The tongue and cheek, playful search and questioning of meaning in life and art was a major theme in the development of art in the 20th century, accompanied by a desire, starting with the Surrealists, to really subvert and later skirt around any kind of categorising of artworks. I’ve been thinking about the ‘circus’ of fun and hedonistic delight in the works of a few artists that show some loose connections.
Recently visiting the GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow) I was captivated for the full thirty minutes of ‘The Way Things Go’, a 1987 film by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. It takes the viewer on a comical journey of movement in an old industrial looking interior between a set up of disparate home and industrial objects, such as tyres, bottles, liquids, chemicals on benches, ladders and shoes, that come together after moments of tense waiting for fuses to burn, ignition, steam or gravity to do its job and for something to crash or explode into the next in the vaguely circular set-up. Seemingly filmed in one shot to promote the feeling of a never ending, inevitable process, the film has several cleverly crafted edits. In the continual but fleeting meetings and silly interactions between the many parts of their installation, there is a sense of the circle of life and death and of the inter-connectedness of all things. The questioning has gone beyond one of dealing with the traditional gallery system and being surrounded by the remnants of mass production.
Weiss and Fischli have made a variety of work, often characterised with humour – one funny little piece is a quick looking, lumpy clay street with Mick Jagger and Brian Jones going home happily satisfied after a session in the studio doing ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’. The popular film ‘The Way Things Go’ has less narrative but takes forward their ‘Quiet Afternoon’ series of photos from the mid eighties, in which there is a quirky gravity defying and comical still-life combination in each piece of some five to ten tattered bits of home furniture or bottles, packaging tubes, plates, ladles or fruit for instance. The imposed boundaries between ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ become blurred with one title in the series ‘Natural Grace’ reminding me also of the impending collapse of a piece of balanced stones on a hill top by Andy Goldworthy. In some ways the often used terms ‘land artist’ or ‘conceptual artist’ are truly meaningless and a distraction from seeing work afresh. One other thing I like about many of their works is the rugged, unfinished looking aspect that doesn’t value detail and solid compositions too much. Some later works lose some of the feeling perhaps due to the visual choices of the artists themselves or curators, (especially the photography on show at the GOMA) and started to lack that sense of the fleeting, off kilter aspects.
Two early films (excerpts below), ‘The Least Resistance’ (1980-81) and ‘The Right Way’ (1982-83) capture their energy and half joking, half serious mood that is full of life. There is a method too in avoiding factual documentation and underscoring a desire for unsentimental creative freedom, serving to communicate charged as well as playful encounters and experiments in various environments. Their work has obviously spawned a whole array of materially similar pieces over the years by younger artists, but their overall philosophies give a strong edge to their interesting body of work. As the Panda said: ‘Such understated vehemence’.
The sculptor of mobiles and stabiles, Alexander Calder, was also keen on mesmerising and making the audience laugh with his fun characters and gravity defying objects. His moveable clowns and animals of tin cans, brushes and other bits and pieces were performed like puppets in his ‘Circus’ for kids and adults to enjoy, and are quite similar to the animals and human shaped or characterised objects of the Swiss duo later in their films and installations, such as their Rat and Bear.
Much of Calder’s work broke the tradition of clunky sculpture rooted on a plinth and challenged the art world like Panda and Rat did briefly in Los Angeles (‘The Least Resistance’), before turning to crime in their case. His mobiles opened new scope for art installations and possibly encouraged the idea that ‘sculptures’ could be much more temporary works (seen only as traces in the work of some of the land artists for example) from cheaper, mass produced materials. Whilst aiming to engage with themes of the universal and inter-connectedness in a circular wholeness, Calder like the Swiss artists also looked for ways to challenge artistic boundaries and have plenty of kicks in the process.