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October 17, 2006

Jane Kelly asks, can deliberately boring art be interesting? Fischli & Weiss - Flowers & Questions: A Retrospective at Tate Modern

Posted by Jane Kelly

Fischli & Weiss - Flowers & Questions: A Retrospective
Tate Modern, London
11th October 2006 - 14th January 2007
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)

It's all go at Tate Modern - about 7,000 people have sampled five intestine like slides since they were set up last week, and 30,000 were expected to pass down them this weekend.

When I got there on an autumnal Monday afternoon, people had queued from 10am until 2.30pm in the Turbine Hall, for a chance to shoot down the tallest tube - 180 ft in 12 jolting seconds, experiencing something akin to terror and orgasm, or as a French writer put it: "a voluptuous panic".

The Belgian installation artist Carsten Holler's viscera are one of his "mechanisms" intended to create unusual results i.e. to make people scream "wheee!", "phew!" and "crikey!" inside an art gallery.

It's the best interaction thing I've seen,
said Mr Matthew Tree, 38, a shopkeeper from South London, who admitted the slide was the only reason he'd gone to the gallery. But while Holler is filling the public with "delight and madness", as he puts it, upstairs on level 5 the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, are trying to lull us all to sleep.

Their work is a kind of grim fairytale for jaded, fatalistic children, which doesn't take you to fairyland or Treasure Island, but to the ordinary block of flats you can see from your window, to a suburban house, to the dead time you have to spend in airports. It's a story of the banal, yes, that again.

Ever since the writer Hannah Arendt took a break from having sex with unrepentant Nazis like Martin Heidegger during her coverage of the Nuremberg trials, and came up with her axiom about the "banality of evil", this concept has trickled down into the banality of almost everything, and become highly fashionable with writers, artists, and the people who hardly lead banal lives at all.

This has become horribly fused with the legacy of Duchamp's "Readymades", his pre-existing, mass- produced, ugly objects. We might once have got Velasquez looking at eggs, Vermeer or even Edward Hopper, now we get Emin's bed, Hirst’s pregnant woman, and Fischli and Weiss's pile of palettes.

And ironically, this school of art that can be thrown away is terribly serious about its use to society.

Next to Sewer Truck, a small, square image of two sewer men, cast in rubber, a description tells us this could be:

seen as a self-portrait. Their careful processing of society's waste suggests a parallel to the artist's own investigations.
This "processing" is done by a desperate straining towards whimsy, something possibly not natural to the Swiss.

We are asked to be amused at some parodic photos from two series of works, their Airports (1987-2006) and Flowers, Mushrooms (1997/8).

Here they take the subjects most forbidden in contemporary art - sunsets, dramatic landscapes, flowers - and recreate them in sickly colours. There is no chance of anyone mistaking the irony here, it's as obvious as a rubber boot - these are the images that banal people, other people, have on the walls of their banal homes, and no one in their right mind would do the same. To reinforce this metaphor of modern uselessness, we see photos of airports, and respectable but boring housing developments.

The joke is that we are looking at all, except at how the work is done. This is all about the process - the clever use of cibachrome and double exposures.

They're nice,
I heard teenagers say in front of a flower photo, as they passed quickly by, unmoved and largely uninterested.

They offer a panoply of media. From cibachrome, to the inevitable videos, mainly of horrid looking American freeways and billboards, with a tiny reference to a snowy mountaintop, which could be anywhere.

This was puzzling - these artists are Swiss, supported by Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council. All their work is about the small and ordinary, a child's view of the world, surely Switzerland, abounding in visual clichés every way you turn, famous for its small rather twee artefacts such as ornamental clocks, and its smart but somewhat dull neighbourhoods, would be perfect for analysis, but they don't do it. These chaps prefer to look at LA, a big place they do not know.

We moved into a room of black and white photos of child-like assemblages of kitchen equipment, sauce bottles, ladles and fruit, such as Mr and Mrs Pear and their new dog, Mrs Pear Bringing her Husband a Freshly Ironed Shirt, and The carrot triumphant.

Now I like these,
said an Islingtonian sounding woman, relieved to be able to get the joke at last, but they are about as funny as the German vegetable orchestra, which tours Europe playing Beethoven on pieces of hollowed out parsnip and peppers, although the novelty of what they do is long dead.

There are the inevitable video films. The Way Things Go, (1986-7) shows a chain reaction of ladders, tyres, inflatable mattress, a balloon on a roller-skate, carts and kettles in staged collisions and explosions, a pointless display of kinetic energy, which brings to mind scenes from Michael Bentine's comedy shows Round the Bend In Thirty Minutes, and It's a Square World. Yes the Brits have already done it, and long ago, but in the interests of humour rather than "processing" on behalf of society.

For once we are without the white neon lettering that installation artists favour so much, instead we have a dark corridor where gnomic sayings and pointless questions such as

should I smoke opium?
in white letters are projected onto a black wall.
Yes, it's writing,
said one of the Islingtonian mothers to her small child.
She likes writing,
she informed us all. The full-time mothers who take their infants to Tate Modern are a special breed, and this show, repetitious and infantile was a delight for them.

Continuing across the mixed media, we were then in a room of sculpture, a giant polyurethane egg, a big vase called a "question pot", and as is usual with these artists who are laid back funsters, large notices commanding us "not to touch".

There was also a room of large, gut like tubes, while a video showed us entry down a long tube with light at the end. Could all this be coincidence, or are we now in an age of such male anxiety that artists are displaying a determined desire to return to the safety of the womb, that place that offers our only chance of a new beginning?

But this was not a place for serious considerations of the modern psyche, this exhibition was meant to be a playful comment on our boring and orderly lives.

But in only two rooms did this really work, and it was all work done a long time ago, when the artists were fresh and young. The Sausage Photographs, taken in 1979, were the couple's first claim to fame and wealth and government subsidy.

Who isn't amused by sausages? Although these are not stout, knobbly bangers like ours, they are rather anaemic, boring looking Frankfurters that have little visible character. Nevertheless they are seen here driving a fire engine, taking part in a fashion show and viewing Mortadella rugs in a carpet warehouse. They also strangely appear as Ulstermen, in a tableau showing a cardboard Belfast on fire, the only reference to conflict in the show. Obviously the artists were watching the TV news in the 1970's.

Their other great set piece is Suddenly An Overview, a room full of their early work, a model of the world, consisting of dozens of hand-made unfired clay models, some of the kind of stuff that used to get left on the art-room window ledge or returned to the "clay bin", but other pieces quite winningly sweet and well crafted.

There is the neat little tableau of Herr and Frau Einstein sleeping in an ordinary way in their banal little bed, shortly after the conception of their son, Albert. The small ordinary moment which leads to enormous consequences for mankind. A bit of an assumption really, as we have no idea how or where the Einsteins made love, they might have been absolute ravers. There is a microscopic Mick Jagger and Brian Jones going home satisfied after composing, "I can't get no satisfaction", a charming mouse or "subtenant", in the skirting board, Rumplestiltskin having a tantrum, a Christmas crib, a tiny boat in a storm, a tea-set.

Ever in pursuit of the banal, Tracey Emin has recently declared that she might be about to make a tea-pot, as she "likes tea". But she will never manage anything as clever as these little sculptures. The child lurking within cannot resist them, and I was reminded of childhood TV again, back in that kindly mixed-media world of Vision On, where the clay man Morph was first born. At last a joke that I could enjoy.

The artists seem to know how alluring this part of the show is, against all their dreary polyurethane and grey video films, such as Kanalvideo, a tour through the Zurich sewerage system which lasts an hour, and they teasingly declare that the hungry viewer will not be able to take it all in. The title Overview describes the:

confusion, swamp and simultaneity of these things.
In fact this swamping could be avoided and nothing would be lost, by just walking straight to this bit of the exhibition and ignoring the rest, except perhaps for a quick glance at the sausages.

The last room showed how far the artists had come from their early innocence. In the Studio, we are given the chance to see the artists at work, among their buckets, rubber boots, piles of palettes and other artistic detritus, the studio, that almost sacred place where the artist works his magic while the rest of the world outside goes on with its tedious, banal, dirty jobs.

The artists working here are savvy, clever and manipulative, nothing like the idiot-savants they would love to be. And throughout this massive display of mixed media they never touch a pencil or paintbrush, being far too market orientated for that.

Never mind, it used to be said that no one famous, meaning creative, ever came from Belgium or Switzerland - now we have artists who use cast rubber and sausages. Paul Klee, Tin Tin and Georges Simenon must be shaking in their shoes.

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.

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