Swiss Artists Fischli and Weiss Juggle Sarcasm, Sincerity at the ICA

IN A RESTLESS WORLD Fischli/Weiss At the Insititute of Contemporary Art

If Peter Fischli and David Weiss hadn't become artists, they might have become comedians. Or critics. Or seventh-grade science teachers. Thankfully they opted for art, but their charming and often wildly funny Boston exhibition makes one wonder if it was an easy decision.

Take for example "The Way Things Go," a 30 minute film of chain reactions which could only have been imagined by a crazy inventor with too much time on his hands and too much space in his garage. In one fantastically long domino-like progression, a bottle of water tips to fill a cup on a see-saw, which raises a candle that ignites an explosion, sending spirals of fire to fuel the next event in an apparently endless chain.

The film's cropping is so tight that it excludes any human involvement, and ordinary household objects become screen stars before our mesmerized eyes. A potato warrior, two kitchen knives tied to its back, plunges down a ramp and a lazy tire hops aboard a tiny wheeled cart, only to glide a little further before hitting its target. The elaborate set-up is at once a marvel of makeshift precision and comic redundancy (just imagine a wheel riding a cart!), and these moments of transcendent anthropomorphism simultaneously account for the film's humor and its morbid undercurrent. Eventually the series will break down or burn out, and the redundancy of individual steps will seem an absurd observation in the context of an elaborate but useless machine.

This video, like so many of the pieces in their retrospective, proves that Fischli and Weiss are serious artists who don't take themselves too seriously--a refreshing attitude for anyone familiar with the 80s art scene. Organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, this immensely entertaining exhibition includes video, sculpture, and photography, beginning with the Swiss artists' earliest collaborative photographs, the 1979 "Sausage Series."

As in the video "The Way Things Go," in the "Sausage Series" the artists remove human presence and distort scale, producing a world of crude cinematic maquettes overrun by cigarette-butt villagers and sausage-mobiles. In "The Carpet Shop" a group of cornichons inspect piles of thinly-sliced processed meat doubling as Persian carpets with fat-swirl designs and olive-chunk embroidery. Hardly just playing with their food, in these photographs Fischli and Weiss provide a wry social critique, probing the banality and vulgarity of a middle-class Swiss breakfast--an insult to American anti-cholesterol culture. Yet, at the same time their loving construction and charming scenarios challenge a one-dimensional, cynical reading as well as our ideas about social and institutional critique.

So, although Fischli and Weiss are clearly interested in challenging notions of banality and social norms, they do so far less bombastically than their similarly engaged contemporaries, including Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons and Jenny Holzer. Unlike these artists who often use monumental signage or sculpture to launch their critiques, Fischli and Weiss' more timid and ambiguous probing never risks assuming the inflexible stance of the institutions it questions. How, for example, could a photograph of precariously balanced household implements titled "Reagan's Model for Armed Space Travel" ever be accused of the ideological hegemony it coyly attacks?

Fischli and Weiss also employ this unassuming and ambiguous approach when questioning the status of the art object, another favorite line of inquiry for '80s artists. Here, they follow in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, and ally themselves with contemporaries, including Sherrie Levine and Alan McCollum, who address problems of mechanical reproduction and authorship. The ICA show includes several black, rubber and Beracryl castings of mundane objects like a candle or a doggy dish. Although these hand-made "readymades" may be overly indebted to Jasper John's light bulb or flashlight castings of the early 1960s, other pieces in the exhibition toy more originally with the idea of banal objects posing as high art.

In one untitled work, the artists present a "trompe l'oeil" installation of workers' paraphernalia, recently abandoned for a coffee break. Rollers, paint buckets, empty cups and cigarettes inconspicuously occupy a seemingly unfinished corner of the exhibition. Yet on further examination we realize this is the exhibition and that the scattered objects are all carefully-crafted replicas of tools and trash. Any other artists couldn't get away with such preciousness, but we can't help but admire and buy into Fischli and Weiss' jokey yet obsessive conviction. Their installation of a museum installation turns a common '80s critique of display mechanics into a charming and irresistible pun.

The 250 small clay sculptures in "Suddenly This Overview," are equally beguiling. All modestly crafted by hand and about the same size, the nine pieces presented at the ICA include a loaf of bread, a disc jockey, an outdoor garden and tambiguous, the sculptures are at once crude in their formal execution and sophisticated in their narrative mode.

As with all of Fischli and Weiss' work, we find it impossible to untangle earnest expression and social critique. At first, we might be tempted to read the series as an indictment of contemporary society's leveling impulse to elevate the banal and lower the profound. Yet, the objects are far too funny, evocative, and lovingly-crafted to be taken simply as cynical criticism. Besides, by jumbling the mundane and the sublime, the artists make it impossible to tell which is which.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in their untitled video project from the 1995 Venice Biennale, an extraordinary and epic look at the ordinary and ephemeral. The piece includes nearly 10 monitors showing over 80 hours of footage from Swiss life. Workers fix sewage lines or stir huge vats of cheese; cats are carefully judged at a pet show; a dentist drills a cavity; and a pulsing crowd moves to awful music and out-of-synch lights at a disco.

As with so much of their art, we might be tempted to judge the work as a contemptuous critique of the banal. Yet the artists clearly delight in their subjects, and their fascination proves infectious. We cringe at the sight of the dentist's drill and laugh at one clumsy dancer in the disco, knowing all too well that our moves are never as great we think they are. The generosity and empathy of Fischli and Weiss' vision proves that they're never laughing at us, but always laughing with us. And unlike so many exhibitions of critical '80s art, there isn't a one-liner in the show.Photo courtesy of the ICAMORBID CURIOSITY: Cigarette butt citizens ogle a sausagemobile in Fishli and Weiss' photograph "The Accident."