Thomas Wagner

Art’s Space
Laudatio for Peter Fischli andDavid Weiss on the Occasion of the Award of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2006

Honoured Peter Fischli, honouredDavid Weiss, Ladies and Gentlemen,

‘Ah, how simple everythingbasically is’, growls Bear. ‘Not a widespread view’, says Rat. ‘Those poorbewildered people have no idea’, explains Bear. – The rich don't either’,replies Rat.

These opening words – how could itpossibly be otherwise? – are spoken by Rat and Bear, the alter egos of the artistsin the film The Least Resistance. And what ensues from thisgeneral cluelessness? Not a clue! Although we do know one thing: without Ratand Bear, that pair of art-detectives, it is hard to find anything out. Butwhat originally made them set out on their edifying, information-gathering tourof the world of art?

When Bear’s telephone rings in hisroom in the middle of the little-big model of a Californian city made fromcardboard, wire, playing cards and batteries, waking him from a deep sleep, Ratcan be heard at the other end of the line:
‘Listen to this: “Growing Violencein the Art World!” . . . gang wars . . . fighting . . . Extensive damage toproperty to the tune of . . . extravagant lifestyle has roused the anger of thepoor. . . . Sources have suggested that widespread boredom in the art world isthe cause of these violent acts.’

‘What the hell are you talkingabout?’ asks Bear. ‘Don’t you get it?’ replies Rat, ‘The world belongs to therich. We’ll go into the art world. Things are happening! Action! Culture!Money!’
So Bear sets off, albeit ratherreluctantly. When the two meet on a bridge above the freeway, he asks, ‘Foundus some work?’ ‘No’, says Rat, ‘Money.’ – ‘Hmmm. Interesting. How?’ inquiresBear. So Rat explains, ‘Various sources blame lack of rapport between painterand viewer. We’ll splash it all over the papers and rake it in! Like everybodyelse. We'll start with a bang, right up front.’

Not long afterwards, when the twosleuths are snooping round the rich people’s pool, with art books and journalsstrewn around, suddenly a seductive female voice is heard – it’s art, or is itthe spirit of the art business?
‘Hello! Is anybody at home? I amthe life of refinement, I am elegance. You know me well. I am dance andecstasy, but also sleeping in and staying in bed. I am beauty and style. I amthe never-ending garden party. I am champagne out of a lady's slipper. I amyour doggy dish. I am the freedom you play around with. I am infinite pleasure. I am the timeat your disposal. I am the least resistance.’’[1]

A lack of rapport between artistsand viewers hardly applies in Fischli and Weiss’s case. But the leastresistance has to be overcome. All the more so here. There are numerousindications in their work that they will do anything to overcome this leastresistance. And how do you do that? Simple: you raise the level of resistance.The resistance of art. But what is it exactly that art is resisting? Or, to putanother way, whom or what is the art of these two Helvetians resisting?
‘I am the freedom you play aroundwith’, intones the beautiful, elegant, ecstatic voice of art in the film. Art,a play space – that makes sense. But playing around with freedom? Apart fromwhich, how do freedom and art connect in the first place, if this is what theartists, and maybe the recipients, too, are playing around with?

Is art today not freer than it hasever been? – Free of patrons, free of the obligation to fulfil the desire forself-aggrandisement of princes, cardinals and popes. Free of the limitingdictates of taste, free of isms and schools. Free of the restrictions ofcertain media or genres and free of the rules of a canonised aesthetic. Art isfree of all those things. But is that enough? Being free of things –commissions, isms, genres and aesthetic rules? What’s the point of all thatartistic freedom? Is it only of benefit to the market that seems to dominateeverything these days? Is art only free so that it can take the course of leastresistance, always with one eye on acclaim from a society whose problemsincreasingly arise from its affluence? What is art actually free for?This question is becoming a bore.

‘Art’s space is a rabbit hutch’,as Joseph Beuys once declared. And as Fischli and Weiss would add: art’s spaceis also a bear’s den, and its the underground sewage system, the rat’s terrain.And with time, they would also add that art’s space is a world where animalsare made from roots, it’s about working in the dark, and a garden full ofcabbages and asters. It’s a place filled with questions, a palette packed withthings that are their own doppelgängers, and it’s a long day’s journey into theeveryday. And, if we are to believe figure 18 in the book Order andCleanliness by the authors Rat and Bear, then art’s space is also a big tablewith four columns for legs, supported by ‘Religion and Bragging’, ‘Psychologyand Taste’, ‘Entertainment and Nonsense’ and ‘Filosophy and Boredom’, a higherlevel that critics, collectors, enthusiasts, gallerists, silly hangers-on andculture vultures all try to attain with the help of ladders of various kinds.And ultimately, art’s space is an open secret, that we generally fail tonotice.

And suddenly we’re back with Ratand Bear, with the bewildered rich and poor, who haven’t a clue. And the twodetectives’ suspicion that art demands sacrifices – and not just in Hollywood.
So what do you need to investigatethe terrain of art, like two detectives on a cultural tour? What do you need toavoid take the course of least resistance? Order and cleanliness? Questions andsecrets? There’s no end to the general bewilderment. Although it has long beenproductive – as in the work of Fischli and Weiss, that bewilders us viewers sowonderfully, opening our eyes so that we can learn to see.

If the art business is aboutmoney, and not work, then one way of raising the level of resistance might beto concentrate on working. Perhaps that’s why in 1991 Fischli and Weiss devisedten rules for anyone who wants to work better:
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
10. Smile

Okay, so let’s try it. Let’sfollow the rules and start by concentrating exclusively on the life of things.The problem is that things evidently conceal their true nature. Perhaps thingswould be free if they were left to themselves? So, let’s listen and try to findout something about things’ lives from their many voices in the work of Fischliand Weiss. The relevant questions not only arise of their own accord, they areactually part of the work. First Rat and Bear posed some awkward questions,then the artists wrote the questions in a big pot and later they floatedthrough the dark space of not-knowing. Questions like
– Is my stupidity a warm coat?’
– Why does nothing never happen?
– Could something else have becomeof me?
– Are their no limits to theimpossible?
– Is the realm of the possiblegrowing ever smaller?
– Is freedom alive?’[2]
All sorts of unanswerablequestions, Heinz von Foerster would have said. But exactly those questions arethe most important ones. Because the very fact that answering them does notnoticeably take us forwards, they have the advantage that they allow us to comeup with answers that tell us something about ourselves and our attitudes tolife.

Whether we manage to follow therest of the rules for working better, including distinguishing sense fromnonsense, remains to be seen. We all know that everything is changing all thetime. And we can hardly avoid admitting our mistakes. Only we can’t guaranteethat we will manage to simply say what has to be said.
Still, we are calm – and we aresmiling.

There is not even a hint ofsadness at the imperfection of the world in the work of Fischli and Weiss. Onthe contrary, there is a huge sense of delight at all the possibilities andimpossibilities that we come across on our forays, be it through prehistoriclandscapes, through gardens, cities, airports or the suburbs. A delight intrial and error, in humour and wit, pervades all the experiments andinvestigations that result from the fact that in their work there are moreexceptions than rules, rather like in pataphysics, the science of imaginarysolutions. And whatever happens, whatever we witness, it’s always a double-actthat we are observing, a duet that we are listening to. Because where Fischliis seen sporting in soberly, sacred water, Weiss is happy. And when Davidbecomes aware of the power of familiarity, Peter upsets the applecart. Justlike in Jarry’s world of Ubu Roi, where everything depends on fwisics andfwinance and shrit, the same applies to Fischli and Weiss, as SiegfriedKracauer – what a name in this context! – once said of pataphysics: ‘A dose of humouris not enough – pataphysics is [what German literally calls] the wholesausage’.[3]

At which point we suddenly findanother facet of our topic looms into view. Because right from the outsetFischli and Weiss were always interested in the meat of the matter. Indeed, youcould say that in the beginning was the sausage and the sausage was in art.It’s sausage – meaning, in German, it’s of no consequence whatsoever – whatbecomes of us, say things. For they are in despair. So they literally turn intosausage, slice by slice. The year is 1979 – and the collaboration between PeterFischli and David Weiss begins with a sequence of photographs – the SausagePhotographs – made for a college assessment.
In a flash patterned mortadella,stacks of sliced sausage, biscuits and gherkins become a carpet shop. Twocervelat sausages cause a road traffic accident, while cigarette ends standaround, gawping at the scene. But sausage alone is not enough. In the fridgethere are yet more fantastic possibilities. Here Moonraker is waiting for ‘Go’,the north pole is preserved in the freezer compartment, and duvet and pillowsbecome a veritable mountain landscape, with a bowl of water/mountain lake andhere and there a chalet built from bits of cheese, with a cable railway leadingfrom the corner of the pillow down into the valley.

As if that weren’t enough in theway of possibilities! What better than such good-humoured fantasy to givethings back their true nature and freedom. Where, if not in art, do they havethe freedom to escape the everyday slavery of their functions and to be morethan bowl, cheese, or sausage, freezer compartment or cigarette end. Of course,no thing can manage all that all on its own. But as soon as they get together,it turns out that all sorts of stories and combinations are merely lyingdormant within them. And all sorts of little things become importanttrivialities. Until things even learn to run, just as pictures once learnt torun. And now the things and the pictures are running along together, and neverwant to leave the ‘course of things’ again.

What the original impulse was,what set things in motion in the first place has long been forgotten. Now it’sjust a matter of full steam ahead, faster than ever. An ongoing relay race,from one thing to the next: a tyre rolls forwards, a chair topples, a fuse islit, a spark jumps and a bucket bursts into flame. – Next the ladder falls, thebottle fills up, the slope tips, the cylinder rolls, the fuse is lit, therocket hisses – making a vehicle move, a board slant, substances mix and bubble– the movement flows forwards and the impulse is constantly regenerated bything after thing.

That must be what progress lookslike. Nothing and no-one seems to be interested in the result. All that countsare action and reaction. But the burnt out and consumed, the dead and thediscarded are left behind. Relentlessly things surge and stumble onwards. It’sgreat fun, but also a chaotic progression at the cost of exhaustion andcollapse, glimmering and spilling, to the sound of gurgles and hisses,rumblings and whistlings.
What we see is a system thatachieves stability because all its various components constantly work together.A celebration of entropy. But even if the system is great fun to watch, it’sstill a compulsive system, a chain of systematic compulsion, which is why theviewer soon finds him or herself watching in rapt attention, just waiting forsomething to go wrong, for the sequence of events to be interrupted, so that itgrinds to a halt – at last. Wasn’t it Walter Benjamin who said that the sourceof the catastrophe is not that something changes but that it just keeps going?In Fischli and Weiss’s piece things just keep going, in this concatenation ofcatastrophes.
Just occasionally things slow up,mist shrouds the unstoppable process, a tin tray fills with steaming foam. Fora moment the viewer’s gaze can pause, until the endless chain of events, theimpulse that is passed without end from one thing to the next, dissolves in acarpet of foam that instigates a form of deceleration, when things are held incheck, until the action revs up again and – obeying the laws physics andchemical reactions – it takes up where it left off. Until everything reallydoes come to an end, in froth and foam, that substance which is almost nothing.

The philosopher Peter Sloterdijkhas called foam a ‘web of hollows’,[4] an ‘exhilarating idea’[5] and a ‘quackery of airand something-or-other’,[6] allowing us to ‘observe thesubversion of substance with our own eyes’.[7] So when all the greatexaggerations are over, when a perfect balance between surprise has beenreached, all that is left is froth and foam.

But anyone who thought that wasthe end of it all will soon realise their mistake. For the froth of progressbears fruit once again. From nothing more than arrested air, work and colour,things are manually returned to the imperfect, to the time before they weremachine-made. Be it a compass saw or a roof batten, a bulb box or a cigarettepack, a table, chair, telephone or ashtray, tube of paint or knife – in thispolyurethane-foam workman’s world everything is part of one big workshop, theworld itself has turned into a workshop, into a studio of sorts.
Here things lead their secondlife. Boris Groys has described it as the ‘manual simulation of the ready-madeprocess’.[8] But this carved art not onlyreverses the process of machine production, it also gives things a second lifein space and time. If a table is filled with 750 foamed and painted doubles ofthings, it is as though those things have suddenly become slow, delayed. Andthe outcome is a store with building materials for a different world, a worldof foam births where nothing has to function.
So foam becomes the medium for aspace that marks a gap in the unstoppable process – in the same way thathandling fire is an activity in the course of things that is located somewhereon the ‘dividing line between magic and work’,[9] and that the trulymagical course of things is dependent on the baffling excess of effects asopposed to actions.[10]

And is not yet another, adifferent space conquered when, in the film The Right Way, a root appears in thesky like a flash of lightning? It is, we are told, a root-flash, thatprocreates animals. Like the flashes of lightning in Walter de Maria’s LightningFieldin the vast expanses of New Mexico, the root also measures the distance betweenHeaven and Earth and connects the two in a high-voltage arc, and what itproduces was originally created by a root-spirit, a spirit-root. So, as StephanZweifel has shown, Rat and Bear have found a ‘space between concepts, betweenopposites’ – which is why they delve ‘into the realms of childhood, on thehighmoor of that pre-genital joy that prevails before the all-divisive gulf ofgender difference’. In the same way that the ‘terror of the avant-garde’ hasbeen ousted by the ‘subversive power of the neutral’ writes Stefan Zweifel,‘Rat and Bear undertake their strange ‘task’ of throwing the dice to win neweyes for us. As nomads of the neutral.’.[11]

But where is this realm of foamand freedom? And how do we get there? Where can we find the neutral groundwhere everything is still open, where nothing has yet been decided and fixed?One thing is for sure: anyone who sets out on the journey to that realm, needsa companion. Because on their own, anyone would be driven mad by what they sawthere – caught between alternatives, in the midst of indifference and thewealth of its sensations. As Stefan Zweifel says, ‘The idiot can only survivewith a companion. Like Laurel and Hardy, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Bouvardand Pécuchet, Rat and Bear.’ Or, we might go on, like the immutably connectedmetaphysical nomads in the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett – Gogo and Didi,Lucky and Pozzo, Ham and Clov, Mercier and Camier. Their journeys are alsocircular, so that they can arrive in the present, at the things that werealways already there.
‘Here we are’, said Mercier.‘Here?’ said Camier. ‘The end went like magic’, said Mercier. ‘And yourprospect?’ said Camier. ‘Are you eyeless?’ said Mercier. Camier scanned thevarious horizons. ‘Don't rush me,’ he said, ‘I'll try again.’ ‘You see itbetter from the bank,’ said Mercier.’[12]

So do we just have to keep goinglong enough between opposites in order to arrive at a better overview? Suddenlyand unexpectedly. Suddenly this Overview, as you know, is the name of oneof Fischli and Weiss’s best known works. Rat and Bear anticipated its arrival.You remember. On their journey into art the two strayed into philosophy, andembarked on an attempt to take in everything around them, until Rat exclaims,‘Suddenly this overview’, adding, ‘Such lucidity, what a pleasure.’

But how can the world suddenlyappear clear and lucid? Are Messrs. Fischli and Weiss actually harbouringsomething like optimism? It would be a bit of a surprise, even if it wereoptimism of a very particular kind and not immediately apparent at firstglance.

In the world as a model andexample, the act of making something oneself can nurture optimism. Doing it allagain, making it all again, that’s the method. Because making something oneselfis a form of aided creation – like Marcel Duchamp’s aided readymades.
Although, of course, in this casethat would mean that in fact there is no overview unless we make it ourselves,and we can make it by acting as though it does exist. Because the overview isnot part of our everyday world. Here, in daily life, with all the things we areso used to, which we think we know our way around, we are constantly stuckbetween things, wavering between all sorts of possibilities. Even if we make aneffort and do our best to evaluate all the information to hand and consider asmany different outcomes as possible, we still only ever decide on the basis ofour own limited insight. We are never able to see the situation as a whole. Wenever have an overview, we can never identify all the preconditions or weigh upall the consequences. Everything we do involves risk. That’s what it is to livein the Modernist era.

But what do Fischli and Weiss do?They just make a start. Anywhere. Like the Creator, they form a world fromunfired clay, full of enthusiasm, filled with this and that: with Pythagoras,who contentedly contemplates his theorem, with Dr. Hoffmann on his first LSDtrip –riding on his bike, wearing a hat, looking like Alfred Jarry out cycling– with Rumpelstilzchen’s rage and demise, with Galileo presenting the globe ofthe Earth to two monks, with a vessel and a crying child, with favouriteopposites like good and evil, funny and silly, with Phoenicians andPuss-in-Boots, with Neuschwanstein and a scrapyard, with minimum and maximum –with the first fish that decided to brave dry land, with an automatic rifle andwith Mick Jagger and Brian Jones happily on their way home after they’vewritten I Can’t Get No Satisfaction – and with so much more.

Until this encyclopaedicconglomeration contains everything imaginable, except for one thing: anoverview. Because the more things and scenarios we discover, the more we becomeentangled in the thicket of the world and all its things and stories. But wehave at least learnt one thing: to be amazed at all the things there are. Weenjoy the individual scenes, but we can only ever take in a part of what wesee, only ever a detail of the whole. And then it suddenly occurs to us: wecould just go on like that, continuing this overview, with different, newscenarios and stories, until we had replicated the whole world and we would atlast have achieved an overview. Well, almost achieved, for there would still bethat final scene in which we are seen constructing our model overview. At whichpoint everything would go back to square one and we would have to makeeverything again, until we would have to fail again in our attempt to make amodel that contained the whole universe, which is self-evidently impossible.

But all is by no means lost.Because we now view the world with different eyes. With contented childlikeeyes. Because children don’t hanker for an overview. They slip into costumesand become Rat and Bear, they build a world from sausages, even if the adultssay you shouldn’t play with food. In their eyes the small is suddenly big andthe big is small all of a sudden. Filled with wonder they create their ownworld, and filled with wonder they grasp this world. And so we, too – alwaystoo late with our models – learn, understand anew how rich and replete withmeaning our world is. So rich that we cannot oversee it, as little as we canhave an overview of it.

Is that the art space we have beenseeking?
A space where we can relearn howto let ourselves be filled with wonder?
In the midst of the world with allits distractions and attractions, and yet apart from it, in a model, in anexperiment?
Perhaps it’s right here, in theuniqueness of the blithely catastrophic art of Fischli and Weiss, in thoserealms governed by subtlety rather than efficiency. Where nothing needs to bedemonstrated, where it is enough that something resonates, and the plenitude oflife shines through – and things feel free.

Where the cloying omnipresence ofthe news has seen to it that countless people see the once wide world as agrubby little globe,[13] Fischli and Weiss set our gazefree again by creating a small, manageable world, like a fantastic garden withall its quiet, daily sensations. Here everything has its own space, even if itis out of the way, like the space under the stairs in the Frankfurt Museum fürModerne Kunst, that looks like an abandoned workshop with a drain, a telephoneand an ashtray. Only in such a leftover scenario can things simply be there astheir own doubles. Relieved of all functionality and responsibility theyblossom in their mere presence and innate poetry.

Fischli and Weiss have swept awayeverything that might be deemed to hint at a particular style. They haveaccumulated, surprised and let down, accelerated things and slowed them up, inorder to reinforce the contradiction of the living in a model-like return tothe embodiable.[14]
Contemporary art is important notbecause it happens to be hip or does well at trade fairs and auctions, butbecause it offers resistance against the least resistance.
Could one say anything worthier oftwo artists than the fact that they have extended the space of art.
Which is to say: Suddenly thisinsight!

Thank you for your patience.


[1] Fischli and Weiss, Dergeringste Widerstand,as cited in Patrick Frey, ‘Der geringste Widerstand,’ in idem, Das Geheimnisder Arbeit, Texte zum Werk von Peter Fischli und David Weiss, Munich, Düsseldorf 1990, pp.16–17 and DVD, T&C Edition, Zurich, English translation by CatherineSchelbert & Louise Stein, assisted by Jo Young.
[2] Transl. from Peter Fischli, DavidWeiss, Findet mich das Glück?, Cologne, undated.
[3] Cited in Klaus Ferentschik, Pataphysik,Versuchung des Geistes, Berlin 2006, p. 77.
[4] Peter Sloterdijk, Sphären III, Frankfurt am Main 2004, p. 27.
[5] Ibid., p. 26.
[6] Ibid., p. 29.
[7] Ibid. p. 28.
[8] Transl. from Boris Groys,‘Geschwindigkeit der Kunst’, in Bice Curiger, Patrick Frey, Baris Groys, PeterFischli. David Weiss, XLVI Biennale di Venezia 1995, pp.26–27.
[9] Transl. fromSloterdijk, Sphären III (as note 4), p. 398.
[10] Cf. ibid.
[11] Stefan Zweifel, ‘Isn’tit funny how a bear likes honey’ [with reference to The Least Resistance (1981), The RightWay(1983), Salt and Pepper (1980), Order and Cleanliness (1981)], transl. byIshbel Flett, in Flowers & Questions, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London2006.
[12] Samuel Beckett, Mercierund Camier,transl. by the author, London 1974, p. 120.
[13] Cf. Peter Sloterdijk, SphärenI–II, Frankfurtam Main, 1999 and 2004.
[14] Cf. Peter Sloterdijk, ImWeltinnenraum des Kapitals, Frankfurt am Main 2005, chapter 40: ‘Das Unkomprimierbare oder DieWiederentdeckung des Ausgedehnten’, pp. 391 ff.