Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Feb 6-Mar. 20, 1999, Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
There's safety in numbers. Or misery loves company. Or two heads are better than one. Whatever the reason, some artists work better together, in collaboration -- although couple says it best. It makes a certain sense: the pressures are so intense, and being a duo means never facing the demons alone -- means someone sees the world as you do. It's marriage but better, or marriage but less. Sounds nice, but there's a rub.
The Achilles' heel of collaboration is that progress is difficult. The concord that makes working easier, a synergy that initially protects the artists, eventually makes the arduous aspects of growth -- the scary, intensely personal, psychotic side of development -- even harder. Still, the couples keep coming.
Sometimes they involve a sexual bond in addition to the artistic one; sometimes not. Sometimes they mate for life; sometimes not. Often they're siblings. Among others, we've had Gilbert & George, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Dinos & Jake Chapman, Jane and Louise Wilson, McDermott & McGough, and the Starn Twins, all of whom are more or less together. Then there's Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Clegg & Guttman, Wallace & Donahue, and Pruitt & Early, who are not -- and let's not forget Collins & Milazzo, who weren't artists, but certainly were a pair. My favorite, and one of the most enduring and intriguing of the collaborative couples, is Peter Fischli, 47, and David Weiss, 53 -- both Swiss, both Geminis.
The art of Fischli-Weiss has a brilliant, eternal youthfulness to it, an agile enchantment that cuts through the world of weight. Even though they often deal with big issues, they have no shadowy side, no tragic-heroic doubt or corrosive longing. They're guiltless. As a collaborative team, they're not so much like Lennon and McCartney as they are like McCartney and McCartney. But a double Paul, particularly at his best, is pretty amazing. And like McCartney squared, Fischli-Weiss have depth without darkness, which is, of course, clarity.
Masters of the ad hoc, the jerry-built, and the next-to-nothing, these true buds love labor and the bric-a-brac of everyday life. Since 1979, Fischli-Weiss have made mirthful photographs of meats, sausages, and rickety contraptions; they have fabricated sculpture out of cast rubber, polyurethane, clay, and found objects. Sometimes their work falls flat, as in the plaster renditions of cars and stewardesses. Other times their investigations into the mundane are marooned there. But as relaxed as their work looks, everything is highly, almost Swissly, worked out.
The most extreme example of this is Der Lauf der Dinge (or The Way Things Go) (198587), a carefully choreographed 30-minute chain reaction of physical comedy, or popular science, in which ordinary objects, liquids, foam, and the occasional bit of fire erupt, explode, collide, or collapse into one another. This film is their masterpiece, and one of the best films ever made by artists. In their current exhibition, Fischli-Weiss have gone from being pretty funny to being funny-pretty, and even all the way to pretty-pretty.
A delirium of flowers greets you. Flowers upon flowers, literally and figuratively: 86 luscious color inkjet images of ferns, fungi, flowers, insects, grasses, and undergrowth are hung floor to ceiling in the first gallery, which turns this space into a kind of Swiss botanical bureau, or a hothouse antechamber for the events inside.
All the photographs were made in the same way. Fischli or Weiss would go out, take pictures, maybe pass the camera on to the other, maybe not, then rewind the film and repeat the process. Thus, every image is a double exposure. These photographs mirror how Fischli-Weiss work together and alone, and how they deal with authorship and authorlessness. They reveal their nonhierarchical, laissez-faire way of seeing, of seeing double, and their perfectly pitched, magically synchronized second-sightedness. In the next galleries they take this faith in each other, in chance, beauty, mutability, and simple offhanded joy, and make it grow.
You enter a large, darkened room with three tall wooden towers in the center. Each stand has two projectors that project 80 of these double-exposure flower pictures on the wall. One image is screened on top of the other, in 30-second fade-ins and -outs. At full saturation, these double-vision gardens double into double-double visions, or quadrivision. Exquisite color floods your eyes and takes your breath away. But this is no self-reflexive beauty binge. One wall of slides is devoted to flowers in summer bloom; another is mainly mushrooms, and suggests hallucination and danger; the last is a bee's-eye, fairyland view of undergrowth. Andy Warhol abstracted flowers by silk-screening them; Fischli-Weiss return them to nature, then take them someplace else.
Projected this way, the photographs alchemize into trippy vision bites in which each flower photo, whether single, double, or quadruple, implies every image of every flower, and each picture branches off into endless chains of nextness and grids of moreness. Everything is multiplied, nothing is stable, one thing leads to another; it feels bottomless and entrancing.
Fischli-Weiss seem to announce that our divorce from nature is almost final -- then they calmly accept it. Though they present an almost 18th-century taxonomy of flowers, here nature feels more like glamour, closer to culture. Being part of a collaboration means everything you do is mediated. Here, using process and technology, they show you what this looks like: the dissolving images imply how one mind takes over from the other; the double exposures echo the cross-fertilization of their working method, the hybrid nature implicit in being "of two minds." So it comes as no surprise that Fischli-Weiss find beauty in proliferation.
Everything you're seeing in these three projections is in motion. The six projectors hum and clack as images meld, fade, vanish, and re-form. These changing slides are the exact opposite of those superspeeded-up films of flowers blooming. Here, Fischli-Weiss make time concrete by slowing things down, reduplicating them, showing you process and structure, rather than growth. Vision is fast, they seem to concede, but it also comes in stages.
The last room is the best. Fischli-Weiss's low-definition sensibilities are applied to three high-definition television sets. Their still, tourist photographs slowly fade on and off these incredibly clear monitors, one image over the other. It's mesmerizing, like gazing into fire. Sit here and peer into the silent screens; watch the infinite, uninflected parade of airports, hotels, harbors, gardens, and cities. You will think no thoughts in this gallery turned cave, yet you will feel paradoxically stimulated and serene. In Antarctica, this stare is called "big eye."
Fischli-Weiss's exhibition induces a kind of "big mind." You won't remember specific images from this show, but you will know that you were freed from the busy pace of your life, that these artists suspended routine, let you remember slowness, made time grow hazy, and almost caused place to disappear.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.