Many artists are stubbornly solitary creators. Trying to have a conversation with a solo practitioner while they’re holed up in their studio mid-make can prove difficult, if not impossible. Peter Fischli and David Weiss – possibly contemporary art’s best known double act and, I must confess, my longest-standing art crush – turned this idea of the genius, hermit artist entirely on its head over the course of their joint career. The Swiss duo’s prolific playfulness and irreverent yet deeply considered bouncing around of ideas could, I think, only have been a product of two original minds that have been fortunate enough to meet.
From their much-copied 1987 video ‘The Way Things Go’ and extraordinary range of polyurethane imitations of real objects (paint pots, pizza containers, sheets of MDF) that put a clumsy mirror to whatever we think of as the reality of installing an exhibition, to projected and written questions that cover the childlike and the intensely philosophical – their current retrospective at the Guggenheim is one of those shows where you find yourself making involuntary noises of appreciation at every work. Old fans swap benevolent smiles of recognition. We find ourselves envying the new ones their first encounters with, for example, the endlessly bewitching clayness of ‘Suddenly This Overview’s roughly wrought vignettes. You’d have to be a cold hearted soul to not appreciate the minds that could put ‘The Last Dinosaur’; ‘Popular Opposites: Over and Under’; ‘Trying Not To Smile’ and ‘Mr and Mrs Einstein Shortly After The Birth of Their Son, Albert’, together in the same body of work (they eventually produced over 600 of these.)
It’s their spirited desire to prod at reality – ours and theirs – that really shines through here. As you make the slow swirl from the top of the iconic rotunda (if that’s where you choose to start, the show works in both directions) we’re met with a host of projected questions that veer from the dreamlike – “Is an invisible person in my bedroom?” to the Dada-esque – “Is the stench coming from an ostrich?”, setting the tone for the rest of our experience.
Curator Nancy Spector, working closer with the surviving half of the pair, Peter Fischli, has expertly installed the duo’s works in this most challenging of spaces. The breadth of their practice slowly reveals itself as we descend, a non-chronological hang punctuated with polyurethane and cast rubber pieces from the ‘80s onwards. A giant egg, a cartoonish version of a car, a cutlery divider – these are all shadows of the prosaic, in form, scale and demeanour.
‘How to Work Better’ manages to do what every career retrospective strives for - it creates new conversations between works that have never presented themselves before. This is all the more apt for a survey of a joint practice that was so clearly the product of endless chinwagging. A healthy attitude to failure and a sense of constant, indiscriminate curiosity was built into Fischli and Weiss’s artistic output. We leave the exhibition with the uplifting feeling that the joy, for the artists as for us, is in the incessant asking of questions.