Peter Fischli on Nature, Tourism, and Working Without David Weiss
LONDON — Last week saw the unveiling of Fischli/Weiss’s monumental sculpture, “Rock on Top of Another Rock,” outside the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens. It marked the completion of a process started four years ago, when the Swiss duo was first invited to produce a piece for the Norwegian countryside.
As the name indicates, both the Scandinavian sculpture and the one inaugurated today — commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery in partnership with Qatar Museums Authority — are made of two boulders, one sitting seemingly precariously atop the other. Despite their size, there is a sense of ephemerality to the assemblages, as if one stone had just landed on the second one. The new sculpture will remain on Kensington Gardens’ dewy lawns for 12 months, before being permanently relocated to Qatar’s capital city of Doha.
To produce the London version, Fischli/Weiss had to roam the English countryside. “The most difficult thing was to find two rocks,” explained Fischli during the press preview this morning. “When you think of a piece like this, you have something in your mind about how the rocks should look, but the rocks in the world, they don’t care about your thoughts. They are like they are.” The pair eventually settled for two Welsh rocks, but David Weiss didn’t live long enough to see the project come to an end. He died of cancer last year, aged 66.
Partners in crime for more 30 years, Peter Fischli and David Weiss developed a unique cast of conceptual art, characterized by a searing sense of humor, poetry, and a fascination for the mundane. The duo first worked together on a series of little photographed scenes starring cuts of cold meat and gherkin stubs (“Sausage Series,” 1979). For “Equilibres” (1984-7), they staged still-lifes of hazardously balanced objects: a bit of courgette on a carrot stuck into a grater (“Quiet Afternoon”) or five stilettos nestled into one another to make a circle (“The Three Sisters”).
These led almost naturally to the duo’s best-known piece, “The Way Things Go” (1987), a dazzling 30-minute film in which objects and pieces of equipment are set in what seems to be an unstoppable chain reaction. The combination of utter simplicity and technical complexity also underpins “Rock on Top of Another Rock,” which was described this morning by Fischli as “a minimum gesture for a maximum effect.”
He talked to ARTINFO UK about the origins of the project.
Does the idea for “Rock on Top of Another Rock” go back to your 1984 “Equilibres” series, or is it something that developed much more recently?
I think the way ideas come is never a one-line thing. An idea is at the cross of many, many different things. It’s obvious that [“Equilibres”] is one of the roots, but we were despairing when we were asked to do this piece in Norway. We had seen the photographs of that beautiful landscape … our relationship to nature is still a romantic one, we like nature to be wild, empty, because we are in civilization, so we want to have this opposite of our normal day. We went to Norway, and were sure we wanted to tell them: “It’s a bad idea to make art on a place like this. Just leave it, it’s so nice, art is not needed.” When we arrived there, we realized that Norway is not Switzerland, even if we were to do something, there is still so much empty space — and [the piece] is so small, it’s so nothing against the huge space. Still we thought that it would be stupid to bring something. Why not do something with materials which were already there? And the only things that were there were rocks. With the “Equilibres” series, it’s just things that were lying around in the studio, or at home. You are not going far to look for something. I just take this, this, and this and pile them up.
Kensington Gardens is full of sculptures. Were you trying to deconstruct this idea of the monument?
Yes. One of my worries was whether [the piece] was too big, or too small. And on Saturday I realized that it has the size of all other sculptures in the park. So that relationship, just in volume and size, is the same. In Norway, when you go and you see the piece in the countryside, maybe you think that’s something nature has done. It’s not really clear who is the author. But here, to transform this into a “sculptural claim,” it needed the platform. So it’s a sculpture, but in the end, the artistic freedom to make it how it looks is very, very small. The rocks, you just take the ones you have, and the composition is how it has to stand. We normally think that the artist is doing whatever he wants. But we had to accept the rocks as found: how they are shaped and the rules of statics are what makes the artwork.
Here in England, we can’t help but think of Stonehenge.
Making a mark is the first thing humans do to say: “I was here.” When you walk in the countryside and there is no path, you have to mark your path. You put two rocks there, so you find your way back, or the next person finds their way to the next valley or whatever. On the other hand, there’s the trivial aspect of a tourist attraction.
Which Stonehenge also represents.
Tourism is this moment when deep cultural values and trash culture come together, when high and low collide. So the piece has this archaic thing of Stonehenge, but on the other hand, it’s also just like a kind of spectacle. You can go in front of it, take a photo, and be like: wow!
How do you think “Rock on Top of Another Rock” will function once in Doha?
My father is Swiss, my mother is Italian, and we Swiss people think that the mountain is our thing, and rocks come from our country. When I was a kid, we went to the sea in Italy, and there was only sand. And my mother told me: look, this is where the rocks end. I like this idea: sand is the deconstructed stone.
You’ve conceived this project with David Weiss, this is a Fischli/Weiss project. From now on, will you continue working as Fischli/Weiss?
This is a question that I still have to answer. For me it was very clear that I wanted to finish all these projects. We didn’t have something like a company. Art is not … it’s not something that you can decide with a strategy. I will go step-by-step.