One of the many legacies of the experimental art movements of the middle of the last century has been a heightened tolerance for weird site-specific art nonsense. The Fluxus folks certainly come to mind in that regard, as do the works of artists as varied as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Chris Burden, Marina Abramović, Robert Smithson, and Barbara Kruger.
In the 1980s Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, who went by Fischli/Weiss, cornered the market on a certain kind of gentle, homespun art. Their best-known work is probably 1987’s Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go), a video in which a sort of Rube Goldberg machine plays itself out, using only the kind of junk one might find in a painter’s studio. That entities such as the Honda Motor Company and OK Go would (many years later) “outdo” the feat doesn’t obscure the droll manner in which they attacked the problem, as well as the fact that they attempted such an idea with zero possibility of the clip ever going viral.
One of their ten precepts for their How to Work Better is “Distinguish Sense from Nonsense,” which is a trickier task than it might first appear. If you’re standing in Times Square, is it “sense” or “nonsense” if one of the massive displays suddenly shows footage of a kittykat lapping up milk, without a tangible product or purpose to be discerned? Well, that depends if you’re a corporate manager or an anarchist, right?
Fischli and Weiss worked collaboratively for more than three decades until the sad passing of Weiss in 2012. They were outstanding purveyors of nonsense; for instance, they had animal alter egos—a rat and a bear—that they liked to adopt in their artworks.
In 2001 Fischli/Weiss put together a six-minute clip of a cat blithely drinking milk from a saucer, and managed to have it screened in Times Square on “an oversized video screen” (specifically the Times Square Astrovision) for a project called The 59th Minute. The title of the work is Büsi (Kitty); it was actually an excerpt from Fischli/Weiss’ massive 96-hour video installation Untitled (Venice Work), which appeared at the 1995 Venice Biennale (in case you were inclined to think of the duo as lazy). In a statement, Fischli let it be known that “Büsi was not made as a discussion about kitsch. There was just something super-nice about this cat that we were attracted to.”
In a way, this was the “original cat video.”
In February 2016, the project was revived, as the video was shown on approximately 60 screens (!) in Times Square for the last three minutes of every day for a period lasting more than three weeks.
According to the notes that accompany the video:
While the lush, high-definition quality of the Büsi video suggests a commercial for a pet product, the lack of a soundtrack, deliberate overexposure, and slapdash framing give the work the look of an amateur video of a family pet. By simply changing the frame of reference, by restaging the commonplace within the landscape of art and/or commerce, Fischli and Weiss make the ordinary seem extraordinary.
If for some reason you have control over a public video screen, consider showing the video nonstop for a month. Here it is.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The hilariously deadpan TV commercials of Chris Burden