you just couldn’t use these kinds of images anymore. But we were very attracted to these things, and wanted to ask how you could bring them back into art. There’s a question in our little book [Will Happiness Find Me?] which sums up this situation: “Can I restore my innocence?”
DW: We weren’t just regaining innocence, but arguing that nature doesn’t only belong to nationalists, the right wing, farmers, etc. As Swiss artists it was pretty taboo for us to photograph the Matterhorn or to make a film of beautiful landscape.
PF: The Matterhorn belonged to advertising agencies; it was used for selling chocolate.
DW: But we photographed it because we liked it. At the time, we felt good about it.
PF: When you look carefully at Visible World, you see it’s not just so-called nice images. You also have very ordinary moments on the trip to this beautiful beach. I think in a way it’s a matter of balancing the ordinary and the extraordinary.
CB: As well as making images of spectacular landscapes, you’ve sometimes shown your work in spectacular places. I’m thinking of your showing Kitty in Times Square — a work that’s extremely close to the cute, the kitsch. What was the thinking behind showing it there?
PF: To start with, Kitty was not made as a discussion about kitsch. There was just something super-nice about this cat that we were attracted to. But as for Times Square: we were on holiday in separate places when the invite to put a work on the giant screen in Times Square came. But independently, we both had the same idea: why don’t we show the video with the cat. To do something that’s more spectacular than what’s going on in Times Square would be impossible. We wanted to do something very simple and quiet: it was a logical step for us.
MG: So there’s a balance in your work between the spectacular and the ordinary. In other ways your work is caught between two poles — the criticality of ’70s art and the embrace of beauty. Peter, in an earlier conversation, you said that the work was schizophrenic, but that this was the only possible way to make work now. Can you say more about this?
DW: I think schizophrenic is too hard an expression. But we do try to look at things from different angles at the same time. I’d see it more in terms of irony: saying something and meaning something else.
MG: But your work doesn’t have the cynicism of much ironic art…
PF: You’re talking about irony in terms of its everyday use. When you talk about irony philosophically, it means much much more. If irony is clear as irony, it’s not irony. Irony is about unclearness — talking on different levels at once.
DW: For instance, you can present a sausage and make people look at it as a carpet; or show them a clay sculpture of two people lying on a bed and then say in a title that this scene shows the aftermath of Einstein’s conception.
PF: Or the photographs in Visible World. When we made Visible World, and also the videos we showed in Venice, we were thinking of Kippenberger’s reply to Beuys’ “Every man is an artist.” Kippenberger said “Every artist is also a human being.” We were behaving at the same time as artists and as regular tourists. I remember being on a boat in Venice and videoing the Grand Canal alongside all these other people doing exactly the same thing. Operating on two planes at once is part of our practice.
CB: One of the things that struck me about these videos that you showed in the Venice Biennale and then in the Serpentine Gallery was a lack of editing. They seemed to be about showing as much as possible. As a viewer you would never be able to sit and watch everything that was presented in the gallery. How did you work with this footage?
DW: We did a lot of editing and made our footage shorter. Each video was made on a trip and we took out material that was too long.
CB: So the decisions about editing were to do with cutting down length, or only keeping in what was interesting?
DW: Everything we filmed, we’d found interesting. We didn’t ever leave the camera, go away, and come back. We stayed behind the camera for as long as it was fun or interesting for us. We filmed seventeen minutes of cows because they were so nice. But we took ten minutes out because it’s too long. There’s no classical editing though: there’s still seven minutes just of cows.
MG: Many of the works we’ve been talking about were made all over the world. You’ve traveled to make work and shown it in many different countries. But one thing you’ve not done is to make ‘site-specific’ work. I’m thinking of artists who accept an invite to show in a place and then engage specifically with the history and culture of that place.
DW: We wouldn’t go to Cairo and show a work about Cairo, because we don’t understand how this city functions.
PF: I’m not criticizing all site-specific projects, but we do mistrust the idea of traveling to a place to make a work about it. To understand the complexity of a place, you need to know it closely; we don’t feel really able to do this.
DW: We look at the visible world. We like to know what we are doing. When we carve the polyurethane objects, they are mostly from our studio or from everyday life. We understand them and we can transform them. We can bring them to Japan or to England, but we know what’s going on.
MG: Each time you show the rooms of these objects, you change the installation to incorporate objects, like milk cartons that come from the country in which you are showing. This in a way is like a microscopic kind of site-specificity.
PF: In most cases we do this. We take objects from a place, like the broom cupboard in MMK Frankfurt, and copy them in polyurethane. Then we mix them up with copies of the tools made to use them and with sculptures that we’ve made long before.
CB: So the work doesn’t have a core as such. It’s like a bleed between two slides.
PF: The illusion works because there are also unexpected things in the rooms. If there weren’t, the rooms would be like bad movie sets. But in every room there are things that you wouldn’t imagine to be there.
CB: Is everything drifting apart?
PF: Yes. Suddenly This Overview describes this mood very nicely.
MG: Is everything a hopeless shitty mess?
DW: Certainly not.
PF: Certainly not, but you have to do something.
CB: And is resistance useless?
DW: No, sometimes it helps.
PF: This is a question that I would say targets the Flowers. When you are astonished by the beauty of these flowers, in a way you try to build up a resistance against it and come up with these critical ideas about what beauty is and isn’t.
MG: Should I be ashamed about having no opinion about most things?
DW: No, because most things are anyway more than you understand or can really control. Like most of the Questions that you cannot answer. Our aim wasn’t to think about the questions themselves too much, but about someone coming up with all those questions.
MG: Who was that someone? Both of you?
PF: A little bit both… It’s maybe like the figure of the artist that will be in the first room in the Tate exhibition, called In The Studio. It’s like a little sculpture that’s wearing a tie and somebody has done a stupid joke and put a cigarette in his mouth. You have this figure but it’s not really clear what he is… A genius, an idiot, a clown, a bourgeois…
MG: And that’s your image of the artist, between genius and clown?
DW: It’s possible to describe it like this. It’s also an image about the clichés of the artist. We believe there’s something right about clichés, so there is always this corner but you have to find out for yourself eventually.
Claire Bishop is a London-based art historian and critic who teaches at the University of Warwick; Mark Godfrey is an art critic and lecturer in History and Theory of Art at the Slade School, London.
Peter Fischli was born in 1952 in Zurich and David Weiss was born in 1946 in the same city. They live and work in Zurich.
Their retrospective “Flowers and Questions” runs at Tate Modern, London, until January 14th, 2007.