What: Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better
When: February 5 – April 27, 2016
Where: The Guggenheim Museum
Admission: Free for Macaulay students with the Cultural Passport
Students and seniors: $18; Adults $25
Are museums always solemn, austere places of reverence? Or can exhibitions make us smile? The Guggenheim Museum’s current exhibition Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better takes this latter, lighter approach. This exhibition asks viewers to cast off seriousness and embrace playfulness, to delight in the whimsical, and to see wonder in the mundane. Peter Fischli (b. 1952) and David Weiss (1946-2012) are a pair of Swiss artists who from 1979 collaborated on artworks in a variety of media, including sculpture, photography, and video. This remarkable retrospective reveals the underlying unity in all their various works, and also proves that their whimsy is not empty, but rather deeply meaningful.
Consider, for instance, the Venice Videos (1995), presented here in the cozy nook of one of the museum’s reading rooms. In these videos Fischli and Weiss strove to create a moving-image encyclopedia of all the unremarkable activities that make up daily existence. The result was, in fact, quite remarkable: this work prompts us to consider how our own lives are formed out of collections of disparate, ordinary, but nevertheless very vivid moments. This encyclopedic impulse continues in the ongoing project Suddenly this Overview (1981-), a collection of childlike, unfired, and frequently comic clay sculptures which question the sober, grandiloquent way we often narrate human history.
This show is organized thematically, rather than chronologically. Indeed, a chronological overview would have been too tedious and pedantic for this lively duo. Works are often presented as pairs, and this strategy brilliantly illuminates how certain ideas recurred throughout Fischli and Weiss’ collaboration. The theme of duality holds the whole exhibition together, starting even before the visitor enters the museum. Installed outside the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue, Fischli and Weiss’ model Haus (1987)—a gray, rigid, bland structure—is a stark contrast to the bright, curving Frank Lloyd Wright Building with which it is paired.
The exhibition ends with the Question Projections (2000-03). In a darkened room just off the top of the ramp, a series of projectors illuminate a big wall with a jumbled collection of handwritten questions in three languages: English, German, and Japanese. Questions of all kinds glow and fade, appearing, then disappearing, then reappearing once more:
“Is my brain a poorly furnished apartment?”
“Is everything I have ever forgotten as big as a house?”
“Can I be happy with my head?”
“I can be content, can’t I?”
“Do I need more agitation?”
“Is my soul the ghost that drives my car at night?”
“Do you have to look at things soberly?”
Do we have to look at things soberly? Should we? Perhaps not always. Ultimately this exhibition reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. After all, there can be plenty of beauty, poetry, and meaning in a smile.
While you’re at the Guggenheim, check out these other exhibitions:
Photo-Poetics: An Anthology (closing March 27)
Kandinsky Gallery (through spring 2016)
…as well as these ongoing exhibitions:
A Long-Awaited Tribute: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House and Pavilion