Many of the ideas and themes we see in the work of Fischli and Weiss are embodied in Suddenly This Overview (1981-present), an ongoing series of small figurative sculptures made in unfired clay, a choice of medium that was deliberate. “Clay was for kindergarten. That was the point – to bring the making of art down to a level where it has the least pretentiousness,” says Bice Curiger the artistic director of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France.
The monumental and the mundane are given equal footing in this series. For example, a scene depicting the origins of evolution, The First Fish Decides to Go Ashore, is rendered in the same crude way as Waiting for the Elevator (both 1981/2006), a work about the ennui of everyday life.
The artists had a small window of time to create a body of work for an exhibition at Galerie Pablo Stähli in Zürich, Switzerland in 1981, and their disciplined schedule saw them produce around 180 sculptures in just six weeks. Even with the death of David Weiss in 2012, production of the series is not considered complete. For a retrospective at Tate Modern in 2006-07 (“Flowers & Questions: A Retrospective”), they opted to create new works rather than ship the original, somewhat delicate works from the Schaulager in Basel where they are now housed.
“If you were to simply look at the figures without referencing the titles, you might not understand exactly what’s going on,” said David Weiss, quoted in the catalogue for the 2016 Guggenheim exhibition “Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better”. The title “changes things and gives it another significance,” he said.
When the works were first shown, “for many people it was nice jokes and anecdotes, nothing more,” Fischli said. Yet, they portray “the clichés, obsessions and failures of our life,” says Beatrix Ruf, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
There have been ardent supporters of the series from the beginning. The artist Martin Kippenberger is reported to have bought a work from the 1981 exhibition and the bulk now live in the Schaulager in Basel, which houses the collection of Maja Oeri and Emanuel Hoffmann.
Yet the sculptures barely feature in the artist’s auction records: only eight works have come to the block and none of them have surpassed five figures—the average price is just over $40,000.
This may be because the sculptures work best when viewed en masse: you get the idea with just one of the works, but they have tended to remain in large groups that have been acquired by a small number of collections. In addition to the Schaulager grouping, another large set is in the Glenstone collection in Potomac, Maryland, and was exhibited in the 2006 Tate Modern retrospective.