Swiss artist Peter Fischli, one half of the famous Fischli/Weiss collaboration from Switzerland, on balancing irony and humour, working without his long-time partner and his agenda in India.
It’s not rare to find the iconic Swiss artist Peter Fischli with a glint of amusement in his eyes. Seated at Le Meridian hotel’s lobby in Delhi, sipping a cup of coffee, the 61-year-old’s face crinkles into a smile when he’s reminded of once being dubbed one of the two “merry pranksters of contemporary art”. “Humour is one of the possibilities of thinking about life and talking about it,” he says in a heavily accented voice. The artist is known as one half of the famous artistic collaboration from Switzerland — Fischli/Weiss — at a time when artistic expressions in Europe were undergoing a metamorphosis in the ’80s and ’90s, questioning the possibilities of high and low art. Fischli collaborated with David Weiss for more than three decades (before the latter’s untimely death in 2012 due to cancer) for an incongruous but expansive oeuvre in the form of films, sculptures, installations, photographs, texts and multimedia. Add to that, subtle but jolting currents of humour and irony. “It’s like giving the viewers a candy. But you put salt in it,” he adds, with a laugh.
In Delhi as a speaker at the India Art Fair, Fischli finds himself answering this question. Can we be subjected to deliberate humour? “Humour is in your mentality. Some people use it more than others,” he says, adding, “But the problem with humour is you also have to pay attention that you’re not just making jokes about what you want to tell. In our case, we use it to induce irony. You should never be direct with irony.”
A ’60s child, Fischli had the career as an artist coming. “My father was a painter and studied Bauhaus. So I grew up in a modernist environment and was surrounded by contemporary art, especially Bauhaus. All children like to play, but maybe by seeing all these things around me, and even though not understanding it, provokes different games,” says the artist, who was inspired by everything that happened that decade — from music, popular culture and art to political movements.
The works of Fischli/Weiss, who started working together from 1977 onwards, have been known to arouse curiosity through their extensive engagement with mundane objects, including food items such as sausages and bacons, photographs, chairs and other furnishing objects and froth bubbles among others. Their avant garde experimentations led to critically-acclaimed shows such as Wurstserie (1979) which had sausages to create urban settings, Suddenly this Overview (1981) that used unfired clay to recreate historical moments and Questions (1981-2003) that used slide installation featuring 243 questions such as “Can I restore my innocence?” or “Does a ghost drive my car around at night?”. Their most significant work is The Way Things Go, a 1987 award-winning film that observes chain reaction of objects that crash, fly and bounce against each other in their studio in Zurich.
In the beginning, the duo faced some confusion. “We were misunderstood, especially in the ’80s. But since we were not the first post-modern generation, we didn’t have to fight against the whole idea of high and low, the idea of pop art, which started in the early ’60s,” he says. There was also the fear of appearing too pretentious. “We always liked things too simple. When you take a closer look, complexities can be unfolded. But the problem is you could also just make entertainment business. You don’t want to do that,” he says.
Fischli went through a major shift in his life with Weiss’s passing away. “This is a banal truth that has to be accepted,” he says, after a pause. “But when David got sick, we had a lot of projects and I realised that even though David has died, my interest in these projects is still there,” he adds. In India, one such project comes alive.
His ongoing Visible World series has him taking photographs across the world, from iconic scenes such as the New York skyline and Sydney harbor, to airports. “I will be a passive witness here,” says the artist.