Thursday, June 11, 2009

Visible World by Fischli & Weiss

Seeing the foot thick book dummy at the Fotobook Festival in Kassel by Katharina Gaenssler has me looking at books which challenge the viewer with a bulk of imagery. That dummy must have had thousands of images, many of which on their own wouldn't hold water but that obviously isn't part of the artist's mindset. Gerhard Richter with his Atlas explored bulk images as reference points to culture and I would even point to Gilles Peress' Farewell to Bosnia which is in his words, is an "unedited book" of the Balkans wars. Fischli and Weiss' Visible World
(Sichtbare Weld) published in 2001 by Walther Konig is another worthwhile exploration of the book as mass of information.

No text and with 8 photographs per page, Visible World is a globetrotting description of landscape and cityscape contained in a few hundred pages. Their approach seems to be from a tourist perspective. A great deal of what they describe would have drawn any passerby to lift a camera to the eye. Horizons are straight and the depth of focus sharp. They are seductive in beauty from the light to the color in the same way that postcards describe "good" representations. They point towards the exotic and the familiar with equal distance both formally and emotionally.

Seeing them arranged as grids, time is stunted. Repetition with only slight variance to framing brings to mind contact sheets but as long as we may linger on one vista, an entire continent can be spanned within one page. It is a catalog starts and pauses and I would draw momentary comparison to their video The Way Things Go in how these often disparate images link up and push the flow of the book.

What seems to be missing is any sense of how one would perceive the world through the daily media or human experience. War, famine, terrorism, disease, poverty, pollution, natural disasters are all distant concepts from what is described here. It is a pure world where harmony and a sense of calm persists. I think it is fitting that this book was published in the year of 9/11 since that disconnect is so strong. Theirs is essentially, as the title suggests, the superficial world as we may pass through it disregarding deeper thought. The hippo emerging from the water is only seen as he breaks the surface, the rest is not visible.

The sequencing jumps from continent to continent and since this is presented as one venture in continuum, the comparison of one landscape with another weaves the world into a tighter, neater package. History is also present where the primordial (crocodilles and hippos) and unblemished horizons mix with man's modern presence (billboards and inner city traffic).

The longest pause is on airports. Near the 2/
3rds mark, they spend several pages of grids describing the planes and terminals that made their adventure possible. I raise this because it was their book Airports that first made me recognize that whoever was behind the camera (Fischli or Weiss or both), they actually craft wonderful individual pictures. That section departs slightly from the traditional tourist view (although many amateur's make pictures of the planes they are about to enter at the start of their trip, most are not as obsessive as is observed here).

As much as most of these pictures already exist in our mind's eye (they are so common to guides about how to take "good" photos), and can be considered cliches of tourist confirmations rather than discoveries, they have a sense of banality but also are compellingly beautiful beyond expectation. Because of this one might get
the sense of a parody at work; a dissection of tourist views thrown into a conceptual mass of photographs.

The task of describing the totality of the visible world is, of course, impossible. This fragmentary view which spans so much distance and appears cyclical, provides a pleasure in taking in only a small portion of truth and with willing participation we follow in tow, embracing blissful ignorance.


QT Luong said...

So can any travel photographer put together a book of similar appeal by just reproducing his images in grids of small images ?

In other words, is there anything unique about the images in this book or their sequencing, or is that the novelty of the presentation - probably more so the 92 feet light table used in the museum installation of the work than this book ?

Now that stock photography catalogs are a thing of the past, maybe they will be considered art books...

Unknown said...

"So can any travel photographer put together a book of similar appeal by just reproducing his images in grids of small images ?"

um... no. there are literally scads of great photos in this book, and to discount the uniqueness of both the sequencing of the material, and the literally stunning light-table presentation when seen in person, would be a mistake. the book stands on its own, but when viewed in the context of f&w's entire program (which honestly is some of the most compelling art being made today) becomes immeasurably richer. the above comment is such a knee-jerk reaction,comparable to those folks who go to a museum, see a twombly, and say, "my five yr old scrawled on a chalkboard does that make it art blah blah blah. sheesh.

QT Luong said...

> he above comment is such a knee-jerk reaction

No, I am sincerely curious. Instead of dismissing the question, wouldn't you contribute more to a dialog by elaborating on what you see there that makes the book stand on its own. I am of course aware that F&W are well established artists and of the way the work was installed. Stock photo catalogs contain "great photos" too, and are sometimes sequenced quite well.

Jeff Ladd said...


I thought your question was an interesting one albeit it did remind me of the reactions of "my kid could do that" to Klein or Pollack or Twombly as Jenny mentions.

For me what makes this book unique and more complex than it may at first appear is the decisions to have 8 images per page, the unedited nature (people tend to chose "the best" image from several), and the way that the color temperature shifts from yellows, to greens, blues to reds.

There is also no text what so ever. It jumps in and surrounds you for a while until you reach the end or in the case of some viewers, just shut off from the experience. I haven't seen the lightbox installation but I have heard its effect is very enticing.

An interesting comparison might be made to books of Hans-Peter Feldmann of miscellaneous photos of similar subjects.

James Davis said...

knee jerk? no. snide? yes. less than sincere? perhaps... a simple question... innocent and naive at best... defensive and ignorant at worst...

this is a book... reproductions of photographs. very good photographs. edited and sequenced well... a good book... assembled with the same care and attention to detail given a stock catalog... both are books.

the "my kid could that" reference most valid... a coin tossed by those who have yet to learn to see... "i could do that" is the flip side of that coin...

i enjoy your blog... appreciate your efforts... and wish you success.

QT Luong said...

In commenting on my question you all seem to assume that a "travel photographer" is always an artist of lesser ability, like your kid. That is not my opinion. Nor does any human experience include war, famine, poverty, etc...

James Davis said...