Created for their first New York solo show at Sonnabend Gallery in 1986, Animal is a charming work from Fischli & Weiss’s seminal series of ‘Grey Sculptures’. With their distinctive humour and philosophical intent, the Swiss duo bring an amiable creature to life. Fischli & Weiss worked together for over three decades until David Weiss’s death in 2012, ranging across disciplines including video, photography, artists’ books, installations, and sculpture. Often engaging with ordinary objects, they combined an ethnographic scrutiny of the everyday with a sense of childlike joy in art’s transformative magic. Animal is one of three unique versions of this sculpture, the other two of which were included in Fischli & Weiss’s major retrospectives at the Tate Gallery, London (2006-7) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2016). It is a totemic, benevolent presence, carrying the aura of an idol or ritual artefact. The hollow body is formed of polyurethane and cloth and painted a stony grey. Its features are highly schematic, reduced to four stocky legs, an ovoid abdomen and a round, mask-like face. Nine apertures indicate the eyes, mouth, nostrils, ears and rear, following human anatomical principles. Like the other ‘Grey Sculptures’, it seems to be something like a platonic object: the metaphysical idea of an animal, refined to its most fundamental form. It also shares with the rest of the series – like Equilibrium Organ (Ear), a model of the human inner ear canal, Tube, a simple conduit, and the architectural model of Furnished Apartment – an interest in interior space. The viewer of Animal, as Nancy Spector and Nan Trotman note, ‘can peer into either end of this charmingly rotund creature in order to read the light-filled inverse of the opposite orifice, one of which shows an almost human countenance. The hollow volume inside the work becomes, therefore, a charged sculptural space’ (N. Spector and N. Trotman, ‘Peter Fischli and David Weiss: Work’, in Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better, exh. cat. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 2016, p. 71).
The New York debut of Animal followed several years of success in Europe, where Fischli & Weiss had first made a major impact in 1981 with Plötzlich diese Übersicht (Suddenly This Overview), a group of over two hundred small, figurative sculptures in unfired grey clay. They depicted scenes from the monumental to the mundane: flashpoints of ancient history, climactic cultural moments, clichéd vignettes, stories from the Bible and episodes from the artists’ own lives. At once crude, intimate and refreshingly unpretentious, this playful survey of our times proposed a new vision of sculpture and catapulted the duo to fame. Animal shares the quietly radical wit of Suddenly This Overview, transforming its seemingly anodyne or empty form into a resonant chamber of reflection. Gazing into the creature, the viewer might see a version of their own visage staring back at them as light streams through its face. Entry, exit, interior and exterior are brought into new conversation. With gleeful sleight of hand, Fischli & Weiss have made a sculpture that does not confront us in space but invites us in, allowing us, perhaps, to look inside ourselves.