From all original intents and purposes, “Empty Room” by Peter Fischli and David Weiss should not be considered art. Shoved under a small staircase and almost completely hidden from view, the piece goes by practically unnoticed unless one happens to bend over and realize something is in fact piled under those stairs. There is a moment of question as to whether or not the objects piled there are intentional or not. The piece consists of paint cans, stir sticks, brushes, spare sheetrock, and other various construction tools all replicated from the Walker installation crews' materials. It amounts to the understanding that a work crew was half finished with an installation set up and shoved the whole process aside, hidden under the stairs in hopes of not being noticed. Is the audience supposed to notice it? Is it really even supposed to be here? And if it is intentional, who's going to bother to see something under stairs that shallow?
Obviously, it is supposed to be there. If the fact that nothing in the Walker is ever accidental isn't reason enough, then the discovery of the plaque that accompanies every piece in a museum gallery certainly is. But even accepting that this collection of in-progress construction equipment is an intentional piece of art still leaves doubt as to its value as art. Just another one of those readymade art pieces that involve absolutely no work. That sort of modernist style is a cop-out and riddled with hypocritical standards - it's art for art's sake and no outside information should be necessary; but if you're not up on your modernist lingo and political philosophies that fight for the cause, it's just too bad. You're out of luck and not cultured enough to participate in the art world. It's a style and belief system that basically exists to serve and preserve the elitism of cultured “high” art while exercising the power of the museum gallery and critic politics to regulate the value and sales of the “preferred” form of art.
So why should Fischli and Weiss's work be considered any different? The first hint is in the gallery's plaque accompanying the art work. The installation is a French artistic tradition called trompe l'oeil – to deceive the eye – in which objects in a piece are handcrafted to resemble everyday objects. Which means there's something more to this installation than just kicking some paint cans under the stairs – actual work went into this piece.
Further study finds that Fischli and Weiss are far from the elitism of modernism and the found objects style. Time and time again, it seems that really what they're here to do is play. The world – and art – is a playground filled with creative imagination, conversation, and time-wasting strategies that are basically meant to ask the question of where the line between reality and the stage is drawn. Their subject matter is not outrageous or taboo with the intent to shock or disgust. Rather, they work just below the radar of people's everyday lives to bring a sort of irony into focus. It spikes a calm sense of curiosity and humor – after all, “Empty Room” is a piece of installation art about creating installation art.
There is interest, too, in the idea that they've created a piece about creating a piece – that isn't even finished considering they're “hiding” the work-in-progress under the stairs - and they actually built it. “Empty Room” is constructed out of polyurethane, a styrofoam-like material, when by the found object standards, they could have just used premade materials. Instead, they built everything, and there's something curious about that.
To an extent, it does seem to be a bit of a challenge against “high” art. Fischli and Weiss use a wide range of materials for their various works from this polyurethane to photography to film to human sized animal suits to food to clay. And they've stated that one of the reasons for these choices in materials is simply because they aren't considered high art. Clay and styrofoam are a far cry from acceptable in the art world – they're handicrafts and toy school materials that are generally considered taboo, or at the very least “lesser” art forms. Any yet Fischli and Weiss have no problem adopting these materials, as it fits with the fantastical playground world they have created. It also adds a touch of a smirk to the piece as they have ultimately just created a teasing statement about the idea of highly cultured found object art by building found objects out of a taboo material in an art piece about building art.
“Empty Room.” Peter Fischli and David Weiss. 1995-96. Walker Art Center. http://collections.walkerart.org/item/object/7686.
Feaver, William. “Review: Flowers & Questions, Tate Modern, London.” ARTNews. Feb 2007. 143.
Heiser, Jorg. “The Odd Couple.” Frieze. Oct 2006. 196-205.
Matthew Marks Gallery. http://www.matthewmarks.com.