in Interviews | 01 OCT 06
Featured in
Issue 102

The Odd Couple

An interview with Fischli/Weiss about three decades of slapstick and semiotics, sausages and bears and culture and cats

in Interviews | 01 OCT 06

Three gherkin stumps are looking at a pile of carpets, while a dealer advises them. (Actually, they’re not carpets but slices of Mortadella and Lyon sausage, and the dealer is a piece of radish.) Is this a snapshot taken by a drunk looking at the remains of a smorgasbord at four in the morning? No, it’s Peter Fischli and David Weiss in 1979, staging and photographing miniature incidents for Wurstserie (Sausage Series). Just what kind of artistic partnership is this? Who comes up with this kind of mind-expanding silliness? A 30-minute film from 1981 provides something of an answer: it’s a rat and a bear. Shot on 8mm blown up to 16mm, Der Geringste Widerstand (The Least Resistance) features the two Swiss artists dressed in furry brown rat and panda bear costume roaming around a Los Angeles reminiscent of a third-rate buddy-cop flick. Meeting on a bridge over a busy motorway, they discuss the latest developments in the art world: ‘Any work?’ ‘No, but some money.’ ‘Interesting, how does that happen?’ ‘Some sources say it’s the result of bad vibes between the painter and the viewer. Let’s really go to town and cash in for all we’re worth, even though we don’t have a clue.’ In the ensuing whodunit rat and bear come across, among other things, a corpse in gallery, a sculpture-as-weapon and a mansion swimming-pool with forensic evidence of recent poolside lounging – smoking guns of catalogues and magazine spreads featuring Picasso, Mondrian and Hockney. Here their quest for art success finds an early answer, as a ghostly voice hovering above the water flutes: ‘I am the cultivated life, elegance, you know me well … but also sleeping late and staying in bed … I am beauty, the never-ending garden party. I am champagne from a lady’s shoe … I’m the least resistance.’ And so, to cut a long story short, this autumn Fischli/Weiss have a retrospective at Tate Modern.

Jörg Heiser: You began working together in 1979. When did it become clear that this would be a permanent arrangement?

Peter Fischli: We have never made an explicit statement on this. De facto, of course, it is the case, but the joint projects themselves are what actually justify it for us, not merely the desire to work together.

JH: Beginning by making staged sausage photography, followed by a film featuring yourselves in furry rat and bear costumes, I guess you quickly gained a reputation as a comedy double act? It’s an old motif in slapstick and cartoons: the odd couple. By using the pseudonym R. Mutt, Marcel Duchamp, was alluding to the newspaper cartoon ‘Mutt & Jeff’ from the 1910s – a tall, thin guy and a small, chubby one, both totally crazy. Are Fischli/Weiss the Tom & Jerry of art?

PF: These two types exist not only in comedy but also in novels, in Flaubert and Dostoevsky – the trope of the odd couple. But even as far as the ‘comedy double act’ idea is concerned, we weren’t much worried about it being interpreted like that.

JH: For her exhibition in 2005 at the Kunsthalle in Zurich, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster wanted you to appear in the rat and bear costumes again. Not in a film but as a performance.

David Weiss: Yes, she wanted the rat and the bear as philosophers who conduct dialogues – not necessarily funny ones. Although the situation is funny, if the animals say something intelligent.

PF: It was a spontaneous suggestion. But one is not obliged to comply with such proposals to the letter. We did the opposite: instead of appearing as clowns, we hung the costumes in dark Perspex vitrines and celebrated them as fetishes.

JH: Deliberately confounding the expectations of a ‘comedy double act’…

PF: We do take steps to show things in their true light. Which is also what makes it interesting: we don’t want to be rid of it altogether, but we don’t want to leave it as it is either. That’s true of many of our works: we want to take things out of the niche where they belong and transport them somewhere else, but without denying their origins. It is about taking but also about giving back.

JH: So there is a strategy with regard to possible expectations?

DW: But not from outside, not as a concept. It just gets corrected, for example by simply mothballing the rat and the bear.

PF: And by doing nothing more than that.

JH: At the time were the rat and bear pieces mainly perceived as just amusing incidental entertainment?

PF: Yes, of course.

JH: So your attitude towards conventional discussions about art was to use not outrage or taboo but something subliminal, beneath the radar of ‘seriousness’.

PF: In Los Angeles, where we were living at the time, one was of course confronted with Disneyland and the entire movie industry, and we discovered this costume hire place, and things like that were still not being used much in art then.

JH: Did you know Paul McCarthy’s work?

PF: No. We were more familiar with people like John Baldessari or Ed Ruscha.

JH: In any case, the difference between you and McCarthy and his references to Disney, is that he emphasises the dark side whereas your works always include a barrier of normality, or decency. Where does that come from?

PF: I’ll stick my neck out – this is very speculative – but I would say that for McCarthy there’s an entirely different justification for doing it, because American mass culture – and much of Pop art – represses all that to quite a degree. In European culture it’s a different story, through psychoanalysis and Viennese Actionism. For us it had already been dealt with. And it’s not as if we avoided these issues. But we thought our task was a different one.

DW: It was simply more in keeping with our temperament for the rat and the bear to be discussing some major issues which they can never do justice to. Instead of cutting these animals open and having paint and blood coming out …

JH: So the emphasis is not on showing that popular cultures repress sex and violence but on showing that they give rise to viable cultural techniques.

PF: Correct.

Suddenly this Overview

‘Plötzlich diese Übersicht’(‘Suddenly this Overview’), the rat mutters at one point in The Least Resistance, continuing with ‘die Wahrheit kommt sogleich ans Licht, wenn man sich den Kopf zerbricht’ (‘The truth comes to light if you rack your brains’). Fischli/Weiss took the quip to heart. In 1981 they made a series of 200 small, unfired clay objects, daringly reuniting the then still divorced discourses of Modernist sculpture and Christmas crèche pottery. They are slightly rough-cut renderings, with literal titles of events that have changed the world: Mick Jagger and Brian Jones going home satisfied after writing ‘Satisfaction’, or The Last Dinosaur standing lonely in a deserted landscape or a cuddly pet with a bulbous nose and dim eyes holding on to a lamppost (Mausi’s Pissed).

With ‘Sichtbare Welt’ (Visible World, 1987–2001) the respect for and willingness to employ the cultural techniques of the amateur took the form of a gargantuan accumulation of 3,000 images – displayed on 15 light-boxes or as an eight-hour video slide-show on three monitors – that bring together anything a tourist might consider interesting: desert sunsets, pyramids, houses, traffic junctions. Almost everything, from all over the world. These images are not arranged by motif – as in Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas’ (1962– ongoing), for instance – but simply represent a chronological account of the trips the artists have made.

JH: In the 1980s, discussion on art, in the German-speaking world at least, was dominated by catch phrases such as ‘intensity’ and ‘neo-Expressionism’. Against this backdrop did you experience not being understood? And did this make you more determined, like Duchamp, when his Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) was judged not serious enough by the Cubists and he went on to make the ready-mades in the following years? Was this why you decided, right, now for some funny little pottery sculptures.

PF: In 1981, when we showed the clay figures in Zurich, although many people liked them, we still didn’t feel that we were taken entirely seriously. For many people it was nice jokes and anecdotes, nothing more. Many people reduced it to the narrative level. But we knew what we were doing, and that appealed to us. On the one hand, you do something against the others, and on the other, you do something for yourself. It always works a little both ways.

DW: That was in keeping with us and our temperament. We didn’t want to fall into the pathos trap of our artist friends – we did find that strange. Because all these people were our friends, we knew them all. Although we weren’t completely conscious of this – now we’re talking about it 20 years later, but at the time it was just the way it was.

JH: A similar thing happened with Martin Kippenberger. Many people thought he was just this nutcase …

PF: And it was a bit like that with ‘Suddenly This Overview’: many people felt that these stories spoke to them, but …

DW: ... can it be trusted?…

PF: ... does it have meaning? People denied us that, I felt at the time.

JH: Adopting the hobby approach – was that where it started?

DW: No, it was the simplicity. Taking photographs is easy. To start with, you just press the button and then see what comes out. Clay is an incredibly soft, congenial, patient material. It is the first step. It poses no obstacles. It doesn’t complain.

PF: In the late 1970s and early ’80s, working with clay as your material was taboo, relegated to the category of handicraft, domestic creativity. It had a bad image, at least in high culture; it was considered unserious. So it was like adopting an amateur technique. Like our photographs for ‘Visible World’: there is the parallel with normal tourists, who go to the same places and also take photos.

JH: At the time this sympathy for ‘normal’ activities was far from the norm. Among latter-day hippies, early punks and bohemian artists, nothing was more despised than the petit bourgeois and their narrow-minded habits.

PF: That makes them attractive to us, doesn’t it? It wasn’t the central point, but of course it is a kick. When we made videos on vaporettos in Venice, we were with thousands of tourists who were doing the same thing. It’s just that at that particular moment, one is doing it oneself as an artist. There sure are some nice sides to what we do that we are aware of.

Time Stretched

In 1995, 96 hours of video Fischli/Weiss had shot on countless car journeys in and around Zurich were displayed – with a dozen monitors showing eight hours each – in the Swiss pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The style is more reminiscent of the Discovery channel than Warhol: a road tunnel, suburbs, a cow in a field; a duck, dog, cat; a cheese maker, dentist, canal workers and lumberjacks at work; a tank; a Techno party. As it seems already impossible, for the artists to have digested all of this footage, how should the viewers, that lonely crowd, deal with them? What remains of ‘beauty’ or ‘concept’ amongst this seeming indifference? Are you supposed to take it all in, to pick sequences like finger food from a buffet? The untitled piece added up to not so much a visual portrait of Switzerland as an inquiry into how much time, and life, we actually want to spend looking.

JH: Might the 96-hour Venice video also be about this idea of ‘interpassivity’, as opposed to interactivity, about delegating the passive enjoyment of looking at stuff to video devices?

DW: As well as actually looking at all the footage, which was naturally far more extensive, we were also always behind the camera during shooting.

PF: We give things value by paying attention to them, when we are filming and when we are selecting. The same thing then happens with the viewers. They choose from the many monitors what they are interested in and pay attention to certain things for a certain duration. They have to ask themselves the same question as we do: what shall I waste my time on? And by giving them this time I enhance the value of these things.

JH: A more culturally pessimistic interpretation would be that people who constantly record everything on video when they are travelling keep experience at a distance so that when they get home they can prove ‘I was there’. Why do you tend to assume that this – and I like this about you – is a legitimate and positive cultural technique and not the nemesis of Western world?

PF: Maybe this is best explained using the example of ‘Visible World’. The same thing happens there: you travel to a place, to the pyramids, or a beautiful beach, or the Matterhorn, whatever, and then you take these photos. There is the trashy element of there already being so very many photos of these places, but at the same time these places display a great splendour – people photograph them for a reason. And in spite of the criticism, we do not want to shut ourselves off from the splendour and beauty of these places. The little book of questions (Will Happiness Find Me?, 2002) contains this question: can I restore my innocence? You go to the beautiful beach, palm trees, sunset, you take a photo; on the one hand you think it’s great, but in the back of your mind you know these pictures are very corny. But the pathos is there. And we want to occupy a position somehow in the middle, slightly torn between the two.

DW: The discovery of the beaches of the South Seas or the mountains as a picture is a cultural achievement that often came from somewhere else. The mountains of Switzerland were discovered by the British and made accessible and climbed. For the people who lived here, on the other hand, it was merely tough and strenuous – no flat meadows, only steep, inclined meadows.

PF: One aspect of ‘Visible World’, or the Venice videos, is the reclaiming of these things, because otherwise one abandons them to mass culture, to advertising, or one says it’s just these stupid tourists.

DW: In our culture we feel like we have the task to behave as individuals, and so we don’t want to share these experiences …

JH: ... the Lonely Planet.

DW: Lonely Planet. Precisely.

PF: But that’s an illusion.

DW: Yes, it’s an illusion.

JH: These works featuring an abundance of visuals, including the ‘Blumen’ series (Flowers, 1998), with its double exposures of flowers, were made before the existence of Google Image Search. Would you have done it differently if it had existed at the time?

DW: The point is finding it and doing it yourself. Making time and being there. And not just buying images. Image databases already existed, but we didn’t want that.

JH: Could it be that in the duration of the activity one maybe ‘forgets’ what may have started out as an ironic stance, and in so doing achieves something like a second-order experience of beauty?

DW: Quite clearly. But at some point even that experience is over, because one gets the feeling of having worked that through.

JH: Thierry de Duve describes the shift in art from a Kantian aesthetic judgement of ‘This is beautiful’ to Duchamp’s ‘This is art’ as expressed in the selection of a ready-made. The question of ‘beauty’ becomes secondary: whether the urinal (Fountain, 1917) is interpreted as containing the outline of a Madonna or a Buddha, which has been done, is then beside the point. In the case of Donald Judd it is ‘When someone says it’s art, it’s art’. In your case, a bit like Warhol’s series ‘Flowers’ (1964), taken from a Kodak advert, the two appear absurdly coupled: ‘This is art, it’s beautiful.’

PF: All these different steps are carried inside oneself. They are filters that are superimposed. The beautiful thing about the flower pictures is that they represent an unsolved problem. They are beautiful, but this issue of filters – that we are incapable of a totally innocent gaze – resonates in them. No doubt about it, we like these flower pictures. And that is also a moment of surprise, that one is actually seduced by these things. Nonetheless making double exposures is in itself a kind of aesthetic breech of taboo, as if one thinks that a flower alone is not enough … The presumptuousness of using a double exposure to make the flower a little bit more beautiful than creation has revealed it to us, that’s a little malicious towards the flower.

DW: It is quite harsh … but in another way it’s just something to work on. For a year we decide to photograph it, evaluate it, think about it, live with it. We also had the idea of putting the viewer into an intoxicated state or a kind of feverish excess of aesthetic perception, where one is no longer quite sure whether or not one is seeing double.

JH: That works against the idea of it being just ironic and funny and nothing more.

DW: That kind of thing gets exhausted incredibly quickly. If one fails to establish a sense of irony and seriousness at the same time.

The Invisible

‘Fotografias’ (Photographs 2004–5) consists of 108 small black and white photographs, all showing painted fairground genre scenes that the artists tracked down on numerous research trips. Sea anemones, clowns, wolves and Jimi Hendrix rise from cheesy fantasy like monsters from a swamp. Eine unerledigte Arbeit (An Unsettled Work, 2004) achieves a similar effect, albeit from a very different angle: projected images, two at a time, slowly dissolve into each other. Like a hilariously literal illustration of a dream-sequence routine in a film, puppet faces are superimposed over a dimly lit bedroom, or a cat’s eyes over a vertical sunset.

JH: ‘Fotografias’ is something of an anthropological finding, documenting an often overlooked cultural treasure, the fairground painting. Why were you drawn to these?

DW: The function of these pictures in the fairground is to promise people that they can expose themselves a little to these dangers, being slightly beside themselves, losing control, be it in the ghost train, the dodgems or the roller-coaster. These are actually images for selling, seductive images. They have to offer something one doesn’t otherwise have in everyday life.

JH: Like ‘Fotografias’, An Unsettled Work gives the impression of rendering the invisible visible. Was that the original idea?

DW: No, originally it was just scraping the barrel of our archive, pictures that had not previously been used. One might describe it as the repressed of the ‘Visible World’.

JH: Repressed by you?

DW: Yes, it didn’t fit into this concept. Pictures were not chosen when we were selecting material for the piece, but that were chosen when we were taking the photographs: if you have your camera with you and you’re in the suburbs taking pictures of houses and you see a nice house that has been painted in a funny way, then the decision over whether or not you can use it doesn’t come until later.

PF: When we were in Paris photographing the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame for ‘Visible World’ (1987–2001), we went into the catacombs and took photos of all the skulls. Like David said, that was the bottom of the barrel, the dark content, and a few years later we took them and turned them into An Unsettled Work. And then when we were making An Unsettled Work, gathering material, we found these fairground paintings and saw that they could be a subject in their own right – ‘Fotografias’. One piece led to the other.

La méthode Fischli/Weiss

JH: There seem to be four steps inherent in your approach. The first step is to collect, amass, using coincidence and memory rather than a systematic approach. The second step is to introduce a particular order, a hierarchy – especially if that means ignoring or inverting an existing one. The third step concerns time: stretching and compressing it – from 80 hours to the blink of an eye. The fourth step, I’d say, is to twist and turn and sometimes subvert the methods I just mentioned, with a penchant for the deadpan, for slapstick. Would you agree with that description?

PF: Yes, that is right. But we might give these four steps different names: the first two steps of archiving and ordering are more like provisional storage. We do these things and then they’re there, and when they’ve been in the studio long enough then maybe later we will begin to evaluate them, to establish a hierarchy. And as far as the final step is concerned, it’s about getting all of this into an artistic form. And that does involve reinterpretations. In the case of the ‘Fotografias’ it was a relatively simple reversal; these pictures are normally very large and very colourful, and we removed their colour and their size, made them very small, black and white. It’s not slapstick, perhaps, but it does involve tricks, artistic methods.

JH: By ‘slapstick’ I mean calculatedly amusing collisions, muddles: doing something crazy in a very sober way, or something very sober in a very crazy way. The idea of working against an initial impulse with a sense of enjoying the absurd.

DW: Well, with the airports there’s nothing to tell you where they are, for example. That’s the simplest one, a cheap trick. It leaves the viewer slightly at a loss, so it’s just some place or other. And the same happens with the ‘Fotografias’, when you take what are actually very different images and relate them via the format and the black and white.

JH: Do you work together on every step?

PF: When we’re photographing flowers or paintings, each of us goes off on his own and then we meet up after two or three days and look together at each other’s results.

JH: Is it a competition – who can get the best pictures?

PF: It’s competitive in a positive sense. Each of us brings back hunting trophies and we show them to each other.

Small Questions, Big Questions

JH: From the ‘question pots’ (Kleiner Fragentopf, Grosser Fragentopf, Big Question Pot, Little Question Pot, 1984), on the insides of which weighty and not so weighty questions are asked, through to Kleine Fragen, Große Fragen (Small Questions, Big Questions, 2003), comprising slide projections of questions, there seems to be a therapeutic idea at work – questioning yourselves, anxiously. New Age, self-help. I imagine someone trying to find their feet in this cultural milieu.

DW: In very vague terms we did imagine someone asking himself slightly paranoid questions that revolve very much around himself. That is part of the legacy of psychoanalysis: broody self-questioning. Questioning first appeared in Rat & Bear, who made these drawings for themselves, Ordnung und Reinlichkeit (Order and Cleanliness, 1981). And then came the pair of opposites ‘small questions and big questions’: for example, small question – ‘Has the last bus gone?’ – as compared to big question – ‘Where is the galaxy going?’ The answer to the former question may, of course, be far more important than the latter, which one can take more time over.

JH: It’s like Woody Allen or Larry David rendering therapeutic self-questioning absurd by shifting the scale.

DW: Precisely. But it is also a matter of going through life with the question of what is important and what is unimportant. We are constantly making judgements on this. And when things go slightly awry, it is sometimes amusing, sometimes sobering.

PF: Boris Groys has a theory that there are two different types of question. One is: ‘What is the diameter of the Earth?’ and you immediately begin thinking, ‘Oh yes, we learned that in school’. The second question is: ‘Why is the Earth not a cube?’ and you immediately begin wondering about the person who asked the question. Many of our questions go more in the latter direction.

DW: For example, the ‘question pots’ contain the question ‘Was I a good child?’ That is a question of the introspective type.

PF: And in the little book, it’s handwritten notes – faked, of course – a look into the profane notes of a strange person. We’re not especially interested in getting answers to these questions. We’re more interested in creating an appropriate place to store them, be it in a pot – you only have to take one step back and you can no longer see them – or as a slide projection: they appear slowly and quickly fade away again.

JH: Nocturnal visions, someone who can’t get to sleep.

PF: Right. And correspondingly, these questions are not carved in stone.

Physical Comedy

The series of staged photographs ‘Stiller Nachmittag’ (Quiet Afternoon, 1984–5), also known as the ‘Equilibrium’ series, employs everyday objects in the most absurd, gravity-defying constellations rivalling Chinese circus acts: for example, an empty wine bottle sits on top of an apple that sits on top of an eggcup, while a plate balances on the cork of the bottle, held in place by a counter-balance of a fish slice and a ladle, the latter holding an onion in a net (Natürliche Grazie, Natural Grace).

Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go, 1987) takes the issue of tinkering with gravity one step further, setting it in motion. The result is a 30-minute sequence of enduring triumph: car tyres, candles, plastic bottles, fire crackers, suspicious liquids, planks and balloons are all lined up like dominoes (only occasionally bamboozled by way of a well-hidden cut). The sheer amount of Sisyphean work that must have gone into this is astounding, as is the ease with which the result sets itself at the head of a comical tradition of wacky, complex machineries fulfilling simple tasks in a convoluted, yet suspenseful way (though Fischli/Weiss remove even the simple task – the domino effect just ends in fog). It’s a tradition that leads from the cartoons the American engineer Rube Goldberg thought up in the early 20th century (his British counterpart was W. Heath Robinson, with his cartoons of wacky machines run by balding, bespectacled types in overalls), through Gyro Gearloose, to Kermit demonstrating the ‘What Happens Next machine’ to his eager Sesame Street audience.

JH: In the ‘Equilibrium’ series and in The Way Things Go, slapstick features not only in methodical terms but also directly – the physical comedy of objects. How did the one lead to the other?

DW: First there were the ‘Equilibriums’. We were sitting in a bar somewhere and playing around with the things on the table, and we thought to ourselves, this energy of never-ending collapse – because our construction stood for a moment and then collapsed before we built it up again – should be harnessed and channelled in a particular direction. That was also the original idea for The Way Things Go, in the Tate Modern exhibition; when you see the ‘Making of’, it becomes clear that the creative process was not funny at all. I’ve always found that astonishing anyway – the way people always laugh when the next thing falls over. Because for us it was more like a circus act, trained objects. And the ones that didn’t do it were badly trained or badly positioned. It required considerable patience.

PF: Strangely, for us, while we were making the piece, it was funnier when it failed, when it didn’t work. When it worked, that was more about satisfaction. And that the film created the impression that the things move on their own, without human help, that they become spirited, living beings.

JH: These stories of failure and collapse and then not failing after all – that’s also the heroic theme of slapstick: the hero who accidentally breaks something, but in so doing brings about a stroke of good fortune and knocks over the villain etc. In The Way Things Go you laugh because something that cannot really work actually does work. It’s a kind of triumph.

PF: And there’s an element of comedy in your identifying this heroic theme in the pathetic falling-over of objects. I see it too, and I think you’re right, but if that is the case, then it has an element of comedy in itself.

DW: A professor in Germany once asked us whether we were thinking about the French Revolution when we were making that film.

JH: Why?

DW: Because of the upheavals that lead to further upheavals. And in China a student asked me if we were thinking of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls…

JH: The title The Way Things Go suggests the historical, a concatenation of fateful events.

PF: I don’t really like it, that title.

JH: Why?

PF: Well, it’s somehow …

JH: … a bit Wim Wenders?

PF: Yes, and it’s not my favourite title, because it’s too close to what we see – ‘Suddenly this Overview’ is a better title, for a series of small clay sculptures.

JH: ‘Suddenly this Overview’ refutes itself, whereas The Way Things Go reaffirms.

PF: Yes, it’s a little bit unsophisticated.


Fischli/Weiss’ replicas have an inbuilt level of absurdity – why would anyone go to the lengths of producing minute imitations of ordinary objects rather than simply using the originals as ready-mades? Carved from polyurethane and painted to look almost exactly like real buckets, hammers, pieces of plywood, telephones or chairs, these pieces are absolutely not presenting the forgery of something particularly valuable – say a design object or antique. Instead they seem to be the monstrous evidence of artists ‘wasting their time’.

JH: Das Floß (The Raft, 1982) was the first work in which you used carved polyurethane. How did that come about?

PF: ‘Suddenly This Overview’ made us realize that, besides anecdotal sculptures, we are also interested in objects: we’d already made models of a rifle, bread, a rucksack. We saw the potential, but with clay we couldn’t get beyond a certain size. This is where polyurethane suggested itself as a material – the kind used by movie set decorators because it is very easy to work with. Easy to cut and paint, very fast. First we made a huge pig with little piglets, and a car engine. They then landed on the raft.

JH: These are objects that are hard to render …

DW: We took a relatively free approach when carving, not as naturalistic as today.

PF: It was about the world of garages and cars and workshops, and on the other hand the farm; or to be more precise, about how these two worlds flow into one another. And the raft is a situation where the person loading this raft must make certain decisions. It’s a context that creates a hierarchy.

DW: It’s also about indecision: what to take, what to leave behind.

JH: But the more recent replicas imitate a working situation in the context of the exhibition; they are not immediately identifiable as a ‘fake’ – the museum’s technical staff really could have left all this behind.

PF: After it was first shown in Cologne, the raft came back to Switzerland, and we then set it up for an exhibition not as a raft but as a storage room which can only be looked into from outside. This gave us the idea for rooms like Raum unter der Treppe (Room under the Stairs, 1993) at the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art.

DW: Someone is busily working away there, but they’ve just popped out – the whole thing is actually a big illusion, but it works.

JH: With the walk-in situations featuring replicas, the question arises of whether or not you’re allowed to touch the object, an issue that didn’t arise with the raft, which was clearly delimited and identifiable as art object.

DW: Sure, visitors to the exhibition want to hold them in their hands, and it’s disconcerting to find how light they are, especially the larger objects.

JH: Which is also a psychedelic, uncanny effect.

PF: They’re a bit like will-o-the-wisps – there in visual terms but not corresponding in terms of touch. Phantoms.


JH: Duchamp once said that an artistic decision in favour of a particular object as a ready-made comes from a certain kind of ‘indifference’ – that it is no longer a matter of taste in the sense of deciding whether the object possesses beauty or not. How does taste come about for Fischli/Weiss? What appeals to you and what does not? Do you have a system for how to gauge it?

PF: One method of avoiding the decision for or against beauty is certainly our approach of making groups of works with many parts. The flower series consists of 111 pictures, which means we can include some we find particularly pleasing as well as some that we find less appealing. And the same happens in the ‘Rooms’: unlike Pop art, which turns one particular object and that one object only into an icon, they are a collection of replicas of worthless everyday objects. So instead of saying this is the most beautiful object, this is the most beautiful flower, this is the most beautiful airport, and there is only one, what you get is simultaneity and a selection. Slightly switching off the aspect of naming or creating a hierarchy.

DW: Yes, but at the same time the opposite is also true. If we have a collection of black and white slides of the fairground and the fairy-tale motif appears in 12 variations, then we select what best captures the core of this motif. And by the end that leaves maybe 20 images, and then within these we establish our own criteria: which are good, which fit together. This means that within the system we inevitably create value judgements and hierarchies, criteria for taste.

PF: But the fact that there are two of us also comes into play. Some are David’s favourite motifs; some are mine. That breaks down the hierarchies again.

DW: Then I’m glad that he shoulders the responsibility for a particularly ugly flower. When you have 111 pictures of flowers, that kind of thing is negotiable – if we agree on 30, then each of us gets five bonus images, but the rest have to be done without.

PF: The little book of questions, includes the question: ‘Do I suffer from good taste?’ In the ‘Equilibriums’ we were slightly relieved of the question of which object must be selected according to which criteria: it didn’t matter whether the colour of the cigarette lighter that establishes and maintains the balance is a nice green or not.

DW: The only criterion shaping the composition was balance.

PF: Gerhard Richter once said something I really liked: a lottery ticket with six out of six winning numbers marked on it can only be good. Only an idiot would say. ‘But the crosses aren’t nicely distributed’. And the same is true with the ‘Equilibriums’: if it stays up, then it can only be good.

‘Fischli & Weiss – Flowers & Questions: A Retrospective’ is at Tate Modern, London from 11 October – 14 January.