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Thursday, 16 November 2006

An exhibition

Visiting 'Fischli and Weiss: Flowers & Questions' last weekend was a rare treat: an exhibition that was mainly just a lot of fun. That might sound strange - perhaps people who go to lots of exhibitions would argue they're all fun in some way. But to me it seems that too often art takes itself too seriously, so that it feels wrong to speak above a whisper in a gallery; silent awe seeming the most desirable response even when you're not quite sure what the artist is saying. And although there's definitely a place for silent awe, it's a refreshing change to be offered art that engages on a lighter, more playful level.
Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss have been partners in their own brand of brilliant artistic crime since the 70s, and at the exhibition on Level 4 of the Tate Modern last Saturday, there was a fair scattering of silent awe, but also a lot of giggling, guffawing and even the odd gasp of disbelief. Subtitled 'A Retrospective', the Tate's selection of Fischli and Weiss' work is cunning in its range, staving off any potential for boredom with a succession of rooms each offering a short, sharp burst of bizarre, unexpected and beautiful art in wildly divergent forms.
The most popular room was that showing 'The Way Things Go', a thirty minute film from 1986-7 in which an incredible sequence of small-scale, domestic catastrophes is set in motion: we watched, hynotised, as like an exaggerated game of dominos, a bucket of water fell on a plank, which seesawed a ball into an arc, that knocked a test tube into a jug of chemicals, setting off a chemical reaction that created steam, that melted a hanging bag that spilled a liquid onto a slope, that kickstarted a rubber tyre's tumbling fall... and so it went on... Normally I find it hard to watch video art for longer than a few minutes but despite having to perch uncomfortably on the end of an overcrowded bench to watch the film, twenty minutes flashed by in no time at all.
And although accessibility and lightness were the first things that struck me about the video, an undercurrent of seriousness seemed to sneak in the longer you watched it. Observing the way inanimate objects became helplessly subject to the laws of motion, gravity, time, it suddenly struck me that they were like little emblems of human helplessness; the wheel that was nudged down a slope only to knock a glass over became somehow imbued with tragedy, unconscious of its own role in a chain of events, unable to control its own inherent, inevitable responses, doomed to a predestined fate. The title 'The Way Things Go', seems to echo, in tone and metre, the certain truth of Yeats' line 'things fall apart', though is less explicit in its tragedy, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusion from the cycle of destruction presented on screen.
Despite stimulating this somewhat morose line of thought, the video was highly entertaining, even to the four year old child sitting in front of me who couldn't resist exclaiming 'OH NO!' at each choreographed catastrophe, which was probably what we were all thinking but were too restrained to say out loud. The rest of the exhibition was similarly populated with generous portions of wit and gentle provocation, and I was particularly enamoured of the airport photos, which introduced a surprisingly spiritual beauty into the mundane reality of aeroplanes, runways, luggage carriers and luminous yellow bibs. (see

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