Going, Going, Gone

John Haber
in New York City

Peter Fischli and David Weiss

With The Way Things Go, Peter Fischli and David Weiss created the most extended thirty minutes in art's history. It is still coming to completion this very moment, as part of a mammoth retrospective at the Guggenheim.

What starts as a coy Rube Goldberg apparatus grows into a chain of events seemingly as long, as marvelous, and as implausible as creation. A slow fuse burns, a tea kettle whistles, a balloon inflates, a mattress unfolds, tires tumble and roll, and before long I nearly gave up wondering what comes next, because the only mystery is whether anything still can. And that leaves unresolved a tantalizing question: did the artists have anything more to give? Even with more than a dozen additional videos, joined by hundreds and upon hundreds of objects, the answer may well be no. Peter Fischli and David Weiss's Equilibres: As Far as It Goes (Matthew Marks, 1986)

The world's largest studio

Much of The Way Things Go shows not one object tripping the next, but a substance slowly reaching the tipping point. Fire cascades down to its target, and water drips into a tub on its way to reaching that level when all hell will break loose once more. The magic act holds one in suspense for all its length and all the contraption's hundred feet. Time itself is suspended along with so many things just inches away from touching. So is there more? It depends who is counting—and how.

If one counts by sheer numbers, absolutely. The collaboration so familiar as Fischli/Weiss did come to an end when Weiss died in 2012, but it had quite a run of its own, starting in 1979. Fischli and Weiss first photographed sausage slices, arranged to resemble anything from fine art to seedy carpeting and a James Bond film. Already they were staging a spectacle, multiplying possibilities, and hiding their traces. The Swiss artists had no plans to work together again, but they could hardly help it. They just hated to stop.

The retrospective takes up the entirety of the Frank Lloyd Wright ramp plus the topmost tower gallery and even the sidewalk outside. Its very title, "How to Work Better," insists on more. However things go, they can always go a step further. Fischli and Weiss travel "the visible world" (as a series title puts it) to photograph natural wonders, the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower, endless highways, and faceless airports, like enormous postcards from the edge. They photograph fairgrounds, with rides and hand-painted signs disappearing into a silvery darkness like photograms. They compile video of everything from a near endless parking garage to a cat at its dinner.

An entire museum level becomes the art world's largest and messiest studio, made entirely of polyurethane and paint. It begins with a long platform dedicated to spattered tools and the products to clean them up. That part alone has more than seven hundred components, but there is more. Then comes the appearance of austerity, with clean white boxes and neatly stacked Sheetrock, again an illusion. Fischli and Weiss are out to fill their workspace with trash—and to endow them both with the aura of a magic act. They dare the work to sink into banality, barely rescuing it with a sense of humor that stops just short of the cutes.

They like trash, but they also like formalism, and much of what they do plays on the resemblance of one to the other. A model home in the International Style stands outside the museum, too big for a doll's house and too small for living, like a disposable temple to Modernism. It originally stood by a train station, as the beginning of a commute to nowhere. Fischli and Weiss often associate modernity with rootlessness. And that, in turn, plays into both their encyclopedic impulse and immersion in the everyday. It also plays to collaboration as an end in itself, with no goal in sight.

On video in The Least Resistance from 1981, one suits up as a black rat, the other as a giant panda, for a film noir tour of nowheresville itself. They climb into a white convertible, pull out of a driveway in LA, and head for the highways and hills in search of fame, destiny, and the meaning of life. Two years later, The Right Way takes them to the great outdoors, a pet pig trotting along with the rat, to find each other and to find their way. Here the naughty rat and the nice bear are equally cuddly, and they end by cuddling one another. They lie together as stuffed animals in the museum lobby, by the pool. It makes for a warm welcome and a satisfying ending, but also a sign of what can go wrong in between.

More of the same

If one counts not quantity but surprises, though, the end is long since near. Especially as they turn to sculpture, Fischli and Weiss quickly lose their magic. Like rat and bear, they can never resist an impulse or a joke. As objects multiply, they also repeat themselves, and the banality and cutes win out. I cannot tell you how often you will encounter a dog dish on the way up the ramp. The cat video will run in Times Square over the course of the show.

The curators, Nancy Spector and Nat Trotman, abandon chronology in favor of work in series, and the artists would surely agree. "We don't think chronologically," Fischli said in connection with an earlier retrospective, at the Tate in 2006. They also returned to many of the series over the course of decades. They had a special fondness for plaster, foam, and black rubber in simple and familiar shapes. If the show does not evolve over the course of their career, neither did they. Without The Way Things Go to win fans, a museum might not care to replay their history at all.

The High Gallery off the museum's first level has thoroughly innocuous sculpture in black and white, including the first dog dish. An enormous video echoes their shapes, bursting outward and tunneling into depth. If only it looked less like the backdrop to opening credits. And if only one did not encounter the same shapes again and again. They might be abstract shapes, like blocks and cylinders, or cars and "hostesses," but it hardly matters. They could stand for overwrought installations of trash art everywhere.

The encyclopedic and the cute meet in clay, as sloppy and impulsive as child's play. Fischli and Weiss call the set Suddenly This Overview with good reason. Its six hundred objects would give new meaning to a "comprehensive retrospective" for almost anyone. Here more than half the series occupies less than a single ramp. It comes with what the curators call whimsical titles—a polite word for silly. It also goes nowhere fast.

The small works can be as simple as "three blobs," as childish as space aliens descending on Stonehenge, as or as happy as Peter himself on the way to his first day at school. They can be as cartoonish as a toy "soldier of evil" or as self-conscious as Jacques Lacan (the psychologist who wrote of a "mirror stage") as a child discovering himself in a mirror. The series quotes Post-Structuralism again with Difference and Repetition (after a title by Gilles Deleuze), but with tall and short men in place of philosophical subtleties. Its "polar opposites" include theory and practice, for men with wheelbarrows, and good and evil bears. Leave no joke unturned.

The ingenuity never ends, including the riffs on abstraction and the everyday. One rubber sculpture serves as a classy turntable, although the music comes from a speaker above. Yet that same impulse leads to the vapidity of a monolith, an ottoman, and a pile of bricks. It reaches its climax in the final tower gallery, with a craft after The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault piled high with a rusted engine, a skeleton, and a litter of pigs. It is a knowing vision, but also a telling one. Art history, trash, and the retrospective drift away together to sea.

Prime time

For all that, One can still have a fresh look at The Way Things Go and the impulses behind it. The 1987 video has become so canonical that it has run often, as at MoMA in 2005. For a while, one could even purchase it on DVD. In truth, it falls shy of thirty minutes, by all of fifteen seconds, and it still defies completion. Not only does it loop, but two copies play out of sync two bays of the ramp apart. By the time one gets from one to the other, the first will have started over again.

Arthur C. Danto calls an essay "The Artist as Prime Mover." As Danto points out, the video accords the artist a god-like stature, but in a very modern universe. The prime mover makes his art indiscernible from "ordinary things" and then withdraws from the creation, just as Fischli and Weiss never quite enter the frame. Like the physical world, the work has components as elemental as fire and water, but also laws as elementary and impersonal as chemistry and physics. Like the real world, too, it seems senseless but always threatens to end in a catastrophe. Anything can become art, Danto has argued, and the work's tires and old shoes might confirm that thesis—but then art can trash the artists' studio along the way.

The video updates old role models for a world like that of another Swiss artist, Heidi Bucher, with few idols apart from art. Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce's hero, described the true artist as above it all, "paring his fingernails." Leonardo argued much the same in his defense of painting over the dirty work of sculpture. The video goes back as well to the old idea of the artist as trickster. One trusts an artist or god alike at one's own risk. And yet Fischli and Weiss have a humbler and dirtier side than Danto or Joyce might ever admit, like that polyurethane studio.

A Chelsea gallery in 2007 offered some hints lacking at the Guggenheim of how The Way Things Go got going. It took the artists two years and a long succession of false starts. Other hints appear in the eighty color photographs of Equilibres from the year before. Each shows an assemblage poised precariously but never able to unleash a world in time. The photos bring out the artists' sense of humor, but also the elegance of modernist sculpture amid the trash and fireworks. One automobile tire balances on another, as if in preparation for a car wreck by Martin Kippenberger, thanks to a perfect angle and a small stick.

Structuralism sees a language or a culture as a self-contained system. It need not have a prime mover, just the infinity of relationships between its parts. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the structural anthropologist, described myth as a work of bricolage, a kind of do-it-yourself kit for creating a world by trial and error. One can see Fischli and Weiss as the ultimate bricoleurs. They defy any appeal to final authority, just as the title The Way Things Go avoids appeal to the way things are. The process undermines its own linear unfolding, the kind that necessitates a prime mover at the start.

One enters and leaves the retrospective at will, probably without ever seeing the whole. And that, too, parallels life in the cosmos—or in art. The video's appearance of perfect machinery arises from two dozen separate segments, the cuts masked by clever close-ups. Samuel Beckett might almost be invoking Rube Goldberg when he ends a bleak comic novel with "I can't go on. I'll go on." In the old debate between the essence of the art object and the process of its making, process has, for now, the last word. It is going, going, gone.

BACK to John's arts home page


Fischli and David Weiss ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through April 27, 2016. A documentary about the making of "The Way Things Go" and selections from "Equilibres" ran at Matthew Marks through June 30, 2007.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME