Laudatio for Peter Fischli andDavid Weiss on the Occasion of the Award of the
Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2006
Honoured Peter Fischli, honouredDavid Weiss, Ladies and Gentlemen,
‘Ah, how simple everythingbasically is’, growls Bear. ‘Not a widespread view’,
says Rat. ‘Those poorbewildered people have no idea’, explains Bear. – The rich
don't either’,replies Rat.
These opening words – how could itpossibly be otherwise? – are spoken by Rat
and Bear, the alter egos of the artistsin the film The Least Resistance.
And what ensues from thisgeneral cluelessness? Not a clue! Although we do know
one thing: without Ratand Bear, that pair of art-detectives, it is hard to find
anything out. Butwhat originally made them set out on their edifying, information-gathering
tourof the world of art?
When Bear’s telephone rings in hisroom in the middle of the little-big model
of a Californian city made fromcardboard, wire, playing cards and batteries,
waking him from a deep sleep, Ratcan be heard at the other end of the line:
‘Listen to this: “Growing Violencein the Art World!” . . . gang wars . . . fighting
. . . Extensive damage toproperty to the tune of . . . extravagant lifestyle
has roused the anger of thepoor. . . . Sources have suggested that widespread
boredom in the art world isthe cause of these violent acts.’
‘What the hell are you talkingabout?’ asks Bear. ‘Don’t you get it?’ replies
Rat, ‘The world belongs to therich. We’ll go into the art world. Things are happening!
So Bear sets off, albeit ratherreluctantly. When the two meet on a bridge above
the freeway, he asks, ‘Foundus some work?’ ‘No’, says Rat, ‘Money.’ – ‘Hmmm.
Interesting. How?’ inquiresBear. So Rat explains, ‘Various sources blame lack
of rapport between painterand viewer. We’ll splash it all over the papers and
rake it in! Like everybodyelse. We'll start with a bang, right up front.’
Not long afterwards, when the twosleuths are snooping round the rich people’s
pool, with art books and journalsstrewn around, suddenly a seductive female voice
is heard – it’s art, or is itthe spirit of the art business?
‘Hello! Is anybody at home? I amthe life of refinement, I am elegance. You know
me well. I am dance andecstasy, but also sleeping in and staying in bed. I am
beauty and style. I amthe never-ending garden party. I am champagne out of a
lady's slipper. I amyour doggy dish. I am the freedom you play around with. I
am infinite pleasure. I am the timeat your disposal. I am the least resistance.’’
A lack of rapport between artistsand viewers hardly applies in Fischli and Weiss’s
case. But the leastresistance has to be overcome. All the more so here. There
are numerousindications in their work that they will do anything to overcome
this leastresistance. And how do you do that? Simple: you raise the level of
resistance.The resistance of art. But what is it exactly that art is resisting?
Or, to putanother way, whom or what is the art of these two Helvetians resisting?
‘I am the freedom you play aroundwith’, intones the beautiful, elegant, ecstatic
voice of art in the film. Art,a play space – that makes sense. But playing around
with freedom? Apart fromwhich, how do freedom and art connect in the first place,
if this is what theartists, and maybe the recipients, too, are playing around
Is art today not freer than it hasever been? – Free of patrons, free of the obligation
to fulfil the desire forself-aggrandisement of princes, cardinals and popes.
Free of the limitingdictates of taste, free of isms and schools. Free of the
restrictions ofcertain media or genres and free of the rules of a canonised aesthetic.
Art isfree of all those things. But is that enough? Being free of things
–commissions, isms, genres and aesthetic rules? What’s the point of all thatartistic
freedom? Is it only of benefit to the market that seems to dominateeverything
these days? Is art only free so that it can take the course of leastresistance,
always with one eye on acclaim from a society whose problemsincreasingly arise
from its affluence? What is art actually free for?This question is becoming
‘Art’s space is a rabbit hutch’,as Joseph Beuys once declared. And as Fischli
and Weiss would add: art’s spaceis also a bear’s den, and its the underground
sewage system, the rat’s terrain.And with time, they would also add that art’s
space is a world where animalsare made from roots, it’s about working in the
dark, and a garden full ofcabbages and asters. It’s a place filled with questions,
a palette packed withthings that are their own doppelgängers, and it’s a long
day’s journey into theeveryday. And, if we are to believe figure 18 in the book Order
andCleanliness by the authors Rat and Bear, then art’s space is also a big
tablewith four columns for legs, supported by ‘Religion and Bragging’, ‘Psychologyand
Taste’, ‘Entertainment and Nonsense’ and ‘Filosophy and Boredom’, a higherlevel
that critics, collectors, enthusiasts, gallerists, silly hangers-on andculture
vultures all try to attain with the help of ladders of various kinds.And ultimately,
art’s space is an open secret, that we generally fail tonotice.
And suddenly we’re back with Ratand Bear, with the bewildered rich and poor,
who haven’t a clue. And the twodetectives’ suspicion that art demands sacrifices
– and not just in Hollywood.
So what do you need to investigatethe terrain of art, like two detectives on
a cultural tour? What do you need toavoid take the course of least resistance?
Order and cleanliness? Questions andsecrets? There’s no end to the general bewilderment.
Although it has long beenproductive – as in the work of Fischli and Weiss, that
bewilders us viewers sowonderfully, opening our eyes so that we can learn to
If the art business is aboutmoney, and not work, then one way of raising the
level of resistance might beto concentrate on working. Perhaps that’s why in
1991 Fischli and Weiss devisedten rules for anyone who wants to work better:
1. Do one thing at a time
2. Know the problem
3. Learn to listen
4. Learn to ask questions
5. Distinguish sense from nonsense
6. Accept change as inevitable
7. Admit mistakes
8. Say it simple
9. Be calm
Okay, so let’s try it. Let’sfollow the rules and start by concentrating exclusively
on the life of things.The problem is that things evidently conceal their true
nature. Perhaps thingswould be free if they were left to themselves? So, let’s
listen and try to findout something about things’ lives from their many voices
in the work of Fischliand Weiss. The relevant questions not only arise of their
own accord, they areactually part of the work. First Rat and Bear posed some
awkward questions,then the artists wrote the questions in a big pot and later
they floatedthrough the dark space of not-knowing. Questions like
– Is my stupidity a warm coat?’
– Why does nothing never happen?
– Could something else have becomeof me?
– Are their no limits to theimpossible?
– Is the realm of the possiblegrowing ever smaller?
– Is freedom alive?’
All sorts of unanswerablequestions, Heinz von Foerster would have said. But exactly
those questions arethe most important ones. Because the very fact that answering
them does notnoticeably take us forwards, they have the advantage that they allow
us to comeup with answers that tell us something about ourselves and our attitudes
Whether we manage to follow therest of the rules for working better, including
distinguishing sense fromnonsense, remains to be seen. We all know that everything
is changing all thetime. And we can hardly avoid admitting our mistakes. Only
we can’t guaranteethat we will manage to simply say what has to be said.
Still, we are calm – and we aresmiling.
There is not even a hint ofsadness at the imperfection of the world in the work
of Fischli and Weiss. Onthe contrary, there is a huge sense of delight at all
the possibilities andimpossibilities that we come across on our forays, be it
through prehistoriclandscapes, through gardens, cities, airports or the suburbs.
A delight intrial and error, in humour and wit, pervades all the experiments
andinvestigations that result from the fact that in their work there are moreexceptions
than rules, rather like in pataphysics, the science of imaginarysolutions. And
whatever happens, whatever we witness, it’s always a double-actthat we are observing,
a duet that we are listening to. Because where Fischliis seen sporting in soberly,
sacred water, Weiss is happy. And when Davidbecomes aware of the power of familiarity,
Peter upsets the applecart. Justlike in Jarry’s world of Ubu Roi, where everything
depends on fwisics andfwinance and shrit, the same applies to Fischli and Weiss,
as SiegfriedKracauer – what a name in this context! – once said of pataphysics:
‘A dose of humouris not enough – pataphysics is [what German literally calls]
At which point we suddenly findanother facet of our topic looms into view. Because
right from the outsetFischli and Weiss were always interested in the meat of
the matter. Indeed, youcould say that in the beginning was the sausage and the
sausage was in art.It’s sausage – meaning, in German, it’s of no consequence
whatsoever – whatbecomes of us, say things. For they are in despair. So they
literally turn intosausage, slice by slice. The year is 1979 – and the collaboration
between PeterFischli and David Weiss begins with a sequence of photographs –
the SausagePhotographs – made for a college assessment.
In a flash patterned mortadella,stacks of sliced sausage, biscuits and gherkins
become a carpet shop. Twocervelat sausages cause a road traffic accident, while
cigarette ends standaround, gawping at the scene. But sausage alone is not enough.
In the fridgethere are yet more fantastic possibilities. Here Moonraker is waiting
for ‘Go’,the north pole is preserved in the freezer compartment, and duvet and
pillowsbecome a veritable mountain landscape, with a bowl of water/mountain lake
andhere and there a chalet built from bits of cheese, with a cable railway leadingfrom
the corner of the pillow down into the valley.
As if that weren’t enough in theway of possibilities! What better than such good-humoured
fantasy to givethings back their true nature and freedom. Where, if not in art,
do they havethe freedom to escape the everyday slavery of their functions and
to be morethan bowl, cheese, or sausage, freezer compartment or cigarette end.
Of course,no thing can manage all that all on its own. But as soon as they get
together,it turns out that all sorts of stories and combinations are merely lyingdormant
within them. And all sorts of little things become importanttrivialities. Until
things even learn to run, just as pictures once learnt torun. And now the things
and the pictures are running along together, and neverwant to leave the ‘course
of things’ again.
What the original impulse was,what set things in motion in the first place has
long been forgotten. Now it’sjust a matter of full steam ahead, faster than ever.
An ongoing relay race,from one thing to the next: a tyre rolls forwards, a chair
topples, a fuse islit, a spark jumps and a bucket bursts into flame. – Next the
ladder falls, thebottle fills up, the slope tips, the cylinder rolls, the fuse
is lit, therocket hisses – making a vehicle move, a board slant, substances mix
and bubble– the movement flows forwards and the impulse is constantly regenerated
bything after thing.
That must be what progress lookslike. Nothing and no-one seems to be interested
in the result. All that countsare action and reaction. But the burnt out and
consumed, the dead and thediscarded are left behind. Relentlessly things surge
and stumble onwards. It’sgreat fun, but also a chaotic progression at the cost
of exhaustion andcollapse, glimmering and spilling, to the sound of gurgles and
hisses,rumblings and whistlings.
What we see is a system thatachieves stability because all its various components
constantly work together.A celebration of entropy. But even if the system is
great fun to watch, it’sstill a compulsive system, a chain of systematic compulsion,
which is why theviewer soon finds him or herself watching in rapt attention,
just waiting forsomething to go wrong, for the sequence of events to be interrupted,
so that itgrinds to a halt – at last. Wasn’t it Walter Benjamin who said that
the sourceof the catastrophe is not that something changes but that it just keeps
going?In Fischli and Weiss’s piece things just keep going, in this concatenation
Just occasionally things slow up,mist shrouds the unstoppable process, a tin
tray fills with steaming foam. Fora moment the viewer’s gaze can pause, until
the endless chain of events, theimpulse that is passed without end from one thing
to the next, dissolves in acarpet of foam that instigates a form of deceleration,
when things are held incheck, until the action revs up again and – obeying the
laws physics andchemical reactions – it takes up where it left off. Until everything
reallydoes come to an end, in froth and foam, that substance which is almost
The philosopher Peter Sloterdijkhas called foam a ‘web of hollows’, an
‘exhilarating idea’ and a ‘quackery
of airand something-or-other’, allowing
us to ‘observe thesubversion of substance with our own eyes’. So
when all the greatexaggerations are over, when a perfect balance between surprise
has beenreached, all that is left is froth and foam.
But anyone who thought that wasthe end of it all will soon realise their mistake.
For the froth of progressbears fruit once again. From nothing more than arrested
air, work and colour,things are manually returned to the imperfect, to the time
before they weremachine-made. Be it a compass saw or a roof batten, a bulb box
or a cigarettepack, a table, chair, telephone or ashtray, tube of paint or knife
– in thispolyurethane-foam workman’s world everything is part of one big workshop,
theworld itself has turned into a workshop, into a studio of sorts.
Here things lead their secondlife. Boris Groys has described it as the ‘manual
simulation of the ready-madeprocess’. But
this carved art not onlyreverses the process of machine production, it also gives
things a second lifein space and time. If a table is filled with 750 foamed and
painted doubles ofthings, it is as though those things have suddenly become slow,
delayed. Andthe outcome is a store with building materials for a different world,
a worldof foam births where nothing has to function.
So foam becomes the medium for aspace that marks a gap in the unstoppable process
– in the same way thathandling fire is an activity in the course of things that
is located somewhereon the ‘dividing line between magic and work’, and
that the trulymagical course of things is dependent on the baffling excess of
effects asopposed to actions.
And is not yet another, adifferent space conquered when, in the film The Right
Way, a root appears in thesky like a flash of lightning? It is, we are told,
a root-flash, thatprocreates animals. Like the flashes of lightning in Walter
de Maria’s LightningFieldin the vast expanses of New Mexico, the root
also measures the distance betweenHeaven and Earth and connects the two in a
high-voltage arc, and what itproduces was originally created by a root-spirit,
a spirit-root. So, as StephanZweifel has shown, Rat and Bear have found a ‘space
between concepts, betweenopposites’ – which is why they delve ‘into the realms
of childhood, on thehighmoor of that pre-genital joy that prevails before the
all-divisive gulf ofgender difference’. In the same way that the ‘terror of the
avant-garde’ hasbeen ousted by the ‘subversive power of the neutral’ writes Stefan
Zweifel,‘Rat and Bear undertake their strange ‘task’ of throwing the dice to
win neweyes for us. As nomads of the neutral.’.
But where is this realm of foamand freedom? And how do we get there? Where can
we find the neutral groundwhere everything is still open, where nothing has yet
been decided and fixed?One thing is for sure: anyone who sets out on the journey
to that realm, needsa companion. Because on their own, anyone would be driven
mad by what they sawthere – caught between alternatives, in the midst of indifference
and thewealth of its sensations. As Stefan Zweifel says, ‘The idiot can only
survivewith a companion. Like Laurel and Hardy, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,
Bouvardand Pécuchet, Rat and Bear.’ Or, we might go on, like the immutably connectedmetaphysical
nomads in the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett – Gogo and Didi,Lucky and Pozzo,
Ham and Clov, Mercier and Camier. Their journeys are alsocircular, so that they
can arrive in the present, at the things that werealways already there.
‘Here we are’, said Mercier.‘Here?’ said Camier. ‘The end went like magic’, said
Mercier. ‘And yourprospect?’ said Camier. ‘Are you eyeless?’ said Mercier. Camier
scanned thevarious horizons. ‘Don't rush me,’ he said, ‘I'll try again.’ ‘You
see itbetter from the bank,’ said Mercier.’
So do we just have to keep goinglong enough between opposites in order to arrive
at a better overview? Suddenlyand unexpectedly. Suddenly this Overview,
as you know, is the name of oneof Fischli and Weiss’s best known works. Rat and
Bear anticipated its arrival.You remember. On their journey into art the two
strayed into philosophy, andembarked on an attempt to take in everything around
them, until Rat exclaims,‘Suddenly this overview’, adding, ‘Such lucidity, what
But how can the world suddenlyappear clear and lucid? Are Messrs. Fischli and
Weiss actually harbouringsomething like optimism? It would be a bit of a surprise,
even if it wereoptimism of a very particular kind and not immediately apparent
In the world as a model andexample, the act of making something oneself can nurture
optimism. Doing it allagain, making it all again, that’s the method. Because
making something oneselfis a form of aided creation – like Marcel Duchamp’s aided
Although, of course, in this casethat would mean that in fact there is no overview
unless we make it ourselves,and we can make it by acting as though it does exist.
Because the overview isnot part of our everyday world. Here, in daily life, with
all the things we areso used to, which we think we know our way around, we are
constantly stuckbetween things, wavering between all sorts of possibilities.
Even if we make aneffort and do our best to evaluate all the information to hand
and consider asmany different outcomes as possible, we still only ever decide
on the basis ofour own limited insight. We are never able to see the situation
as a whole. Wenever have an overview, we can never identify all the preconditions
or weigh upall the consequences. Everything we do involves risk. That’s what
it is to livein the Modernist era.
But what do Fischli and Weiss do?They just make a start. Anywhere. Like the Creator,
they form a world fromunfired clay, full of enthusiasm, filled with this and
that: with Pythagoras,who contentedly contemplates his theorem, with Dr. Hoffmann
on his first LSDtrip –riding on his bike, wearing a hat, looking like Alfred
Jarry out cycling– with Rumpelstilzchen’s rage and demise, with Galileo presenting
the globe ofthe Earth to two monks, with a vessel and a crying child, with favouriteopposites
like good and evil, funny and silly, with Phoenicians andPuss-in-Boots, with
Neuschwanstein and a scrapyard, with minimum and maximum –with the first fish
that decided to brave dry land, with an automatic rifle andwith Mick Jagger and
Brian Jones happily on their way home after they’vewritten I Can’t Get No
Satisfaction – and with so much more.
Until this encyclopaedicconglomeration contains everything imaginable, except
for one thing: anoverview. Because the more things and scenarios we discover,
the more we becomeentangled in the thicket of the world and all its things and
stories. But wehave at least learnt one thing: to be amazed at all the things
there are. Weenjoy the individual scenes, but we can only ever take in a part
of what wesee, only ever a detail of the whole. And then it suddenly occurs to
us: wecould just go on like that, continuing this overview, with different, newscenarios
and stories, until we had replicated the whole world and we would atlast have
achieved an overview. Well, almost achieved, for there would still bethat final
scene in which we are seen constructing our model overview. At whichpoint everything
would go back to square one and we would have to makeeverything again, until
we would have to fail again in our attempt to make amodel that contained the
whole universe, which is self-evidently impossible.
But all is by no means lost.Because we now view the world with different eyes.
With contented childlikeeyes. Because children don’t hanker for an overview.
They slip into costumesand become Rat and Bear, they build a world from sausages,
even if the adultssay you shouldn’t play with food. In their eyes the small is
suddenly big andthe big is small all of a sudden. Filled with wonder they create
their ownworld, and filled with wonder they grasp this world. And so we, too
– alwaystoo late with our models – learn, understand anew how rich and replete
withmeaning our world is. So rich that we cannot oversee it, as little as we
canhave an overview of it.
Is that the art space we have beenseeking?
A space where we can relearn howto let ourselves be filled with wonder?
In the midst of the world with allits distractions and attractions, and yet apart
from it, in a model, in anexperiment?
Perhaps it’s right here, in theuniqueness of the blithely catastrophic art of
Fischli and Weiss, in thoserealms governed by subtlety rather than efficiency.
Where nothing needs to bedemonstrated, where it is enough that something resonates,
and the plenitude oflife shines through – and things feel free.
Where the cloying omnipresence ofthe news has seen to it that countless people
see the once wide world as agrubby little globe, Fischli
and Weiss set our gazefree again by creating a small, manageable world, like
a fantastic garden withall its quiet, daily sensations. Here everything has its
own space, even if itis out of the way, like the space under the stairs in the
Frankfurt Museum fürModerne Kunst, that looks like an abandoned workshop with
a drain, a telephoneand an ashtray. Only in such a leftover scenario can things
simply be there astheir own doubles. Relieved of all functionality and responsibility
theyblossom in their mere presence and innate poetry.
Fischli and Weiss have swept awayeverything that might be deemed to hint at a
particular style. They haveaccumulated, surprised and let down, accelerated things
and slowed them up, inorder to reinforce the contradiction of the living in a
model-like return tothe embodiable.
Contemporary art is important notbecause it happens to be hip or does well at
trade fairs and auctions, butbecause it offers resistance against the least resistance.
Could one say anything worthier oftwo artists than the fact that they have extended
the space of art.
Which is to say: Suddenly thisinsight!
Thank you for your patience.
and Weiss, Dergeringste Widerstand,as cited in Patrick Frey, ‘Der geringste
Widerstand,’ in idem, Das Geheimnisder Arbeit, Texte zum Werk von Peter Fischli
und David Weiss, Munich, Düsseldorf 1990, pp.16–17 and DVD, T&C Edition,
Zurich, English translation by CatherineSchelbert & Louise Stein, assisted
by Jo Young.
 Transl. from Peter Fischli,
DavidWeiss, Findet mich das Glück?, Cologne, undated.
 Cited in Klaus Ferentschik, Pataphysik,Versuchung
des Geistes, Berlin 2006, p. 77.
 Peter Sloterdijk, Sphären
III, Frankfurt am Main 2004, p. 27.
 Ibid., p. 26.
 Ibid., p. 29.
 Ibid. p. 28.
 Transl. from Boris Groys,‘Geschwindigkeit
der Kunst’, in Bice Curiger, Patrick Frey, Baris Groys, PeterFischli. David Weiss,
XLVI Biennale di Venezia 1995, pp.26–27.
 Transl. fromSloterdijk, Sphären
III (as note 4), p. 398.
 Cf. ibid.
 Stefan Zweifel, ‘Isn’tit
funny how a bear likes honey’ [with reference to The Least Resistance (1981), The
RightWay(1983), Salt and Pepper (1980), Order and Cleanliness (1981)],
transl. byIshbel Flett, in Flowers & Questions, exh. cat., Tate Modern,
 Samuel Beckett, Mercierund
Camier,transl. by the author, London 1974, p. 120.
 Cf. Peter Sloterdijk, SphärenI–II,
Frankfurtam Main, 1999 and 2004.
 Cf. Peter Sloterdijk, ImWeltinnenraum
des Kapitals, Frankfurt am Main 2005, chapter 40: ‘Das Unkomprimierbare oder
DieWiederentdeckung des Ausgedehnten’, pp. 391 ff.