David Weiss obituary

As half of the Swiss art duo Fischli/Weiss, he made striking use of photography, film, clay – and questions

The Swiss artist David Weiss, who has died aged 66 of cancer, belonged to one of the enduring partnerships of contemporary art, the duo Fischli/Weiss. With his compatriot Peter Fischli, he created some of the most memorable work of the past three decades, demonstrating that irony and sincerity cannot exist without each other; that, indeed, there is no sincerity like irony.

In their 30-minute film The Way Things Go (1987), a series of everyday objects and machine parts roll, topple, burn, spill or otherwise propel themselves forwards to create an extended chain reaction of miraculous cause and effect. These chemical and physical sequences create the illusion that the objects have mysteriously achieved independence from human control, reflecting the artists' sense of pleasure in the process of producing the work. It relishes the precision of poise as much as the release of collapse, and the breakdown of the precarious balancing acts were also captured in the artists' Equilibrium series of photographs (1985).

The Way Things Go enjoyed a reputation beyond the art scene: equally valued within it is the long-term archival project Visible World, created between 1987 and 2001. It consists of 3,000 small-format photographs arranged and uniformly displayed on a specially constructed 90ft-long table, the images ranging from jungles, gardens, deserts, mountains and beaches to cities, offices, apartments, airports, famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and Golden Gate Bridge. All the elements of our collective visual world are drawn together by way of the artists' observation of correspondences and contrasts in the details of everyday life and consumer culture – a patchwork of the sublime and the ridiculous.

The duo were inspirational heroes to many artists around the world. The first of my visits to their studio in Zurich, as a student in 1986, transformed my aspirations as a curator.

Born in Zurich, Weiss grew up as the son of a parish priest and a teacher. Along with drawing, and an early love of collecting, his childhood passions included geography and history. With the help of his mother's school atlas, he spent much of his youth dreaming of exploring remote corners of the world. After discovering a passion for jazz at the age of 16, he enrolled in a foundation course at the arts and crafts school in Zurich, where in his first year of study he befriended fellow artist Urs Lüthi. Having rejected careers as a decorator, a graphic designer and a photographer, Weiss soon came to view a career as an artist as a realistic prospect

In 1964, he moved to Basel, where he spent a year and a half at art school, before starting to work as an assistant to the sculptor Alfred Gruder. On a six-month stay in London in 1966, he took pleasure in listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Military service in Switzerland was followed by what he later described to me as his grand tour. This started with working for the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, before travelling to New York, where he got to know the important minimalist art of the time.

A fascination with travel surfaced again and again in Fischli/Weiss's work. Typically, the duo would home in on its banalities and tribulations, as in their outstanding oversized coffee-table book of 1990, Airports. This volume of collected postcard photos of the titular subject was brilliantly described by the film director John Waters as "a shockingly tedious, fair-to-middling, nothing-to-write-home-about, new kind of masterpiece".

Weiss's late 1960s tour continued to San Francisco and Berkeley, where he immersed himself in the psychedelia of the hippy scene, encountering astrology, numerology and other occultisms. A cargo ship took him to Cuba, before eventually he headed back across the Atlantic to Tangier, Algiers, Tunis, Italy, Berlin and home to Switzerland. For most of 1975-78, he spent a great deal of time drawing in black ink, work that reveals an enormous power of observation and feeling.

Ever restless, Weiss opened the macrobiotic shop Mr Natural in Zurich and became a member of the celebrated Commune H, mixing with the hippies, anarchists and artists of Zurich's bohemian underground. In 1978, amid the city's vibrant art scene centring on the Kontiki Bar, Weiss met Fischli. Their relationship as close friends and colleagues stemmed from the deepest mutual respect and manifested itself in a unique form of synergy.

They thrived on the collaborative DIY ethos of the late 1970s Zurich punk scene. There was no masterplan: one project flowed intuitively into the next. While planning a trip to Los Angeles in 1979, they began work on the Wurstserie, or Sausage Series, a group of 10 colour photographs of daily situations ranging from a fashion show to a traffic accident, all depicted using sausages and gherkins, as well as cigarette butts, cardboard and other detritus. Both poignant and absurd, it was shown for the first time in 1980, as part of the Saus und Braus (Revel and Riot) exhibition, the first truly public manifestation of Zurich's underground art scene.

In the same year Weiss moved to Los Angeles, where he fell ill after a visit to Mexico and was forced to stay in bed for some time, reading and watching television repeats. This experience taught him a nuanced idiomatic English and an appreciation of American popular culture. He was also an inveterate and passionate reader of literature, though never flaunted his erudition.

As soon as Fischli came to visit him, they began work on Der Geringste Widerstand (The Least Resistance, 1981), without money or actors but with the help of a Swiss friend to operate the camera. The Least Resistance saw Fischli/Weiss disguised as their alter egos Rat and Bear, undertaking an episodic tour of Hollywood in what is both a satire on the art world and a spirited Dadaist road movie.

David Weiss
Fischli/Weiss's view of theory and practice: an item from Suddenly This Overview, in their exhibition at Tate Modern in 2006. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian Photograph: David Levene/Guardian

An accompanying book, Ordnung und Reinlichkeit (Order and Cleanliness), appeared in the same year, and Fischli/Weiss also produced 200 hand-modelled, unfired clay sculptures, Plötzlich Diese Übersicht (Suddenly This Overview), a series of vignettes depicting both the auspicious and deeply inauspicious moments of human history in the same irreverent style. The clay sculptures were followed by a large number of carved and painted polyurethane works, including the Fever and Metaphysical sculptures, as well as a large sculptural ensemble entitled Raft (1982).

Fischli/Weiss's rough-hewn works of this period were eventually to lead to the production of more illusionistic sculptures in the 1990s. These precisely rendered a variety of ordinary objects in polyurethane copies.

By the time of the next longer film, The Right Way (1983), with Rat and Bear on a journey through the alpine landscapes of Switzerland, Fischli/Weiss were beginning to earn respect in the international art world. Their major breakthrough came with the showing of The Way Things Go at Documenta VIII in Kassel in 1987.

This was also the year of their first major public commission, the Münster Building, a reduced-scale modernist office block produced for the 10-yearly public art exhibition, Skulptur Projekte Münster. This "scaled-down example of middle-class self-representation", as their proposal described it, was followed by other public projects, including a Snowman (1990) realised in a freezer powered by a thermal power station in Saarbrücken. In 1997, Fischli/Weiss returned to Münster for the Skulptur Projekte, installing a flower and vegetable garden on the outskirts of the city.

Fischli/Weiss's extensive association with London began with the Serpentine Gallery's group show, Crosscurrents in Swiss Art (1985), where they showed their Question Pots – large vessels displaying a range of questions. Regular returns to the city included a solo exhibition at the Serpentine in 1996 and a comprehensive career retrospective, Flowers and Questions, at Tate Modern in 2006. There were exhibitions at other major centres round the world, including the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Language in all its forms, from poetry to cliché, was a continual source of intrigue for Fischli/Weiss. How to Work Better (1991) is a manifesto comprising 10 persuasive but empty sentences, each with the aim of improving workplace productivity and morale: "Know the problem"; "Accept change as inevitable." Fischli/Weiss plucked these stock phrases from a factory in Thailand and painted them in large stencilled letters to cover the exterior of an office block in Oerlikon, Zurich, visible on the approach into the city centre by train from Zurich Airport.

The artists' love of asking questions, often unanswerable, is evident in several of their other text works, from Order and Cleanliness via the Question Pots to Questions (2000), a projected work displaying more than 1,000 existentially themed, handwritten questions, shown at the Venice Biennale in 2003. Their book of that year, Will Happiness Find Me?, a global bestseller in many translations, features small and big questions of all kinds, continually oscillating between banality and wisdom.

The activities of collecting and organising disparate materials also plays a large role in the work of Fischli/Weiss, legitimising the overlooked things of everyday life as the stuff of art. Beyond his work as an artist, Weiss was also an avid connoisseur and collector of Chinese landscape painting and Chinese scholar's rocks – intriguing naturally formed objects that related to his feeling for visual art and poetry.

Weiss was always modest, spontaneous, free-spirited and generous. He is survived by his children, Oskar and Charlotte.

• David Weiss, artist, born 21 June 1946; died 27 April 2012


Hans Ulrich Obrist

The GuardianTramp

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