The blizzard in early February that dropped two feet of snow on the city forced the cancellation of the Society for Contemporary Art’s conversation with Peter Fischli and overshadowed the opening of "Peter Fischli David Weiss: Questions, the Sausage Photographs, and a Quiet Afternoon," at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although the winter storm was unavoidable, it doesn’t seem like the museum has made an effort to promote the work on view through April 17th, there was no press preview and the museum's enthusiasm surrounding the exhibition has been a bit of a disappointment.The conversation with Fischli could not be rescheduled and while that is understandable, given the artist's international profile, it's more reason to schedule additional events around the exhibitions. Despite the Art Institute’s assertion that the exhibition will provide "a unique opportunity for Chicago and Midwestern audiences to experience this duo’s artistic vision," there was only a single curator's tour planned around the exhibition and that took place on March11th. Nothing else is planned for the exhibition.
My discontent with the lack of institutional attention directed toward"Peter Fischli David Weiss," contrasts with my impression of the actual exhibition. Jointly curated by the Department of Contemporary Art and the Department of Photography, the exhibition is a well thought out examination of three seminal works by the artists.
The work of Fischli and Weiss resists any type of categorization, as it implies order among chaos, and the fantastical amidst the everyday. Throughout their career, Fischli and Weiss have worked with photography, sculpture, installation, film and video to incite a dialogue and introduce new modes of perception. Their work exemplifies the obvious and the implausible; delving in and out of the philosophical, theoretical and comedic realms of thought and practice. They adopt very different uses for common objects and material, making the banal magnificent and abounding with sardonic humor and sharp wit.
Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Fashion Show, from The Sausage Photographs, 1979. Chromogenic print. 19 5/8 x 27 1/2 inches. © Peter Fischli and David Weiss / Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.
Seemingly driven by boredom, the collective imaginations of Fischli and Weiss anthropomorphize and dramatize pork in The Sausage Photographs (1971) as the artists alter the function and identity of German sausages. Broken Styrofoam, cigarette butts and bed sheets act out scenes as the artists see fit. Each photograph captures the playful experiments that transpire in the world of the Fischli and Weiss. The Fashion Show (1979), for example, presents a makeshift runway (a bathroom shelf) with five "meaty" supermodels donning robes of lunch meat, peanut shell bow ties and condiment caps as millinery creations. The series was the first collaborative project for Fischli and Weiss, providing a platform for their investigation into amateur documentary and child-like attempts at sculpture. Exhibiting mordant wit with a whimsical spirit, The Sausage Photographs introduces the contrast between reality and fantasy, a distinct theme seen throughout the artists' career.
Peter Fischli and David Weiss, A Restless Night, from A Quiet Afternoon, 1985. Chromogenic print. 11 7/8 x 8 inches. © Peter Fischli and David Weiss / Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.
The second photographic series on view delves into a pseudo-reality where wine bottles are balanced by cheese graters and high-heeled shoes fuse into an infinite circle. Like the The Sausage Photographs, Fischli and Weiss’s A Quiet Afternoon (1984-1986) pushes the boundaries of photography and sculpture by re-inventing a range of domestic materials. Again, what seems to be the result of idle hands translates to a rhapsodic celebration of the banal. With this series, Fischli and Weiss practice artistic adventurism at its best, gingerly balancing disparate objects and photographing them just before they collapse. An image (seen above) of two chairs precariously stacked upon one another, supported only by a ceramic jug and PVC pipe, illustrates the push and pull mentality of the Restless Night series. Despite the complex badinage of each vignette, Fischli and Weiss maintain the aesthetics of refined composition and outlandish design.
Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Questions (detail), 1981/2002–03. Slide projection, continuous loop. Jointly acquired by The Art Institute of Chicago through prior gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joel Starrels; Burt Kaplan Fund; through prior gift of Gould, Inc. and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by Acquisition and Collection Committee.
Of particular note is the third installment of the exhibition, a philosophical wanderlust of the human mind titled Questions (1981/2002-03). This work, awarded the 2003 Venice Biennale Golden Lion Prize, is a complex installation of 1000 slides, 15 projectors and hundreds of questions in four different languages. Questions transforms the Howard and Donna Stone Film, Video and New Media Gallery into the depths of one’s psyche. Pitch black except for the wavy questions and pictorial doodles screened on the walls, the work is a philosophical challenge, and a physical creation of the mind wandering in the dark. Akin to the thoughts of one before they fall asleep, the projected phrases fade in and out of the room, leaving one to wonder if these are questions or rhetorical statements.
As seen with the early Sausage Photographs elsewhere in the exhibition, Questions ranges from silly to theoretical: "Is everything drifting apart?" "Is the freedom of birds overrated?" "Does a hidden tunnel lead directly to the kitchen?" "Are my juices alright?" Nearly twenty years after The Sausage Photographs, Fischli and Weiss still play with the ephemeral elements of life, but transition from prosaic objects to a dialogue of existential and trivial thought.
Rather than an explorative survey, Peter Fischli and David Weiss lends its focus on three works that illustrate the virtuosity, varied media and hilarity that has defined the artists’ career. With source material deriving from the everyday, Fischli and Weiss never cease to probe playfully into the normalcy of life. They document the inconceivable and the bizarre, suggesting a parallel reality where slabs of meat function as rugs and while lying awake in the dark, one’s thoughts race and take form. Simultaneously working between the extraordinary and the mundane, it is clear why Fischli and Weiss’s investigative and witty approach has influenced decades of contemporary thought and practice.
There are still a few weeks left to view Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and although this is not a sprawling career survey, it is the first time in twenty years that a solo exhibition of the artists has been available to a Chicago audience. Not every exhibition can be a blockbuster that commands herds of tourists leading to commercial success, but this exhibition is still as important.
-Robyn Farrell Roulo, ArtSlant Staff Writer