What, no fatberg? Fischli Weiss explore a Swiss sewer – review

Adrian Searle
What, no fatberg? Fischli Weiss explore a Swiss sewer – review. Sprüth Magers, LondonThe duo’s video shot from a robot burrowing through the pipes beneath Zurich is reminiscent of birth, or a colonoscopy

The high point or, more accurately, the low point of this small exhibition of Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss at Sprüth Magers, is in the London gallery’s basement. Kanalvideo journeys through the sewers beneath the streets of Zurich, the camera mounted on a robotic vehicle that inspects the tunnels for blockages and leaks. The video is a full hour’s slow and silent burrowing along the cylindrical pipes. What turns and manoeuvrings the unseen robot has to make as it traverses junctions and turns have been edited out, so the journey appears seamless, smooth, unhurried and inexorable. Projected on the end wall of an otherwise empty room, the camera, mounted on the robot, takes us on an apparently interminable trip.

Kanalvideo may lack the complexity and ingenious pyrotechnics of Fischli and Weiss’s best known, and much imitated, The Way Things Go, or the pathos and humour of the pair’s rat-and-bear videos (in which the artists, dressed in animal costumes, encounter the human as well as the natural world), but it has unexpected mystery and magic. We have no idea of the size of the tunnel, as the camera passes over the riffles, rapids and pools of water flowing through the bottom of the pipe, until at one point a rat appears, clambering away from the light as the camera approaches. As we approach junctions in the tube, light catches the rims of sections of pipe where they join, a glowing corona against the blackness of the receding tunnel. After a bit you forget where you are, and think instead of an eye’s pupil staring back from the screen, or views of an eclipsed sun. I think about life’s journey, of being born and of a colonoscopy, and of that Swiss clinic where people go to die.

How the mind wanders in this hypnotic journey towards nothingness, a vanishing point that never quite arrives. For a while the view is grey and silvery, then drenched in red, cyan blue, magenta. Whether these colour shifts are predetermined or just glitches and aberrations in the recording I don’t know. I like the idea that they could be incidental. Sometimes, the wall of the tunnel is bare undifferentiated concrete, clean as a whistle. It is relatively clean down there, as one might expect Swiss sewers to be. No fatbergs, no baby wipes. A bit of paper hoves into view, stuck to the tunnel wall. Leaving it behind, it reappears half an hour later, like an old friend. There’s nothing boring about this trip, as it bores on and on. Then all gets Stygian, the walls caked with solids. Luckily, the camera does not linger.

I am reminded of Californian artist Mike Bouchet’s The Zurich Load, a work in the 2016 edition of the travelling Manifesta biennale, in which Bouchet presented an entire day’s worth of Zurich shit, mixed with concrete and exhibited as a series of cubic, evil-smelling blocks. Exhibited on the top floor of a building that also housed some of the city’s commercial galleries, there were, inevitably, complaints. Fischli and Weiss got there first, and Kanalvideo is about much more than just cloaca.

What is it about shit and Zurich? Something Freudian about faeces and money? On the ground floor sits Raft, a 1982 sculpture of a raft adrift on the gallery floor. Piled up with wreckage and detritus, all handcarved from polyurethane, Raft is an agglomeration of objects – human skulls, a rucksack, a pair of red high heels, a defunct engine, totemic (probably looted) Oceanic sculptures, a lifebelt, a domestic radiator and much besides. An unconcerned pink sow suckles her piglets among the chairs, barrels and other nonsense. Nearby, a couple of crocodiles, half-submerged in the floor, wait for prey. More crocs and a trio of hippos swim across the floorboards in the next room.

Raft has not aged as well as Kanalvideo, mostly because we’ve seen too many works like it since its original inception. I can’t look at Raft without thinking of works by other artists that reference cargo cults and colonialist pillage, shipwrecks, pirates and the end of civilisation as we know it. I suppose it all goes back to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, but I can’t but help thinking about Paul McCarthy’s sculptural installations, the fake museum in Theaster Gates’s current exhibition at Tate Liverpool, and innumerable other works that present us with volumes of piled-up stuff.

Upstairs, on a number of glass-topped tables, the gallery presents dozens of black and white photographs of fantastical scenes depicted on carousels, haunted houses and other fairground rides. Laid flat under glass, these are frustratingly difficult to look at, and better appreciated in a book. Give me instead the sewer wall. Fischli and Weiss worked together from 1979 until Weiss’s death from cancer in 2012. Just on its own, Kanalvideo is a reminder of how good they could be, how playful, how worrying, how rich their collaboration was and how strong the best of their art still is.