It would be easy enough to think of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the renowned Swiss artistic duo, as conceptual pranksters and leave it at that. But as the Guggenheim’s survey of their joint career amply demonstrates, there’s more to their partnership than simply indulging in whimsy and irony, though they do plenty of that. Employing photography, sculpture and video, Fischli and Weiss built on Marcel Duchamp’s readymade legacy to ruminate on the everyday and how we deal with it, framing experience as a dialectic of minor epiphanies and incidental absurdities. Tragedy, when it figures into their work at all, is less an outcome of human failing than of individual floundering. Together, these themes are explored in a wry dissection of art and the effort it takes to make.
The apex of their collaboration—which began in 1979 and lasted until Weiss’s death in 2012—is undoubtedly the video that serves as the show’s centerpiece: The Way Things Go from 1987. A demented masterwork of comic timing, the film follows the chain of causalities created by an enormous Rube Goldberg contraption built out of wood, metal, Styrofoam and castaway objects (tires, jugs, buckets, ladders). A string of actions and reactions galvanized by elemental forces of air, fire and water unfolds for 30 minutes to no discernible end or purpose. Considering that the piece seems to perform flawlessly in real time, it must have taken weeks to choreograph.
The circular relationship between labor and what it creates takes static form in a series of sculptural tableaux depicting tools and materials—drills, hammers, screwdrivers, stacks of plywood, plastic containers filled with paint—scattered or piled, as if someone had just left them in a studio. Though they look completely real, they’re made of painted polyurethane resin. Verisimilitude reaches astonishing levels in a piece from a series of cast-rubber sculptures: a spinning record turntable playing music. Even a close examination can’t reveal the secret to how it was made, which is as good a metaphor as any for why we work in the first place—not just to survive but to compensate for that unanswerable question: Why are we here?
That mystery is treated as a sublime joke in a series of photographs, in which disparate objects (shoes, utensils, bottles, chairs) are balanced on top of each other with Swiss precision, like Jenga blocks of nonsense. Each image depicts an implausible equilibrium, in which elements try to create order from random encounters with the ordinary—which is to say life itself, a puzzle absent of rhyme or reason. Still, in these works and others, Fischli and Weiss seem to advocate plugging away over existential despair. Their motto could be “just do it,” which indeed they did for 30 years.