How to Work Better: Art That Will Never Be the Same

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Every night in February, beginning at 11:57 p.m. and ending at midnight, pedestrians strolling the Crossroads of the World will be observed from on high by a giant kitty. Concurrent with the Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective of the collaborative Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Times Square’s electronic billboards will screen Büsi (Kitty), the duo’s adorably intimidating 2001 video of a pompous white cat lapping up a bowl of milk. The entrancing footage, also on view in the museum, reflects the most entertaining aspects of the artists’ oeuvre: animals, cuteness and a mischievous undermining of what Fischli and Weiss saw as “popular opposites,” i.e., kitsch versus beauty, fiction versus reality, banal versus sublime.

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Büsi (Kitty), 2001 (© Peter Fischli and David Weiss)

The first comprehensive New York museum show representing the pair’s 33-year partnership (which ended with Weiss’s death in 2012), Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better comprises hundreds of sculptures, photographs, slide projections and videos that playfully upend our perceptions of everyday life by questioning accepted contraries. Though I smiled for virtually the entire two hours I spent touring this unwieldy exhibit, I came away irked. When we enjoy an experience, it’s natural to want to share it with others. Yet with all that 21st-century technologies allow us to do, not only do we no longer watch the same television programs at the same time, nor consume entertainment in any singular, common fashion, but even when we take in the same events our experiences are unalike.

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Untitled (Venice Work), 1995 (© Peter Fischli and David Weiss)

When you visit the Guggenheim, you won’t see the same Fischli and Weiss exhibit I saw, at least not in terms of its most compelling components. Four mesmerizing, immersive environments are the retrospective’s main events, yet—much as the internet confounds comprehensive research by proffering overwhelming amounts of content, simply because it can—these enticing milieus offer more visual information than any one person is expected to see. Untitled (Venice Work) provides 96 hours of ravishing color video footage split into eight-hour segments shown simultaneously on 12 monitors. A meditation on human toil in urban and natural surroundings, the installation is so aesthetically absorbing that its attraction is irresistible, particularly during these winter months when one is tempted to hole up inside for hours on end.

Visible World projects eight hours of breathtaking photography of stunning global sites onto three large flat screens that one wants to stand in front of forever. Similarly, Questions, an empty room in which countless provocative queries float beguilingly along the wall, elicits a magnetic urge to dwell there endlessly, alone with one’s thoughts.

But best is the hilarious sublimity one experiences while wandering through Suddenly This Overview, a collection of more than 150 unfired clay sculptures, crafted with what deceptively appears to be kindergarten-level molding technique. This laugh-out-loud display of text-driven visual wit purportedly represents the artists’ attempt to gather all the world’s knowledge in one place. You’ll see tiny pieces labeled “Jesus Walks on Water: The Fishes Are Amazed,” “The Landing of the Allies in Normandy,” “The Free-Market Economy” and “George Washington Crossing the Delaware,” a lovably lumpy depiction of the famous painting. There are so many of these wee treats that viewers may accidentally miss some (or grow too weary to attend to them all). As with the videos, these are different experiences for different viewers.

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Selections from Suddenly This Overview (photo courtesy Fischli Weiss Archive, Zürich)

Gone, however, is the pleasure of attending an event, suggesting it to others and then reveling in common enjoyment. I’m left wondering: Do cultural experiences now serve to separate rather than connect us? Or would Fischli and Weiss claim these notions are not really the opposites I perceive them to be?

Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better is on view at the Guggenheim Museum through April 27.

Feature photo: © Peter Fischli and David Weiss

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