David Weiss 1946–2012
David Weiss, who together with Peter Fischli formed the Swiss artist duo that for more than three decades walked the line between irony and sincerity, physical comedy and conceptual rigor, died of cancer on Friday 26 April 2012 in Zurich.
I met the artists for an extensive interview in 2006, at their studio in an industrial district outside of Zurich. It was a place where their lifelike polyurethane replicas of everyday objects might lie around amidst the ‘real’ ones; Fischli was the one who would do most of the emailing and phoning, while Weiss remained a bit more reclusive. Yet he didn’t come across as unapproachable – quite the opposite, he seemed always friendly, warm-hearted, funny in an unobtrusive way.
That year, they showed a piece in New York and London that involved life-size costumes of a rat and a bear suspended inside darkly tinted Perspex boxes (Rat and Bear, 2004). It was as if they had put their alter egos from their early work into cryogenic fugue, to be brought to live again in a distant future. It was a canny comment on audience expectation, even peer artist expectation (they had done it in response to a request from Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster to appear once more in their costumes to discuss philosophy). And it was a parody of a parody. The initial work had been a half-hour film the two had shot in Los Angeles, back in 1981, two years after they had first come across each other in Zurich’s thriving underground art and punk scene of the time (Der geringste Widerstand, The Point of Least Resistance). Peter had been the restless rat; David the phlegmatic bear. In short, the film was an existentialist comedy about the absurd desire of making a career in art – money and murder instead of masterpiece.
Together they churned out masterpieces nevertheless. As opposed to Pop Art, which adopted the products of mass culture, they instead adopted the everyday techniques that went into producing them. Pottery (for example, their hilarious series of ceramics Plötzlich diese Übersicht, Suddenly This Overview, 1981), amateur photography (double exposures of flowers, bland pictures of airports) and filming (96 hours of Swiss banal everyday life on video, shown in the Swiss pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003), carving (their many pieces involving polyurethane replicas of everyday objects).
Maybe the approach of Fischli/Weiss can be traced back to the odd couples of literature, such as Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881), the Paris scriveners who decide to retreat to the countryside to become hobby alchemists and gardeners, to, of course, triumphally disastrous effect. Indeed there is – amidst techniques of minimalism and conceptualism that Fischli/Weiss employed both to comment on these traditions as well as transcend them – a sensibility for language, for poetic slippage and irony, even if based on ‘found footage’ as in the case of their outdoor wall piece How to Work Better (1991), which is based on a manual they had come across in a ceramics factory in Thailand.
Talking to Rebecca Warren last week, days before the news of Weiss’s death arrived, she mentioned that Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go, 1987) – the famous 30-minute film that shows a seemingly endless succession of domino-like collisions of everyday objects, including liquids, fire and fog – had at points moved her to tears, with its downward spiral of catastrophes. As with all great comical works, there is always a sense of tragedy. Peter Fischli will – surely, hopefully – continue making great art works, on his own. But David Weiss will be missed.