It’s always a good time to go to the Guggenheim, but if you can swing it, one of the best times is now. How to Work Better is an exhibition featuring the remarkable partnership between Peter Fischli and David Weiss, two Swiss artists who collaborated for 33 years, until the untimely death of Mr. Weiss in 2012. It’s only around until April 27, though, so act quickly. Fischili and Weiss (and their alter egos, Rat and Bear, also featured here) put together an impressive and voluminous collection of work, and this is the first time their long collaboration has been given such a comprehensive treatment in a museum in New York City.
They worked in film, and created sculptures, digital slide shows, photographs, and large installations, all with a keen intelligence and a truly fantastic sense of humor. If clay sculptures with titles like “Jesus Walks on Water, the Fishes are Amazed,” “Mick Jagger and Brian Jones Going Home Satisfied after Composing ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,’” and “Strangers in the Night Exchanging Glances,” do not appeal to you, this is perhaps not an exhibit you would enjoy. For the rest of us, there’s always “Mr. and Mrs. Einstein Shortly after the Conception of Their Son, the Genius Albert,” and several hundred more. Whimsical, playful, crude, and endlessly inventive, this collection, Suddenly This Overview, was a standout.
Fischili and Weiss are perhaps best known for the 1987 short film The Way Things Go, also on display in this exhibit, which features a Rube Goldberg-like sequence of events in a warehouse, beginning with a large spinning garbage bag, which, as it untethers, eventually gives a tire a push…setting various objects in a chain of motion, and incorporating fire, water, and gravity to make one thing after another happen in a form of controlled chaos. This description, I do realize, does not sound particularly enticing, but watching the sequence (it appears to be one long take, although that is thanks to some adept editing) is, for some reason, utterly entrancing.
Yet other work by Fischili and Weiss incorporates text…the “Large Question Pot” from 1984 asks everything from “Should I sing?” to “To whom is the moon useful?” to “Why can’t I sleep?” and “Am I not right to ask?” This, as well as the “Question Projections” from 2000-2003 (which ask “Is a mistake around today that’s as big as the idea of the earth being flat?” and “Should I buy a big hammer?” and “Is hunger an emotion?”) put me in mind of the epigrams of Jenny Holzer.
Some common themes eventually emerge. The art continually challenges various dichotomies: high and low culture, the serious and the trivial, the banal and the truly beautiful, the important and the everyday. It forces its audience to look at the mundane with fresh eyes. Nancy Spector and Nat Trotman of the Guggenheim describe the artists as “whimsical philosophers who pondered all questions, great and small,” and it seems to me that they have it exactly right. Endlessly inventive, endlessly creative, curious, irreverent, but not in any way mean-spirited, it’s hard not to come away from this exhibit thoroughly charmed.
They even give us all some specific advice on how to work better, on display at the Guggenheim, and as a public art piece at Houston and Mott Streets downtown, concurrent with the exhibit, and on the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue. Cribbed from a poster in a pottery factory in Thailand back in 1990, here are the ten suggestions:
1. DO ONE THING AT A TIME.
2. KNOW THE PROBLEM.
3. LEARN TO LISTEN.
4. LEARN TO ASK QUESTIONS.
5. DISTINGUISH SENSE FROM NONSENSE.
6. ACCEPT CHANGE AS INEVITABLE.
7. ADMIT MISTAKES.
8. SAY IT SIMPLE.
9. BE CALM.
Clichéd? Trite? Reminiscent of terrible HR presentations and PowerPoint slides? Perhaps. But good advice all the same.
If you miss the show in New York, despair not. The exhibition will be traveling to Museo Jumex in Mexico City after it closes here, in case you are looking for a good excuse to take a trip.
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lead-In Image: Peter Fischli David Weiss; The Least Resistance, 1980–81; Color video, transferred from Super 8 film, with sound, 29 min. Courtesy the artists © Peter Fischli and David Weiss
Videos Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum