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Where Have All The Flowers Gone T.J. Demos on Fischli and Weiss at the Tate Modern, London

Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Flowers & Questions. A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London, 2006/2007, view of the exhibition Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Flowers & Questions. A Retrospective, Tate Modern, London, 2006/2007, view of the exhibition

It is the particular triumph of the Swiss duo Fischli and Weiss to elevate irreconcilability into an artistic virtue, an accomplishment performed with a humbleness that is itself - pardoxically - remarkable. Entering the Tate Modern's "Flowers and Questions: A Retrospective", curated by museum director Vicente Todolí and curator Bice Curiger of Kunsthaus Zürich, visitors encounter three unruly pieces. The first, "Big Root" (2005), is a cast rubber sculpture of a large tree's subterranean matter, its black tentacles pointing invitingly into the exhibition's galleries like arrows of multiple possibility. The black rectangular monolith, "Cupboard" (1987), also cast in rubber, towers roughly seven-feet nearby. Third is the photographic series "Settlements Agglomeration" (1993), which pictures several middle-class housing complexes in Zürich, designed in a functionalist modern architecture. The three works suggest rather distinct art-historical lineages: "Big Root"'s organic mold exemplifies modes of spontaneous expressionist gesture and biomorphic abstraction; "Cupboard"'s geometric minimalism also invokes the castings of Bruce Nauman and Rachel Whiteread, as well as minimalism's appropriation by Hollywood in Kubrick's use of the black monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey" (referenced again in one of Fischli and Weiss' small clay sculptures, "Two Apes Unable to Understand the Monolith", doubling humorously as an allegory of the mass public's consternation regarding avant-garde abstraction); and, lastly, conceptualist photography, recalling the banal architectural typologies of Dan Graham or Ed Ruscha, but equally amateur snapshot photography, which occupy the artists in several other pieces.

Rather than attempting - impossibly - to unifying these works, the curators - and artists too, who helped organize the exhibition - announce immediately Fischli and Weiss' stylistic and material promiscuity, as well their rejection of singularity and purity, which begins, as one proceeds further into the show, with the collaborative nature of their project. The rest of the exhibition - "a" retrospective, implying others are possible - follows suit and captures an errant multiplicity by grouping work into several non-chronological arrangements, divided into different rooms: there are categorizations according to medium, as in the photographic series "Airports" (1987-2006) and "Flowers" (1997/98); groupings by morphology and materials, including the large bulbous polyurethane forms of the "Grey Sculptures" (1986); and classifications by subject matter, as in the selective appropriations of weirdly kitschy pop-cultural imagery, which joins the video-montage, "An Unsettled Work" (2004) to the tenebrous "Fotografías" (2004/05).

Corroborating this diversification of production, and linked to the duo's pluralization of authorship, is the artists' sustained engagement with indexical representation - photography, molding, chain reactions, shadows - in which signifier connects to referent by virtue of an existential link, but where meaning remains notoriously unstable (as in photography's ability to be variously captioned, its significance chancing each time). But without operating to unify their work structurally - Kunlike Rosalind Krauss' seminal use of it to connect disparate artistic practices of the '70s - the index acts here as a further means to obscure authorship, which dovetails nicely with the artists's recusal of themselves from the production of certain pieces, as in the popular video "The Way Things Go" (1986/87) that transforms minimalism's compositional one-thing-after-another into a wondrous, unstoppable chain reaction. The video joins a tradition of Dadaist and slapstick humor - like Arp's dropping paper fragments to create a collage or Duchamp's zany bachelor machines, which coincided historically with the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton - where comedy owes both to unexpected, chance operations, and to desubjectified creations evoking a mechanized world out of control - which in this case becomes both entertaining and liberating from the often restrictive conditions of avant-garde practice.

Fischli and Weiss trigger modest forms of creativity using quotidian materials, as in their early Oldenburg-like sculptures made out of luncheon meat, "Sausage Photographs" (1979), suggesting an attack on the masterful creation, where hybridity and freedom is that of the non-specialist. Even while recalling Nauman's banal studio-based activities -minus the commitment to minimalism's repetitions, which endowed his performances with highbrow status - and those of Paul McCarthy - without the risky abjection or sexual transgression that signaled a desublimatory derision of mass culture - their self-professed "concentrated daydreaming" (as they describe it in a recent * Flash Art* interview) privileges the anti-heroic and quotidian. Their recycling, DIY aesthetics, and deskilled hobby-like craftsmanship also parallels their attraction to tourism imagery, as in the post-conceptualist video of 3,000 travelogue photographs, "Visible World" (1987-2000), and the picaresque "Rat and Bear" films. One finds in the show many gestures toward the unmemorable and mediocre, the non-monumental and non-technological, as in the hilarious history of anti-spectacular moments proposed in the 180 unfired and modestly sized clay sculptures of "Suddenly this Overview", the titles of which say all: "Mick Jagger and Brian Jones Going Home Satisfied after Composing 'I Can't Get no Satisfaction'" (!).

But ... what happens when a resolutely anti-spectacular art is showcased at the Tate Modern precisely as exemplary and rarified, elevated on pedestals in white-cube galleries in a celebratory retrospective? Institutionalization is an old avant-garde quandary for sure, and while the work of Fischli and Weiss presents very sophisticated détournements of the low, retrieving moments of beauty and strangeness in what might otherwise be disparaged as cliché, they leave the museum environment largely untouched. While they do challenge the retrospective's formality and linear unfolding, this mildly unconventional curatorial gesture in fact runs continuous with the supposed freedom of the Tate's own non-chronological hang, which plays into the museum's supermarket-like consumerism evident in its multiplying shops and cafés. Fischli and Weiss' tacit acceptance of institutional conditions points up a difference from younger generations of artists who similarly redirect mass culture toward creative ends - such as Pierre Huyghe - but also critically investigate institutionalization through, for example, architectural engagements with the exhibition space (most notably in his mobile-wall installation of "Streamside Day Follies", 2003, at the Dia Foundation in New York, which remade the exhibition container as space of experimental community formation; less innovative in this regard was his "Celebration Park" show at Tate Modern, 2006, which did, however, include one prominently featured piece that compared that museum to "Star War"'s Death Star). Clearly, museums are keen as ever on inviting artists to critique their institutional functions and to creatively mount exhibitions, which are as capable as anything else of being marketed and spectacularized; but this doesn't mean such functions should go unexamined, unchallenged or unengaged, and some artists are more innovative in this regard than others. That said, the one moment in the show when the artists appeared as themselves was in Patrick Frey's film "Making Things Go" (1985/2006), which documented the failures and boring rehearsals for "The Way Things Go", and was placed directly by its side; like a magician unveiling the tricks of his trade, Fischli and Weiss offered one anti-deifying retort to their own retrospective - a format often tied to celebrations of artistic genius - even if this insider's joke does not extend to other interventions in the institutional context.

Still, while resolutely non-sectarian, Fischli and Weiss' model of a humble, roaming creativity nevertheless proposes its own ethico-political stance. And just where their reveling in everyday creative production might merge with neoliberalism's ideology of entrepreneurial opportunity - fulfilling the yearnings of the "creative class", which supposedly generates the strength and vitality of the capitalist economy - their art resists uncritically embracing commercial pop-culture: the use of recycling procedures, for instance, negates consumerism's fetishization of technology and newness; their collaborative authorship defies mass media's society of stardom; and their anti-heroic iconography opposes the stultifying repertoire of sex and violence served up by Hollywood film and computer games alike. Drawing neo-avant-garde and culture industry into a critical, often funny reversibility, their work, absent of political propaganda as well as the superficiality of populism, resists #Kany#K definitive, ultimate interpretation. This flexibility grants their project an inclusiveness attractive to both lay audiences and art historians, a diverse appeal won by few artists.


Fischli & Weiss, "Flowers & Questions. A Retrospective", Tate Modern, October 11, 2006 - January 14, 2007.