Fischli and Weiss, Flowers and Questions, Tate Modern

A tyre progresses along a dirty floor. It knocks another tyre, sitting on a ladder tilted slightly upwards. Amazingly enough, the bulky rubber tyre rolls up the ladder (courtesy of some cunningly positioned weights taped to the inside of the tyre) and bumps into another tyre, which does the same. This tyre hops over a couple more rungs and then knocks over a plastic bottle of water sitting at the top of the ladder. The water spills over and into a bucket sitting underneath. After a brief delay, a miasma of steam, in the form of dry ice, erupts from the bucket and begins, in billowing clouds, to traipse along the floor. One fluffy cloud of dry ice finally arrives at a bar of soap, which rests under a chair leg. The soap is gradually eaten away and the chair falls over, setting in motion a tray of ballbearings … and so the contraption continues, incorporating more marvellous forms of rockets, inflating balloons, miniature fireworks, see-saws and whatever else you may wish to include.

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986, T and C Film, Zurich

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986/7, T and C Film, Zurich

Part schoolboy physics, part spectacular marvel, this motion machine is documented in Fischli and Weiss’s The Way Things Go, a grainy video shot over roughly 30 minutes in an otherwise abandoned warehouse, and, for the sheer childish interest it generates, is the star of the show at the Tate’s eponymous exhibition.

Next to The Way Things Go runs a complementary video (Making Things Go), showing the artist’s experiments, failures and tests while building the machine. Though not nearly as interesting as the machine projected on the left hand side of the wall, the inclusion of this secondary video reveals one of Fischli and Weiss’s ‘concerns’ as artists (and one of their strengths). Rather than glorifying the artists it shows them simply trying to solve the technical problems they have set themselves. At a more conceptual level, the secondary video, rather than showing the production of art as something, secret, fantastical and touched by invisible genius, shows art being made, and the ‘everydayness’ of this task so often shrouded in the mystical glow of creation. One sees Fischli and Weiss (plus colleagues) approaching all these difficulties of engineering the motion machine in exactly the same way anybody else would. The artists have no special gift to bring to the occasion but their own hard work. Failure, confusion, the comedy of errors (e.g. the errant rocket, the recalcitrant rubber tyre) are just as much a part of Fischli and Weiss’s creative output as the motion machine. And juxtaposed with the video of the motion machine, the title ‘The Way Things Are’ seems very apposite – talking not just about the final product, but the creative process too.

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986, T and C Film, Zurich

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986/7, T and C Film, Zurich,

The other work I found particular engaging is one already owned by the Tate, and remarkably, a work of tenor almost directly opposite to that of the motion machine. Contemplative, silent, opaque in meaning, Visible World is a set of three high-definition television screens, slowly looping through an astonishing number of travel photographs, full of bright forceful colours. Without any kind of sound or commentary, there is a Zen-like feel to this piece, aided by an extremely slick method of moving between the photos. At a slow, almost imperceptible pace, one photograph morphs into another, a process that lasts for around fifteen seconds; for the majority of this period it is difficult to tell which photo is which. I found it tremendously hypnotic (although others are free to point out the similarities between hypnotism and somnolence).

While one should not forget this slickness of presentation (Fischli and Weiss are never quite as honest as they seem), one also needs to note that Visible World has a truthfulness about it that recalls The Ways Things Go. Fischli and Weiss do not have a story to bring to the table – they are simply showing photographs they have taken round the world (i.e. the way things are)

Often a distinct set of photos (say ten or fifteen in a row) would be of the same place, but would reveal not a logical progression that one would expect to see in a professional documentary. Rather, they are redolent of the work of an amateur snapper, who attempts to record the majestic quality of a place by the sheer quantity of photos, e.g. the mountaintop vista from eight points that are only fractionally different. Neither is the type of content too unfamiliar; nothing different from the photos you or I might take. Broad landscapes of impressive rural views, panoramic cityscapes, bright colours, atmospheric alpine shots, but nothing abstract, eccentric or (initially) ambiguous.

More generally, there was little in the way of a relationship between the photos in any one screen, or the three screens as a whole. While not random, there was little concern about framing some kind of narrative or message; the photos just were. Any time I tried to make an interpretation about the photos another set would arrive and would puncture the idea I was formulating. The absence of central characters also contributes to this lack of narrative. Any persons appearing tended to do so as incidental characters. Fischli and Weiss’s work is rather remarkable in insistence of avoiding both abstraction and figurative narrative.

Other parts of the exhibition I found less engaging. Sketches, preparatory works, props from performances are more documents than works of art. But in their approach towards revealing the artist and the world in the two works I have mentioned above, Fischli and Weiss provide a refreshing tonic to the cod-confessionalism or faux high-level art games played by some other contemporary artists.

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Filed under Contemporary Art, Fischli and Weiss, Tate Modern

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