About the Exhibition
How to Work Better is a readymade artwork by Peter Fischli (b. 1952) and David Weiss (1946-2012) that has been hand-painted on a building on Houston Street at the corner of Mott Street in Lower Manhattan. It is also the title of the artist’s concurrent retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Since 1979, the Swiss artist duo have created an extraordinary breadth of work, often ignoring the traditional distinctions between high and low art. With a sincere curiosity about human nature and wonder in the everyday, they have embraced new possibilities for encounters with art, both inside and outside the gallery.
How to Work Better’s ten-point list of simple statements suggests that “working better” is as much about an approach to everyday life as it is about productivity. The artists originally appropriated the text from a sign found on a bulletin board in a ceramic factory in Thailand nearly three decades ago. Since then, the piece has taken different forms, from postcard to screen print to book cover. Most famously, the artists’ first installed it as a mural on an office building in Zurich in 1991. To replicate the hand-lettered irregular typeface of the original text, the artists created stencils working from a photograph each time the list was reproduced.
25 years later, the simple yet clichéd statements used to motivate workers in a faraway factory have become a widely circulated ethos with copies found taped to the walls and desks of many artists and curators who have adopted the rules as a guide for how to work in the studio, the institution, and as collaborators. On Houston and Mott, at the center of the city that never sleeps, How to Work Better resonates in new ways. In our digital era, where the commercial landscape is ever present and the very nature of work is being redefined, the ten pithy statements are almost humorously direct. Are these merely platitudes or enduring rules to live by? How might this workplace manifesto apply to our daily lives? How to Work Better invites us to stop and think again about just how and why it is that we do what we do.
This exhibition is curated by Public Art Fund Curator Andria Hickey.
Houston and Mott Streets
Houston and Mott Streets
About the Artists
Peter Fischli (b. 1952, Zurich, Switzerland, lives and works in Zurich) and David Weiss (1946-2012, Zurich, Switzerland) have exhibited at major museums and biennials across the globe, including the Serpentine Gallery, London (2013); Kunsthalle Budapest (2012); Art Institute of Chicago (2011); 21st Century of Contemporary Art, Japan (2010); and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid (2009). Retrospectives of their work have been presented at Tate Modern, London (2006 – traveling to Zurich, Paris and Hamburg) and The Walker Art Center (1996 – traveling to San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston). The artists represented Switzerland in the 1995 Venice Biennale, and in 2003, they were awarded the Golden Lion for Questions (1981-2003), an installation of more than a thousand existential queries collected over several years.
Influence of Work
Since photographs of How to Work Better (1991) installed as a wall mural in Zurich began to circulate, the piece has become an analogue meme in the art world and an influential ethos for artists and curators alike. Below are excerpts from writings on the work by artist Ryan Gander, curator Anthony Huberman, and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.
“Taped to the wall of my studio is an A4 photocopy of a short ten-point manifesto by Fischli/Weiss entitled How to work better. I don’t know who put it there, but it has been in place for at least three years. […] I sometimes show it to students at the beginning of slide lectures, and always point it out to assistants who come to the studio.
I like it quite simply because it acknowledges their awareness of the idea of practice rather than production, which indirectly points to the main aspect of what they do that I find really endearing. It’s relatively easy to stumble around making a successful work now and again, sandwiched between disasters that never leave the studio, but it’s hard to attain good practice. Theirs isn’t about making good artworks, but about how to mould the conditions for artworks to be made possible.
I read it daily, but I have often forgotten that this photocopy is their work. It has sort of moved beyond being something that I can put their name to, and has gone full circle and come back to being just one of countless other amazing things that exist in the world.
Director and Chief Curator, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts
[Fishli and Weiss’s] instructions are meant as a self-motivating reminder and description of their own process as artists, but are also directed to the rest of the world as a propositional code of conduct or ethic of behavior – in fact, a copy of How to Work Better is pinned to the wall of countless artist studios around the world, as well as above the desks of many curators, including this one.
The question of how to work or how to behave is one that lies at the root of all of our decisions. To rehearse a common truism: it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it – it’s not just what artists or curators do, but how they behave when they do it.
Beyond the different styles, techniques, or themes that characterize their work are the different codes of conduct that guide the way they act or behave. The same could be said of museums or art institutions: running alongside the question of what they are showing is the question of how they are behaving.
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at Serpentine Galleries
At first sight, the ten rules correspond to the image we have of Zurich, that bastion of Zwinglian Protestantism, as far as morality and work are concerned. […]
[T]he almost simplistic hierarchy of the ten rules is masked by the similarity with the ten-point outline of a course in human resources management.
Little by little, the content causes an increasing distance from these ten directives that adopt the broken English of the original…. Deviations appear in form and color, the irregularity of the writing suddenly appears very strange: our impressions, reinforced by the exotic turquoise color, coalesce into a sort of “Far Eastern Helvetica.” …
In the context of the large building of an architectural firm, the clichés about work appear in parallel with the clichés of modernist architecture. The architecture takes on a symbolic value thanks to the writing, and it is the signs that create the field of correspondences…
In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi/Brown/Izenour proclaimed the sign as being the organizing element of movements in space, and they succeeded in demonstrating the ways in which modernism uses graphic signs and symbols so that space can be oriented in a precise direction. For Fischli/Weiss, the graphic sign is a supplement to a building whose symbolism culminates in the functional appearance of the vast space of these bare office landscapes. Only How to Work Better recognizes space as being the sequence of a movement divorced from any relationship to the doctrine of eco-functionalism, which, under the motto “High Tech, Low Cost,” heralds itself as the pragmatic imperative of the ‘90s. By its very appearance and the logic of the artisanal process of its content, How to Work Better also reflects the status of the public work of art as a “fetish of polarization” (Grasskamp [sic]), without any real exchange value or utility. The purely formal aspects of art in public space open themselves to the ideological questioning of production and labor…
Excerpted from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition catalogue (p. 180-181)