Peter Fischli

When you look carefully at children playing, they are actually very serious about play. Peter Fischli

Entropy: 1. A measure of the disorder or randomness in a closed system. 2. A measure of the loss of information in a transmitted message. 3. The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity. 4. Inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society.

I propose a fifth definition: the preferred creative material of Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss (often known in their 33 years of collaborating together as Fischli and Weiss), who arguably reverse entropy’s deadening effect in their scrappy, improvisational, and yet wholly serious investigations.

Take, as one example, their 1987 DIY masterpiece The Way Things Go. Over the course of 30 sincerely nail-biting minutes, the artists document a seemingly nonstop series of chain reactions around their Zurich studio using rudimentary, on-hand items: a rubber tire shoots down a ramp, eventually knocking over a ladder that propels the tire into an oil drum that bumps a lit candle that slides on a track to its terminus where the flame lights a fuse, which sends sparks shooting, eventually catching a gasoline slick on fire, which lights another fuse, which causes a bent saw to lob a ball in the air that unleashes a flaming tethered ball down a pole, which … Like most of the duo’s work, The Way Things Go is visually mesmerizing, psychologically confounding, and constructed out of the frank misuse or ingenious reappropriation of commonplace objects. We could hold a month-long seminar on what The Way Things Go might symbolize or mean. (Even when Fischli and Weiss do pose direct questions, such as they do in their 2002-03 slide projection of hundreds of interrogations—”Should I paint a pirate ship on my car with an armed woman on it holding a decapitated head by the hair?”—there are seldom easy answers.) But we might imagine The Way Things Go as approximating the received chain-reaction narrative of art history itself. For it is here where the powers that be just outside the frame have labored meticulously to create the illusion of a cohesive linearity, where one invention or movement or trend knocks so seamlessly against the next that chaos is reengineered into the comforting illusion of a natural order. It also self-justifies: the inflating balloon is very important because it knocks the gas can off the table.

Fischli and Weiss exist in a separate universe. Their prodigious output, which has spanned the media spectrum from lunchmeat to double exposures, giant rocks to clay figurines, seems to come from an orbit far outside of the art-world machine. But like the “spooky action” in quantum theory that claims that objects separated by distance exert an influence on each other’s behavior, their work has had massive influence from the outside in. Beginning in February, the Guggenheim Museum in New York will host a career retrospective of the artists’s work together, presenting their idiosyncratic fusion of metaphysics and slapstick, wit and weirdness, of hijacking meaning by using the most basic materials as pointed weapons. The exhibition is aptly titled “How to Work Better.” Weiss died of cancer in 2012, and in the years since, Fischli, age 63, has continued to develop the unfinished projects they had in motion before Weiss’s death—including the Guggenheim show.

Fischli’s friend, artist Wade Guyton, was in Basel this past October and sat down with the artist at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois beside the Rhine River to discuss some of the targets and intentions behind the works. In fact, the two first met in Zurich in 2006, a few years after Guyton and his own occasional collaborator Kelley Walker (of GuytonWalker) began using a Fischli and Weiss image of two dining chairs balanced, one on the other, called Outlaws from their series Equilibres/Quiet Afternoon, for their own series of silkscreen paintings called Inlaws. Fischli, as a patriotic appropriator, didn’t mind appropriation by a fellow artist. So maybe there is something to chain reactions in art after all. –Christopher Bollen

PETER FISCHLI: Are we allowed to rewrite what we say?

WADE GUYTON: I’m not sure. But let’s try to make it sound natural.

FISCHLI: I wanted to add to some of the interviews for the Guggenheim book. And Nancy [Spector] told me, “Peter, you can’t rewrite things that were already published.”

GUYTON: In that case, I think it would be better if you did rewrite them.

FISCHLI: Yeah, it’s like Dieter Roth, who made notes and corrections in his books. So when you read them, there are always two layers. And sometimes a third. He’d say, “Oh, this is the wrong word. This is so stupid. Maybe I was too enthusiastic here.”

GUYTON: I don’t think we can do that here. [laughs] This conversation is more like fabricating a sculpture to look perfectly normal and unassuming, and then it disappears into the world.

FISCHLI: It’s a bit like the problem with ethnography—when researchers go somewhere, the moment they start observing something, it becomes something else. Some people get used to it and know how to deal with it. For me, it’s okay to fake that it seems natural.

GUYTON: Maybe it’s like an artwork.

FISCHLI: I don’t think so. With an artwork, you have a bit more time. You can take your time to make decisions. With an interview, it’s more about time pressure and the mood you’re in at the moment. And even with an artwork that’s done fast, it can stand around for a long time and you can make little corrections and even decide it is not an artwork. When you print a work out, how long do you keep it in the studio? 

GUYTON: It could be for months or sometimes years. I’ll find things that were rolled up from years ago because my assistants won’t let me throw anything away. Often these are things I thought weren’t very good. Sometimes it’s clear what a work is supposed to do; other times it takes time for the true job to reveal itself. I defer the decision a lot.

FISCHLI: It could be that saving it is finishing it—without doing anything.

GUYTON: Well, for me, once it’s stretched, it’s done. You can’t fix it. If it’s bad, it’s just bad. So then either it stays in the studio or I let it go into the world. It’s okay to have bad ones out there so you can know which ones are the good ones. What about for you?

FISCHLI: I like that things are around for a while in the studio. Then opinions or sympathy come in time. Because all of the original arguments about the work, you already went through them in the process of making it. Especially when working with two people. That way, the end is not the end, you know? I think ideas have a tendency to be a little bit fascistic at first, because they hate all things that don’t belong to the idea. But the process of making is ongoing, and then things sneak in. New arguments come up. It’s the ambiguity from two poles, like a rope where something is pulling both ends.

GUYTON: Was it like that between you and David?

FISCHLI: All the time. There were lots of moments of disagreement, because it would be totally senseless to have somebody next to you saying, “Oh, Peter, this is a great idea! Let’s do it!” Or me saying that to David. Because then you would just do it alone.

GUYTON: I just watched a part of The Right Way [a 1982-83 short film in which the artists’ characters Rat and Bear hike around a mountainous landscape] again.

FISCHLI: It is a little bit the answer to the first movie, which is The Point of Least Resistance [1981, Fischli and Weiss’s first film together, in which Rat and Bear become embroiled in the worlds of art and crime in Los Angeles]. That’s the good one. [both laugh] Because it is more embarrassing.

GUYTON: I don’t know, this one was pretty embarrassing too.

FISCHLI: Yeah, it’s embarrassing. It’s this trick when you find alter egos and just let them be embarrassing.

GUYTON: Are they alter egos, though? The rat and the bear?

FISCHLI: Again, it’s this ambiguity that gives the possibility that they’re alter egos. Alter egos could be something like a mirrored identity. But alter egos can also be something totally alien to your personality. The Point of Least Resistance was one of the first works we made together back in the early ’80s. We did the film in Los Angeles, and it gave us all these possibilities to hide and to expose at the same time.

GUYTON: Your very first project together was The Sausage Photographs [1979, a series of photographs showing dramatic scenes composed of sausages, cold cuts, and various household objects], correct?

FISCHLI: Yes. That was just a thing of “Let’s do this.” It was not like, “Okay, now we start working together for over 30 years.” That would have been horrifying. I had these postcards from the ’50s or ’60s that showed little scenes made with food. Someone had given them to me, and it was one of those gifts where someone thinks, “Oh, this is the perfect gift for you,” and you’re a little offended.

GUYTON:  Like, this is so Peter Fischli.

There is always this moment when you build something and it falls down. It’s a moment of fun and frustration at the same time. Peter Fischli

FISCHLI: Yeah. And I remember we looked at these photograph postcards, and in a way they were so petty bourgeois. They were pretty and clean and nice. We said, “Okay, let’s do this. Let’s play with food.” Since we are told as kids we shouldn’t play too much with food. We should make it a bit uglier, or just take more of the prettiness away. Which was easy for us to do. It’s like a lot of the projects we did—things are already out in the world and you just transform it. You adjust it. It also gives possibilities of a new decoding, to see the repetition and the difference of something people already know. I remember a conversation I had with a collector after your show in Zurich two years ago. I asked him, “How about that Wade Guyton? Do you understand his work?” He said, “This is easy to understand, because everybody has a printer at home that doesn’t work properly.” [laughs] So it becomes not only about the painting but how the painting is made. And it’s a tool that everyone has already experienced. So I could go to the carpenter who lives next door and explain a Wade Guyton painting to him by describing how it’s made. And he could enter the work from there. So you give this first door to enter, a tool everybody has experienced. It’s not like, say, a brushstroke; only an artist would know about the different qualities. But everyone understands a printer that runs out of ink.

GUYTON: What tends to be the entry point to your work?

FISCHLI: All people who look at art are different, of course. But I think with the more popular works, such as The Way Things Go, it’s readable on many levels. It’s filled with holes by which you can enter.

GUYTON: It’s like that story about The Way Things Go you told me the other night.

FISCHLI: Yes. Back in the days when people used fax machines, we got a fax from a fan club of The Way Things Go in the United States saying they were coming to visit the studio. They came and asked all of these questions about how we made it. They told us they were war veterans—they blew up bridges in Vietnam. We were scared. So when a work becomes popular, you also have to deal with all of the misunderstandings that come with it. There is a great quote from Oehlen/Kippenberger that says something like, “We are taking compliments also from the wrong side.” And that is exactly what sometimes happens with my and David’s work. Like the clay figures [Suddenly This Overview, 1981-2012].

GUYTON: People can read it as childlike.

FISCHLI: Yes, and that reaction isn’t new to contemporary art. It’s as old as the abstract paintings of the ’50s: “My child could do that.” And, of course, there always is this idea of play, which is important because when you look carefully at children playing, they are actually very serious about play.

GUYTON: Is there any play involved in the way you install your work?

FISCHLI: I could say, as you could, that I entered a space and played around a little bit until I found the right spot. But, again, you use that word play as something serious. Anyway, what were we talking about before? It’s a beautiful day here in Basel.

GUYTON: Yes, we’re right on the Rhine.

FISCHLI: Have you gone to see the Goetheanum?

GUYTON: No, I’d like to. I don’t know much about Rudolf Steiner though.

FISCHLI: I don’t think he is as popular in the States, or his Anthroposophical movement. It is what we would call a weltanschauung, which means “how to look at the world.”

GUYTON: A worldview.

FISCHLI: Yes, and there are all of these diagrams he made to explain it.

GUYTON: Is it religious? Or mystical? Or scientific?

FISCHLI: In a certain sense, scientific, but also philosophical or a post-religious way to look at the world. Very simply said, it’s mostly based on the idea of looking carefully at nature. It’s a logic that fits very well with the whole ecological movement. But we should go see it because it’s a great building. And scary. The first one was built of wood, which fit his ideas better, but it burned down. This one is made of concrete, but it encompasses his ideas. For example, he was completely against the 90-degree angle. You will see.

GUYTON: And there we will find the keys to Fischli and Weiss artworks? [laughs]

FISCHLI: No, no. That would be totally misleading.

GUYTON: Why don’t we say that the Goetheanum is the key to everything in your work? Since there are so many misreadings and misunderstandings already.

FISCHLI: Okay. Do you feel you have to deal with a lot of misunderstandings?

GUYTON: Maybe. I feel the artwork sometimes receives compliments from the wrong admirers. But I think art collects interpretations and meanings, and most of them can’t be helped.

FISCHLI: Yeah, they don’t stay like they are. In the studio they are virgin, and then they go out in the world.

GUYTON: They’re like kids who become corrupt once they leave home. But you can’t really complain about that.

FISCHLI: No, because you also want to expose them to the world. And be exposed to the world. And be in uncomfortable situations. And there is something positive in thinking that what you have done will be around in 30 or 40 years or longer in the best case. But, yes, every new context creates a new reading.

GUYTON: I think the trick is to never feel perfectly at home. This comfort with context can be dangerous. What has been the worst context for your work, or the worst interpretation?

FISCHLI: Often, it happens that people put too much into the reading of it being playful and funny.

GUYTON: It’s because you’re so playful and funny.

FISCHLI: I don’t think so. [laughs] But it gets back to the point of entry. You want to make it readable, to offer a first step in which to enter. But often I realize people don’t go beyond that first step. They just stay there. When we did the flowers series [Flowers, Mushrooms, 1997-98], people were like, “Wow, finally somebody’s making photographs of nice flowers!” And, yes, they were nice flowers. But I hoped for many other levels to them. It’s become a bit forgotten that they are also vulgar. And we were using the cheapest trick ever, the double exposure of flowers. When we showed them for the first time in Cologne, the artist Thomas Ruff came to the opening and I remember he told me he wasn’t accepted to art school because he was doing double exposures of flowers. That was a no go. He said he had to go home and give it up and come back with something austere and dry. And then he was accepted to art school. [Guyton laughs] The whole idea of the flowers came out of being invited to the Skulptur Projekte Münster in 1997. We decided to make a garden. Years before we had started a series photographing airports, and at the same time we also made a lot of photographs of gardens. But those photographs didn’t really work—something about the color green on photo paper was not nice. The airports looked so much better. So we made a garden in Münster where we planted the flowers the way we wanted them to appear—like a family garden.

GUYTON: Like the community gardens you see all around the cities of Switzerland?

FISCHLI: Yes, a mixture of beautiful and useful, because they have flowers and salad. We like to think of the salad as a ready-made. Except this salad is growing; it’s still in process. So people came to the garden, and everyone liked it. Only they were asking where the artwork was. It was a very productive misunderstanding. People would say, “We went to your garden, but we couldn’t find your piece.” They didn’t realize the garden was the piece, which was exactly what we wanted. And then Walther König said, “Let’s do a book about this garden.” So we made photographs of the garden in Münster. But it also offered the possibility to bring in the photographs of the gardens that we had made around Zurich. So we mixed the photographs of our garden and other people’s gardens, because the gardens look the same. But the photographs didn’t look attractive enough, so we made the double exposure for the cover of the book.

GUYTON: To make it more interesting, more seductive.

FISCHLI: Yeah. The cover is good; the rest is a disappointment. But it’s a great activity, visiting gardens and making photographs. Everybody welcomes you and they’re so flattered you are taking photographs of their flowers. And when you say, “I’m an artist,” you can say it without shame. Finally. [both laugh]

GUYTON: Right. Because you’re finally doing something that people would like to see.

FISCHLI: Yes. They say, “Finally, an artist who is doing something nice!” So we went to all these Schrebergärtens and made the double exposures. We had to control the exposure, so two underexposed photographs together make the correct exposure. 

GUYTON: How did you perfect that technique?

FISCHLI: I had this book from the ’60s on my shelf, something on the topic of “creative photography.” It tells you all these great ideas.

GUYTON: I think I have the same book.

FISCHLI: But you have to pay attention that the two exposed photographs are exactly on top of each other. 

Does it stand or does it fall? If it stands, then it succeeds. This is the form-follows-function idea completely. Totally modernist. Except for the fact that we are completely misusing objects. Peter Fischli

GUYTON: Oh, so you didn’t just do an exposure and then advance the roll and go back after you rewound it?

FISCHLI: We made both. You need to have some randomness. Like, you take a photograph in daylight and then you shoot it again at sunset. This is really advanced. Advanced vulgar.

GUYTON: Advanced creative photography.

FISCHLI: In the beginning they were just coincidences. The same with the airports. We never went together to make the photographs; David and I would shoot separately. It also allowed us not to be stuck in the studio together five days each week. It allowed us to have time alone. It was like we went hunting separately—

GUYTON: And each brought back trophies. And then it’s edited and choreographed?

FISCHLI: Yes, and much of it was shot on trips. But 90 percent of the trips were places where we had shows. So we didn’t choose where we’d go. Brazil, for example, for a Biennial.

GUYTON: It’s always been work, work, work for you. Even the traveling, the holidays.

FISCHLI: Yes. And stretching the idea of what work is. The whole thing started after The Way Things Go. That took nearly two years in the studio. We also worked on other things at the same time, like the first rubber sculptures [1986-88, a series of everyday objects cast in black rubber]. But we were spending a lot of time in the studio, and we needed a bit of fresh air. It was like two years of sniffing glue. Also, we became tired of looking at the things we were making.

GUYTON: It gets exhausting looking at your own work all the time.

FISCHLI: I remember the first thing we did was go to the lake in Zurich and took photographs of people on their lunch break. They were sitting there in the sun. So it was neither free time nor work, but a lunch break, which is also a nice ambiguity. 

GUYTON: A break in the day.

FISCHLI: Yeah, but it didn’t work very well. So we started with the airports, the gardens, and the houses around Zurich. That was the beginning of Visible World [1986-2001/2014]. We had a show with Ileana Sonnabend in 1989, that had the airport and posters from the Matterhorn, the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge, Venice. They weren’t actual posters; they were photographs the same size as the airports. We realized when we made these photos that we took a lot of additional pictures on the way to these places, which became another element. It’s like the fascism of an idea that I was talking about. First it’s just supposed to be a photo of the pyramids, but there is all this other stuff that wants in. So we edited them entirely by formal arguments. They are like chapters. We went to Rio because we saw this image of Rio with a sunset. And we said, “Okay, we are going there to make that photograph of a sunset.” When we arrived, the guy at the hotel said, “The sun goes down in the opposite direction. This is the sunrise.” It’s funny how you always think it’s a sunset. So there is a lot of manipulating to that series, like making a sunset out of a sunrise just by putting them in the wrong order. Which photography is always doing.

GUYTON: Jumping back to The Way Things Go, how did that project start?

FISCHLI: It stared with Equilibres/Quiet Afternoon [1984-87, a series of photographs showing precariously balanced sculptures composed of everyday objects]. There is always this moment when you build something and it falls down. It’s a moment of fun and frustration at the same time. Like when a kid builds with blocks and then destroys the building—both parts are just as exciting. It’s that conflict of construction and deconstruction. At a certain point, we realized that these destructions were provocative, so we decided to make a chain reaction. Because when things fall from the table, they hit something else. And out of this, we make the first little movie. It was three minutes. We really did it to entertain ourselves, but we realized that the idea was too good. Or maybe not that it was too good, but that we wanted to keep going and make the chain reaction longer. Because when you find something you like to do, you should stay with it for a while.

GUYTON: So the film went from three minutes to 30 minutes. It makes sense why it would take two years to orchestrate so many reactions.

FISCHLI: If you were really efficient, you could probably do it in two months. We were not that efficient.

GUYTON: Was it all set up in your studio one after another?

FISCHLI: Yes and no. Like how most of our work is an accumulation of single things. Like with the clay figurines. Not to get on each other’s nerves, I would make my clay figurines and David would make his, and we would bring them together and select together. So that was our process. And with The Way Things Go, we would separately work on single steps. And then: “Oh, look what I found out. This glass could fall down there.” Like words strung together to make a story.

GUYTON: How many fires did you start in the studio over and over?

FISCHLI: It was a case where you try something and it works, and you try it a second time and it doesn’t work. You realize the first time you were just lucky. And then you have to figure out why you got lucky. You have to look very carefully at the object. Like the used tires—there was a big pile of tires next to the studio and we just took them, rolled them down a ramp. First it hits the thing you want, the second time it goes somewhere else. So you look very closely at the tire until you see that it isn’t even.

GUYTON: You become a bit like a forensic expert.

FISCHLI: Right. So you mark exactly where it started rolling. And maybe the fourth time it hits a piece of wood, so you have to fix that. It was so unprofessionally done. That’s why it took so long.

GUYTON: It was just you two? No one else was working on it with you?

FISCHLI: Our studio was in a big factory. And people working there would wander over all the time to see what we were doing. Everybody wanted to help-especially the electricians. And sometimes their boss came over and said, “Okay, go back to work.” They were technically much more advanced than we were, and they had the right tools. In the movie that is the making of The Way Things Go, you can see David and I working with tools like two apes. And then one of the electricians comes and dok, dok, dok, uses the tool correctly, and it holds. So they helped us make it a little more professional. They also had ideas.

GUYTON: You were happy to take their suggestions?

FISCHLI: Yes, but then it all went a bit too far. Because they said, “Oh, we know a guy and he’s studying physics. He should come by and help you. He knows all these fantastic tricks.” But things got too complicated, and you couldn’t understand anymore what’s going on. Like he had this liquid that catches fire when it falls. Which was fascinating, but all of our materials were from around the house and readable. Which brings us back to being able to decode an artwork.

People would say, ‘We went to your garden, but we couldn’t find your piece.’ They didn’t realize the garden was the piece, which was exactly what we wanted. Peter Fischli

GUYTON: No magic liquid.

FISCHLI: No. A glass teetering and falling is readable. Anyway, have we already spoken too much?

GUYTON: We could go for a drive and talk in the car.

FISCHLI: Oh, yeah. I could show you the new building by Herzog & de Meuron. It has one of our sculptures, Rock on Top of Another Rock.

GUYTON: I noticed in one scene up in the mountains in The Right Way, there were two rocks piled, one on top of the other. I wondered if that was connected to the sculptures.

FISCHLI: Well, we did not invent rock pilings. [laughs] Just like we didn’t invent chain reactions. I remember I had so many arguments with David about The Way Things Go, because there were so many copies of it—like that Honda commercial. And we had these arguments: Should we sue them? And I was always saying, “How can we sue somebody for something that we already stole from somebody else?” [laughs] But we made it our own way. It’s the same for Rock on Top of Another Rock. I mean, it’s rock formations. They are already all over the world.

GUYTON: And no one’s tried to sue you yet, right?  [laughs]

FISCHLI: Well, nature could sue us.

GUYTON: Are you going to have one in New York for the Guggenheim?

FISCHLI: No. I think I’m done with it. Unless a really great situation comes again. The first Rock on Top of Another Rock we made in 2012 after we got an invitation from the National Tourist Routes in Norway. I remember the letter itself looked so great. “The Road and Tourist Department of Norway invites you to create an artwork.” Norway has a lot of landscape but not that many cultural attractions. They decided to make a book of the nicest roads to drive on, like highway number one. But tourists wouldn’t come just for the road, so they decided to make really high-end facilities, like parking lots, toilets …

GUYTON: The most beautiful road with really nice toilets.

FISCHLI: Yeah. And I guess they got really desperate and decided to turn to art. It sounded attractive to us because we connected it to the idea of the roadside attraction. We were thinking about that: What makes you stop your car? And so we went to Norway and the landscape was so beautiful that we felt guilty to put something there. We wanted to tell them that they didn’t need art. But then we realized even if we do something, there is still plenty of empty landscape. So we decided to make something using materials that were already there. It’s like making something out of what is right here in front of us on the table. Like if I put a gun to your head right now and said, “Make an artwork.”

GUYTON: Okay. What do we have here on the table? A recorder, three sugar cubes, and a wine glass. That actually sounds like one of your Equilibres.

FISCHLI: Exactly, in Norway what we had were only rocks. And we built it next to the parking lot so people could stop. We liked the idea of people being unsure if this was something that was done by nature or not. I think a lot of cars do stop.

GUYTON: But both rocks were already near the site?

FISCHLI: Yes. We just needed two rocks and had to pick one up and put it on top of the other. But we went there so many times, taking hikes, looking for the right spot and the right rocks out of thousands of rocks. Then, finally, these are the two rocks; the chosen ones. And then we didn’t want to put it on the top of the hill because that would occupy the landscape. We wanted it a bit down a big hill, so you drive over and see it. Then Julia [Peyton-Jones] and Hans Ulrich [Obrist] from the Serpentine Gallery asked us if we wanted to do one in a park in London. So one is located in a wilderness landscape, and one is located in a man-made landscape. And now this new one in Basel is located in a corporate plaza structure. The sculpture never sees the sky. It’s like the absence of nature is 100 percent.

GUYTON: Should we talk at all about Zurich in the ’80s? About you being a punk and David being a hippie? Or about Monika Sprüth being your first gallery in Cologne?

FISCHLI: Actually, that was not the first show we did in Cologne. The first was organized by Martin Kippenberger.

GUYTON: And you made The Point of Least Resistance around that time. There’s a scene in that film I wanted to ask you about, where the rat and the bear go into a gallery. They go in to look at art and they find a dead body.

FISCHLI: Yes. They’re two good for nothings, but they’re impressed by people who know what to do in life. So Rat reads about the art world in the newspaper, and they go to a gallery to investigate. And while they’re in the gallery, they find the dead body.

GUYTON: But then they rob the body.

FISCHLI: They switch gears and think, “Let’s do something with the body. Let’s take the opportunity to do something.”

GUYTON: And this is what artists do. They take opportunities when they come, and it affects the work.

FISCHLI: Well, Rat and Bear are in crisis. They are forced to think about life. They make a book, the Order and Cleanliness book [1981], with all these diagrams that try to explain the world. And they plan to bring the book out in the world and spread the word. But they fail. When we showed the film for the first time in Zurich, we made these little books and sold them for five Swiss francs. It was the rat and the bear who made the book; that was important.

GUYTON: So what was Zurich like at that time? You were doing film, making figurines in clay. The artists around you were probably moving in a different direction.

FISCHLI: Suddenly, figurative painting and narrative was around, coming after post-minimal art. This was also happening in America and Germany. There were wild young painters around, and their narratives were very authentic.

GUYTON: But you separated yourself from this group?

FISCHLI: Yes. We were not part of it. Most of our stories were not our stories. It’s what we saw in films or learned in school. What we did was a bit like Wikipedia in clay. But without any research. If we told a story, it was more like how we remembered if from a story someone told us. Maybe a story from your own childhood would be included, but it would be mixed in with all the others—stories from the Bible, stories from history, stories from entertainment and sport.

GUYTON: It was a much cooler attitude than the authentic.

FISCHLI: Maybe there was humor too, but humor used to create distance. And humor as taboo, because you were not supposed to entertain people. It was such a negative thing to do in art, especially then.

GUYTON: Because entertainment is lowbrow. Although now so much contemporary art feels like entertainment.

FISCHLI: And even clay was a sort of negative medium. The whole punk aesthetic of the late ’70s was about like using plastic, neon, or Plexiglas, not a natural material like clay. But we saw the ambiguity in it and the beauty of the material. And that you can be fast with it, but it’s also fragile. We learn that as children when you go into a toy store and they always go, “Don’t touch.” And then you learn that again in a museum. They are very breakable products.

GUYTON: How you do you go from clay to the Equilibres images?

FISCHLI: Although they were photographic images, and not sculptures to be shown in a gallery, you could still call them boredom sculptures. Something you can do in a restaurant or in a bar on the table—like trivial creativity, things people do while they are sitting around. It comes from that, and the fact that we were both fans of Anthony Caro’s sculptures and both of us came from a Bauhaus background. My father was an architect, and David was in art school in Zurich, which was still very much in the spirit of Bauhaus. So Equilibres is like this leftover of the modernist credo of “form follows function.” Because the composition works when the sculpture stands. Does it stand or does it fall? If it stands, then it succeeds. This is the form follows function idea completely. Totally modernist. Except for the fact that we are completely misusing objects. The hammer is no longer for hammering. The chair no longer works as a chair. It’s for making a sculpture. And in a sense we are liberating these objects. The chair is no longer a slave to this determination.

GUYTON: No longer a slave to being sat upon. You’ve liberated it.

FISCHLI: It’s like it goes into a parallel universe. That’s it. Liberation by misusing.