the lure of the ordinary III

In an essay by Helen Molesworth, art practice is discussed in relation to the distinction between work and play[1]. As is also the case outside art practice, the worlds of work and play are usually far apart. We work to play, and play is delivered in portions, as we see in Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Time, which documents British pastimes from amateur dramatics to betting. Yet some artists merge work and play, and it is these who might suggest a rethinking of the work/play border.

In Fischli and Weiss’ Der Lauf der Dinge, tyres roll down ramps into candles that alight bottles, which spill their contents into reactions and explosions. Our anticipation builds as the camera follows the linear narrative, a concatenation of cause and effect, gravity and combustion. There is a repetition of elements – bottles, fire and foam – that seems to represent the four elements. Sometimes the camera lingers over the drip of viscous fluid and time itself almost stops; other times it speeds along the obstacle course hardly able to keep up with the action. The process is like a sentence that varies its syntax with enjambment and caesura.
The film feels both nerdy and ethereal. The laboratory is turned theatrical; burning orbs appear from the darkness, the playful experiment becoming religious, almost Dantesque, and reminiscent of the final scene of Koyaanisqatsi in which the exploded heart of a space shuttle plummets to the ground, prophesying apocalypse. Johan Huizinga’s view that the mood of play is one of rapture and festivity[2] is acted out here. The sequence has the logic of an accident, events unfolding across time like the domino effect in history. Although we know Fischli and Weiss have orchestrated it, the effect is still gripping.

Sound adds to the suspense, whether fizzing or rocking like a seesaw back and forth. It continues after the scene closes to black, meaning we never have a denouement. Much is kept from us, including the original cause of the action, and the inevitable presence of hands and helpers. At one stage a bloated white balloon shudders across the floor like a jellyfish, and the effect is almost slapstick, the soundtrack identical to Tom and Jerry and Home Alone. Yet the industrial ingredients of the film undermine Romantic associations with childhood play, and refer more to Benjamin’s belief that children have a special tendency to seek out […a] workplace[3], and one of adults that is often neither sanitised nor safe. 

A similar form of play is also evident in the performances-to-camera of Roman Signer. While it might be reductive to consider national identity too closely, it is possible that something of Signer, Fischli and Weiss’ shared Swiss background influences their work. Switzerland’s wealth and political neutrality might encourage playfulness, its Dadaist history acting as a model. Moreover, its efficiency and tidiness (it is the type of place where it’s hard to hide a body, we might say) might tempt playfulness as a form of mischief.

It is certainly possible to correlate Signer’s work with the Swiss landscape, as much of it takes place out of doors in the pine forests and lakes around St Gallen. With his super 8 camera and a tripod, Signer sets up and begins to play. The films are short and generally titled in matter of fact, bathetic ways. Balloon on Tracks sees a red balloon hover above a railway track, the scene grey with a punctuation of red. As in Fischli and Weiss, we foresee what is to come, and sure enough, the train streaks across the scene erasing the red balloon. In the most basic way, the film is entirely satisfying. In Books, a man drops hardback books from a bridge into a river, and we see them bob away downstream. As children, we are taught to respect books, yet here they become rubber ducks in a game. Freud’s concept of Fort/Da, in which a child takes delight in losing and re-finding something precious, is behind the man’s next action, as he drives to a point downstream and stands in his anorak and expectation, waiting for the books. Again, slapstick or absurd comedy is here, especially as the books are fished from the flow, wrung gently, their covers tended to, and all return to the pile. One of Signer’s funniest, although also most worrying, films is Man on Ice. The scene is like a drawing, the lake iced white and one pencil figure walking tentatively across it. He steps further, footing still intact, until our expectation climaxes. Sure enough, the ice engulfs him. The active verb use here is important, demonstrating the overall theme that things seem to be happening to Signer. Although walking on ice is a self-inflicted, childlike sort of disruption, and one we associate with boredom, the power of the natural elements, and in this case possible death, is almost unbearable to watch. We struggle between delighted laughter (the film’s title and our expectations have been fulfilled) and horrified empathy. The elements, be they fire, water or spectacular combinations, are crucial for Signer, as for Fischli and Weiss also. Authenticity is also central, aligning the work to performance and endurance art, and extended risk-takings such as Ban Jan Ader’s fatal voyage at sea. But whereas Jan Ader leans on the side of heroism, Signer is geekier and as a result, more funny.

William Wegman is a third artist to whom play is vital. Like Fischli and Weiss, cause and effect are explored, often tantalizingly out of view. Again, this is performance ‘to camera’, so Wegman flirts with us, using off-camera action that slips in and out of the frame. He appears like an idle and eager child, making a bird-shadow with his hand and a paintbrush or waking his sleeping dog with an alarm clock. The camera is his toy, and their relationship is hermetic. We are party to the action; yet feel a little outside the fun because theses are so clearly Wegman’s private jokes and fantasies. In one visually delightful piece, he crawls backwards, dribbling milk from his mouth until he disappears around the doorway. Shortly afterwards, his dog enters where he exited, and licks up all the milk until he reaches the camera. The film ends. It is as if man and dog are one and the video was simply rewound and played backwards. Again Fort/Da and its associations with childhood are forefront. The scene couldn’t be neater in fulfilling our expectations and visual taste in symmetry. Johan Huizinga noted the importance of order in play, referring not to its limits, but to its potential variation, balance, beauty and tension[4]. Order in play is part of inventing a hermetic world.

Fiction is also something with which Wegman plays. Objects such as biscuit tins become houses, fulfilling Walter Benjamin's description of children's play as transformations of bricks into coffins, foil into silver, and pennies into shields[5]. In this sense, Cindy Sherman's dressing-up to become another is a similar play-practice, as is Fischli and Weiss’ use of salamis and cigarette buts as carpets and customers. In this latter example, as in Signer’s drowning of books, materials we are taught to conserve (books, food) are transformed and transgressed[6].

He earnestly tells us he is in the nail business, his brother in the timber business, and that when they see each other, they get along well accordingly. In another scene, he justifies his lying on the floor by an elaborate fabrication about being attacked for not having a watch, and being advised to stay in his floored position for a safety precaution. Benjamin writes that adults have forgotten how to play, but in these scenes, although we feel like the parent smiling resignedly at our wayward child’s stories, we also feel like the adult who is tempted to play again. 

[1] Molesworth, H (2003) Work Ethic
[2] Burnett, C (2004) “The Art of Play” in Art Monthly 279
[3] Benjamin, W (1928) One Way Street
[4] Brath Hansen, M (2004) “Room for Play: Benjamin’s Gamble with Cinema” in October 109
[5] Benjamin, W in Buck Morss, S The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project
[6] Danto, A C Playthings

Fischli and Weiss

thanks to Stephen Johnstone