Longtime Swiss collaborators Peter Fischli and David Weiss explore some of the unseen possibilities inherent in daily life in a modest exhibition at the Art Institute. Their chromogenic prints feature humor, whimsy … and sausages. These elements mingle to produce works that inspire chuckles and the occasional profound thought. It’s a small gathering of small work, but it does its best to ask big questions.
The exhibition is divided into two separate rooms. The first, “Photographs,” features two series, the more immediately arresting of which is “The Sausage Photographs (Wursterie)” from 1979. Ten images are mounted in a horizontal line along the wall. With each shot, Fischli and Weiss present tiny food-based re-enactments of monumental human events, from the spectacular (the sinking “Titanic”) to the mundane (some pickles try their nonexistent hands at trade and barter in a “Carpet Shop”).
In some cases the sausages play people, in others they are cars or scenic elements. Cardboard, linens, and other such materials account for the rest of the scenic tomfoolery.
Simple pleasures abound, like hot dogs wearing hats, and the pictures are seductive in their mixture of apparent haste and crafty meticulousness. But the photographs are mainly appealing for the cuteness and wonder that is inherent in the miniature; taken alone, these images don’t travel too far past humor and material intrigue.
The fantastic and the ordinary are again conflated on the opposite wall, albeit in a more subtle, low-sodium manner. The other series in the “Photographs” room, “A Quiet Afternoon (Stiller Nachmittag)” (1984-1986), includes 71 framed photographs. As with the sausages, we see familiar objects occupying unfamiliar roles, but this time typical household items are the stars. Chairs are stacked and precariously balanced upon each other (such as in “The Fart” and “Outlaws,” among others), and rolls of tape become chariot wheels for paint-can-drawn carriages (“Ben Hur”). Many of the images feature unbelievable feats, like physics-defying invocations of Stonehenge and humanity’s other various triumphs (one arrangement is simply titled “Monument”).
As a collection, it teeters on the edge of blandness. If the “Wursterie” taught us about the entertaining potential for staged photography, one suspects that the inclusion of some action in this series was intended to ground these images in the realm of possibility.
A second, darkened room in the exhibition houses the series “Questions” (1981/2002–2003), featuring assorted questions in English, German, Italian, and Japanese that are projected on three walls by 15 slide projectors. A large bench is available for patrons to sit, relax, and ponder the meaning of life (amongst other things). The questions range from humorous nonsense (“Is it true that traces of aliens have been found in yogurt?”), to introspection (“Am I pretty average emotionally?”), to the grandest imaginable (“What’s waiting for us in the depths of the universe?”).
The room’s darkness doesn’t hide the occasional eye-roll, however. A number of the jokes aren’t funny, while some of the heavy questions fail as both farce or real material for serious pondering. According to the wall text at the entryway for “Questions,” the artists claim not to be asking these questions themselves; they simply want the viewer to imagine they’re being asked.
In sum, the show is modest. Like the balancing acts in “A Quiet Afternoon,” each of the three investigations in the exhibition is most successful when balanced against the others. The playful irreverence of the sausage photos is balanced by the weighty existential concerns next door, giving them a gravity that might otherwise go unnoticed. As a whole, they come together like salami and broccoli in a bowl of condensed mushroom soup (flawed and lacking when solitary, but together, actually pretty good).
The notion that no single object must do all of the work shines through in what ends up being a very human collection of artwork. Sometimes we do ask dumb questions; that’s okay. And when considering the tiny morsels that board the beverage container rocket ship in “Moonraker,” one wonders how important we humans really are after all, even at our most magnificent. In the end, aren’t we all just ground meat stuffed in intestinal casing, waiting to be grilled and eaten by the great unknown?
Peter Fischli David Weiss:
Questions, the Sausage Photographs, and a Quiet Afternoon
February 3-April 17, 2011
Art Institute of Chicago
111 S Michigan Ave