John Hodgman Meets John Dewey: Fischli and Weiss at the Guggenheim
Peter Fischli and David Weiss: How to Work Better at the Guggenheim Museum
February 5 to April 27, 2016
1071 5th Avenue (at 88th Street)
New York, 212 423 3500
Lying limp on the Guggenheim Museum’s lower landing, Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s empty rat and panda costumes nicely encapsulate the pathetic silliness found in much of their work. The title of this retrospective, “How to Work Better,” encompasses the kind of sly, self-deprecating humor about everyday activity for which the pair became known through their 33-year collaboration. In the presences of the empty costumes, it has an air of regret about it — as a driver cursing her broken down car: “maybe next time you’ll learn ‘how to work better.’”
Most notably, “How to Work Better” is a statement about the artists’ decades-long “learning by doing” approach to making art, in which self-study leads to aesthetic wholeness. Their approach echoes the position taken by John Dewey and his Pragmatist cohort — in opposition to René Descartes — that thinking can never be divorced from being. To know the truth of a proposition, we need to test it out in the real world.
The pair began investigating the stuff of everyday life in their 1979 Sausage series. This collection of photos shows amateurish dioramas of ordinary situations, often with sausage as a building material. The Accident, for example, depicts a collision of sausage cars, while The Carpet Shop uses sliced lunchmeat to represent stacked rugs. Fischli and Weiss’s supermarket creations are a deflating tweak to the self-important abstraction and high conceptualism that was the hallmark of that era.
The artists take another poke at profundity in Order and Cleanliness (1981). Consisting of a series of hand-lettered sheets, this work is a taxonomy of opposed but not fully opposite ideas, laid out in every type of graphic format: Venn diagrams, figure eights, Möbius strips. The pages of this textbook of higher truths are, on closer inspection, full of digressions and non-sequiturs. “Cops,” “students,” and “musicians,” lie on a continuum from stupidity to light, while a tree of technological innovations appears inexplicably next to a smaller tree of love. Mildly entertaining though it is, this presentation is neither orderly nor clean. It effectively dismisses the idea that separating information into pure categories has any purpose.
The attempt to systematize knowledge results in full-blown chaos in Suddenly this Overview (1981/2006). With its 200 unfired clay vignettes, mostly rendered in a child-like way, this sprawling work is like one person’s random perusal of Wikipedia. Subjects include zoology (“Hippopotamus,” “Rhizome”), history (“The Landing of the Allies in Normandy“), moments ascribed to historical figures (“Nero Enjoying the View of Rome Burning”) or to prehistoric ones (“Dog of the Inventor of the Wheel Feels the Enjoyment of his Master”), or to proverbial ones (“Strangers in the Night Exchanging Glances”). There is the occasional mathematical abstraction (“Endless Loop”), which gets equal billing with the expression of childish contempt for learning (“Hooray the School is Burning”).
Casting the artists in their own nonsensical vignette is the 1980-81 video The Least Resistance, in which the pair makes a whirlwind tour of Los Angeles on a quest to make a movie. The video’s high drama, which includes a helicopter flight accompanied by triumphant music, is undercut by the fact that the two are donning the same rat and panda costumes on display at the beginning of the exhibition.
In spite of the riotous fun these artists make of the self-consciously profound, there is a seriousness to this work and a visual quietude to its outward appearance. The bulk of the exhibition is in black, white and gray, and many of the works are very unfunny copies of mundane objects. Walls, Corners, Tubes (2009-12) consists of large-scale three-dimensional forms in black rubber and gray unfired clay, which resemble the pieces used to build a sewer. These are displayed next to a video of a seemingly endless journey through just such a place, Kanal Video (1992), which was shot in the Zürich sewer system. Works like these are as focused as Suddenly this Overview is distracting. It’s not so much that Fischli and Weiss are on a hunt for the chaotically absurd, it’s that they encounter it as a matter of course during their trip through the everyday.
In a world where one has to travel to the sewer to experience mathematically perfect forms, Fischli and Weiss’s investigations make a lot of sense. Their dogged insistence on repeating what is in front of them, coupled with their contempt for the certainties of black-and-white thinking, makes for a truthful depiction of the world. As John Dewey notes, “compartmentalization of occupations and interests brings about separation of that mode of activity commonly called ‘practice’ from insight, of imagination from executive doing, of significant purpose from work, of emotion from thought and doing. “How to Work Better” exhibits the artists’ decades-long laboratory of real-world testing — and their discovery that levity and profundity are not so far apart.