The floral tributes of Peter Fischli and David Weiss
Peter Fischli and David Weiss have always had a soft spot for ordinary, leisure-time activities. They enjoy the way such pastimes - tinkering, pottering, carving, chemistry-for-beginners kits, dominoes, amateur video and photography, gardening - oscillate between repetitive stupidity and childlike playfulness. Their works around these subjects neither snigger at the dilettantism of DIY, nor retreat into a simple replication of the real, presented as a subversive act. Instead, they make other people’s hobbies their full-time job, or, if you like, the opposite, transforming their own profession as artists into a full-time experience of leisure. Either way, it’s their raised awareness of phenomenological awe, respect for the banal, and the consistency characteristic of their work that bring its form and content so coherently together.
Both the technique and subject matter of the new work are favourites of the amateur photographer: the flower picture and the double exposure, in macro close-up. (Lesson 44: Double exposure. How to lovingly blend your cat and dog together.) Using a process that allows the artists to work separately for a change, one of them takes a roll of photos - in a suburban Zürich rose garden, for example - until the film is full. He then hands it over to the other, who takes a new series of pictures, say on the flower-mad island of Mainau in the Bodensee, exposing the same film. In this way a simple, regulated randomness defines the composition: the choice of which images are double-exposed is not one that is made deliberately.
This method gives the project a Conceptual edge, but it still has the air of an everyday photographic accident or amateur game. The trend for ‘Lomography’, for example, has a similar element of randomness at heart. It began in 1989, when cheap Russian Lomo cameras were exported to the West. The camera’s automatic exposure system, which can even be used at night, plus its powerful wide-angle lens, meant that by taking photographs without looking through the tiny viewfinder one could produce images with a haphazard kind of beauty. It is just this pleasure of giving in to a mechanically-produced randomness - deliberate helplessness - that prompted Fischli and Weiss to stroll around parks with cameras around their necks, kneeling from time to time in front of rose bushes and daisies.
The well-trained sceptic in you asks: by working with images of flowers, have Fischli and Weiss finally blanded out - are the photographs too decorative? Of course, many contemporary artists have used flowers as subject matter. But thinking about what they represent in Mapplethorpe’s lilies (phallic lust), or for Araki (a dumb equation with female delicateness) or in Thomas Struth’s flower close-ups made for a hospital near Zürich in 1991-93 (Swiss neutrality), it becomes obvious that the Fischli/Weiss works are neither allegories for desire nor objective reductions to form and colour.
Rather, their starting point is the conventional skills of amateur photography: the petit-bourgeois interest in technique and harmonious imagery that inadvertently introduces questions of desire, representation and inventiveness. This was also the theme of the artists’ series of tourist-like panorama shots in the eight hour video Sichtbare Welt (Visible World, 1997). They are not concerned, however, in congratulating themselves for breaking down distinctions between High and Low art, as they made clear back in 1981 with their little clay sculpture Beliebte Gegensätze: Hoch und Tief (Popular Oppositions: High and Low). For them, the difference between these two concepts can be reduced to that of a dachshund begging on its hind legs (high) or casually standing on all fours (low).
It is striking, however, how easily the axis between High and Low can be turned around through a change in presentation. At Hauser and Wirth in Zürich, the second room of the gallery was darkened for a slide projection with a twist: flower double-exposures blended into each other like an absurd exaggeration of a domestic slide show. When the exhibition moved to Monika Sprüth Gallery in November, the order of presentation was reversed: the first room was darkened, with three projections instead of one, which transformed the slide-show-in-the-backroom feel into a museum-like installation of big, overblown flowers. The second room, gleaming brightly after the darkness of the first, gave you the full hit - a huge psychedelic mosaic of wham-bang colour-buzz. Wild roses blended chaotically, joyfully, with tall blossoming shrubs; foxgloves encircle a single orchid; as a cold turquoise stone creeps in from the edges, a sad army of withered, bald-headed, turkey-like peduncles is silhouetted by grey-white winter light; snow-laden rotten leaves were shot through by a near-atomic sunset.
What happens when you’re reduced to helpless, full-blown perception for a short, drug-like moment? Do you feel like a dancing butterfly, or a bee without a sting, or maybe the strange fat, passive Animal that Fischli and Weiss made in 1985 resembling a bald, overfed bobtail with an arsehole so big you could see the light shining through its carved-out eyes, nostrils and mouth? Maybe you’re just a regular spectator looking at a product for the art market, but it’s great to have these pictures all to yourself for a moment. One hopes that these colourful little friends are not sold singly but will stay together, perhaps installed in a massive goods elevator in an old, patinated hotel, or in a crisp new hospital, so that sometimes people will get the chance to be alone with them for a moment, in transit from one floor to the next, before being spat out into the day again.
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