David Weiss: 1946–2012

David Weiss: 1946–2012


May 9, 2012

In Memory of David Weiss 

Hans Ulrich Obrist

With the passing of the Swiss artist David Weiss, who died on April 27 at the age of sixty-six following a battle with cancer, the world has lost one of the greatest artists of our time.

Weiss’s death marks the closing of one of contemporary art’s enduring partnerships—a prolific collaboration with the Swiss artist Peter Fischli that began in 1979 and would continue for thirty-three years. Fischli/Weiss created some of the richest, most memorable, and most profoundly human work of the past three decades. The American critical theorist Fredric Jameson famously observed that our postmodern era is marked by a “waning of affect”—a loss of sincerity and authenticity, and their replacement by irony. Yet Fischli/Weiss demonstrated that irony and sincerity could not exist without one another—that, indeed, there is no sincerity like irony.

I first learned of the work of Fischli/Weiss on the occasion of their large exhibition Ein Ruheloses Universum at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1985. I met them the following year, while still a student in 1986, on the eve of the production of their celebrated thirty-minute film The Way Things Go in 1987. It was the first of many visits I made to their studio in Zurich, and they would become the most formative, life-changing experiences in my own development as a curator. I am not alone in this, for innumerable artists across the world cite Fischli/Weiss as their heroes—Rirkrit Tiravanija, for instance, has described his indebtedness to the unique understanding and sense of time found their work.

Fischli/Weiss are perhaps best known for The Way Things Go, in which a series of everyday objects and machine parts roll, topple, burn, spill, or otherwise propel themselves forward to create an extended chain reaction of miraculous cause and effect. Allegorizing contingency and entropy while simultaneously conveying Fischli/Weiss’s mischievous humor and amazing experimentalism, these chemical and physical sequences create the illusion that the objects have mysteriously become independent from human control. In The Way Things Go, we can see the pleasure the artists take in the process of art’s production, in the taking-apart and putting-together of things. We find them relishing the precision of poise as much as the release of collapse—the breakdown of precarious balancing acts also captured in the artists’ series of photographs from 1985 entitled Equilibrium. Restless, endlessly surprising, and never seeking the limelight (they rarely grant interviews), Fischli/Weiss are the serial inventors of the art world.

While The Way Things Go enjoyed widespread recognition beyond the art scene, their less well-known long-term archival project Visible World, created between 1987 and 2001, is regarded by many as being among the most significant artworks of the late twentieth century. Visible World comprises 3,000 small-format photographs arranged and uniformly displayed on a specially constructed 90 foot-long table. Drawing from the four corners of the world, the images portray the manifold natural and built environments within which contemporary life is played out, ranging from jungles, gardens, deserts, mountains and beaches to cities, offices, apartments, airports, famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Golden Gate Bridge, and everything in between. In the correspondences and contrasts between the sacred and the profane, the mundane and the iconic, the artists draw together a sense of the totality of our modern visual world by observing the sublime and ridiculous details of everyday life and consumer culture. It is a perfect example of how, throughout their long collaboration together, Fischli/Weiss have deployed, more than any other artist, the dual activities of collecting and organizing disparate materials to recognize the overlooked fragments of everyday life as the stuff of art.


Born in 1946 in Zurich, David Weiss grew up as the son of a parish priest and a schoolteacher. Alongside drawing, and an early love of collecting, his childhood passions included geography and history. With the help of his mother’s school atlas, he spent much of his youth dreaming of exploring remote corners of the world. After discovering a passion for jazz at the age of sixteen, he enrolled in a foundation course at the arts and crafts school in Zurich, where in his first year of study he befriended fellow artist Urs Lüthi. Having rejected careers in decorating, graphic design, or photography, he soon came to view a career as an artist as a tangible prospect.

In 1964, Weiss moved to Basel, where he spent a year and a half at art school before starting to work as an assistant to the sculptor Alfred Gruder. On a six-month stay in London in 1966, he relished the euphoria of the Swinging Sixties scene, listening to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone. After returning to Switzerland to undertake military service, he embarked upon what he would later describe to me as his extensive Grand Tour, a formative period that began in Canada, working for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, followed by traveling to New York, where he first encountered the minimalist art of the time. Weiss’s Grand Tour ignited his lifelong love of travel, which would surface repeatedly as a theme in Fischli/Weiss’s work over the years. The duo would often home in on the banalities and tribulations of travel, as in Airports (1990), an outstanding collection of postcard photos of airports published as an oversized coffee table book, which the film director John Waters brilliantly described as “a shockingly tedious, fair-to-middling, nothing-to-write-home-about, new kind of masterpiece.”

Weiss’s Tour of the late 1960s continued to San Francisco and Berkeley, where he immersed himself in the psychedelia of the hippie scene, encountering astrology, numerology, and other occultisms. He then journeyed aboard a cargo ship from Veracruz to Cuba before eventually heading back across the Atlantic to Tangier, Algiers, Tunis, Italy, Berlin, and finally home to Switzerland once again. Here, in Ticino, in southern Switzerland, he placed himself in the house of Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim while she herself traveled. For most of the period 1975 to 1978, he spent a great deal of time drawing in black ink, amassing an immense body of graphic work that included three artist books. Among these was an outstanding book of drawings of rain, which revealed an enormous power of observation and feeling.

Ever restless, Weiss opened the macrobiotic shop Mr Natural in Zurich around this time, and became a member of the legendary Commune H, mixing with the hippies, anarchists, and artists of Zurich’s bohemian underground of the late 1970s. It was in this milieu, in 1978, amid the city’s vibrant art scene centering around the Kontiki Bar, that Weiss met Peter Fischli.

Their relationship as close friends and colleagues stemmed from the deepest mutual respect, and manifested itself in their work as a unique form of synergy. Both Fischli and Weiss had thrived on the collaborative DIY ethos of the late 1970s Zurich punk scene, and their collaboration evolved like a flânerie more than a masterplan. It simply worked, with one project flowing intuitively into the next. Weiss had been keen to move away from the black drawings that had become his signature works, and so, while planning a trip to Los Angeles in 1979, he and Fischli began work on the Wurstserie, or Sausage Series, a group of ten color photographs of quotidian situations ranging from a fashion show to a traffic accident, all depicted using sausages and cucumbers, as well as cigarette butts, cardboard, and other detritus. Both poignant and absurd, the Sausage Series was shown for the first time in 1980, as part of the legendary exhibition Saus und Braus (Revel and Riot), mounted at the Städtische Galerie zum Strauhof by curator Bice Curiger. This was the first truly public manifestation of Zurich’s underground art scene, and a major showcase of the work of a new generation of young Swiss artists in the 1980s.

That same year Weiss moved to Los Angeles, where he fell ill after a visit to Mexico and was forced to stay in bed for some time, reading and watching reruns on television. This experience taught him a nuanced and idiomatic form of English, as well as an appreciation of American popular culture. Afterwards, he could speak as easily about the I Love Lucy show he could about the Swiss writer Robert Walser, whom he had admired since his youth. He was an inveterate and passionate reader of literature, though he never flaunted his erudition.

As soon as Peter Fischli came to visit Weiss in LA, they began work on 1981′s Der geringste Widerstand (The Least Resistance), without money or actors but with the help of a Swiss friend who operated the camera. The Least Resistance sees Fischli/Weiss disguised as their alter egos “Rat” and “Bear,” a new version of Bouvard and Pécuchet embarking on an episodic tour of Hollywood in what is both a satire on the art world and a spirited Dadaist road movie. An accompanying book, Ordnung und Reinlichkeit (Order and Cleanliness), accompanied the film.

Also in 1981, Fischli/Weiss produced 200 hand-modeled, unfired clay sculptures, Plötzlich diese Übersicht (Suddenly this Overview) a series of vignettes depicting both the auspicious and deeply inauspicious moments of human history, all in the same irreverent style. In its impulse to explore and map human scenarios, in its combination of great scope and miniature scale, and in its playful sense of comedy, this group of works extends the inquiry that began with Sausage Series while also anticipating later projects such as Visible World. The clay sculptures were followed by a large number of carved and painted polyurethane works, including the Fever and Metaphysical sculptures, as well as a large sculptural ensemble entitled Raft from 1982.

Fischli/Weiss’s rough-hewn works of this period would lead to their more illusionistic sculptures in the 1990s—precisely rendered polyurethane copies of ordinary objects. Philosopher and art historian Boris Groys has called these works “simulated readymades,” arguing that they are simulations of readymades rather than simulations of objects, for they are twice removed from their source material. He also referred to them as “replicants,” after the simulated human beings of Ridley Scott’s film, Blade Runner.

Their next major film The Right Way (1983) found Rat and Bear on a journey through the alpine landscapes of Switzerland. By this time, Fischli/Weiss were beginning to earn considerable respect in the international art world, though their major breakthrough was yet to come, when The Way Things Go was exhibited at Documenta VIII in Kassel in 1987. 1987 was also the year of their first major public commission, the Münster Building, a reduced-scale modernist office block produced for the Skulptur Projekte Münster. This “scaled-down example of middle-class self-representation,” as their proposal described it, was followed by other public engagements, including their unrealized Ice Landscape of 1989, and their 1990 Snowman, housed in a freezer powered by a thermal power station in Saarbrücken. In 1997, Fischli/Weiss would return to Münster to install a flower and vegetable garden on the outskirts of the city for the Skulptur Projekte that year.

The 1980s also marks the beginning of Fischli/Weiss’s time in London following their participation in the Serpentine Gallery’s group show Crosscurrents in Swiss Art, where London audiences were introduced to their question pots. Following their show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1988, Fischli/Weiss continued to show regularly in London throughout the 1990s, presenting a a solo exhibition at the Serpentine in 1996, and a comprehensive career retrospective at the Tate in 2006/2007 entitled Flowers and Questions.

Language in all its forms, from poetry to cliché, was a continual source of intrigue for Fischli/Weiss. 1991′s How to Work Better is a manifesto comprising ten persuasive but empty sentences, each aiming to improve workplace productivity and morale: “know the problem”; “accept change as inevitable.” After originally encountering the stock phrases in a on a sign in a pottery factory in Thailand, Fischli/Weiss painted them in large stenciled letters to cover the exterior of an office block in Oerlikon, Zurich, visible to those entering the city center by train from Zurich Airport. Several of their other text works show the artists’ love of unanswerable questions, from Order and Cleanliness (1981) to Questions (2000), a projected work displaying more than one thousand existentially-themed, handwritten questions, shown at the Venice Biennale in 2003. The 2003 book, Will Happiness Find Me?, a global bestseller translated into many languages, features small and big questions of all kinds, oscillating continuously between banality and wisdom.

Fischli/Weiss have had major exhibitions in leading art museums all over the world, from Centre Georges Pompidou and the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Kunsthaus Zürich, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Vienna Secession, and many others. They were the recipients of many of the art world’s most prestigious prizes, including the Prix Caran d’Ache Beaux-Arts in 1989, the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2003 (for Questions), and the Wolfgang-Hahn-Preis in Cologne in 2010.

Beyond his work as an artist, David Weiss was also an avid connoisseur and collector of Chinese landscape painting and scholar’s rocks, which appealed to his sensibility in visual art and poetry. Despite his immense knowledge, he always displayed a sincere modesty and was thoroughly unpretentious. He was spontaneous, free-spirited, and generous with his time and attention.

David Weiss was born in Zurich on June 8, 1946, and died in Zurich on April 27, 2012. He is survived by his children, Oskar Weiss and Charlotte Weiss.

–Hans Ulrich Obrist

RSVP for David Weiss: 1946–2012
May 9, 2012

Thank you for your RSVP.

e-flux will be in touch.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.