Can conceptual art be funny? The Dieter Meier retrospective, the first in Switzerland for this Swiss artist who was born in 1945, suggested that it can. I didn’t think so, considering the work of his contemporaries Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner, who are more concerned with gravity. “In Conversation” spanned Meier’s almost 50-year career and included photography, video, documentation of performances and live appearances by Meier, as artist and musician. His oeuvre is extremely varied and his artistic interests cover topics ranging from the passage of time and alternate identities to the insignificant, redundant and trivial.
Best known to the general public as half of the electro-pop duo Yello, Meier undertook various public actions during the 1970s that documented the impressions of passersby, thus offering a glimpse into differing attitudes toward contemporary art in New York and Switzerland during that time. The 1971 New York performance Two Words—in which Meier bought a “yes” or a “no” from people for one dollar, photographed the interaction and created official certificates of their answers—was not only a humorous, Dada-esque event but also elicited some very interesting reactions. According to a New York Times review by Grace Glueck, which is scaled up and exhibited alongside the photographs, some respondents suggested that the audience deserved more money for their answers, and some questioned the value of art altogether.
One of Meier’s dominant preoccupations is the passage of time. Walking Time (1970) consists of 724 photo-booth pictures of the same clock face, one taken every 30 seconds. The photo suite 29 Pictures within 5 Minutes (1970) records individuals sitting on two benches in front of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. As we move from one photo to the next, we see changes in the behavior of the subjects, permitting us to make up a narrative. Meier, at first unnoticed and then acknowledged, changes from voyeur to actor in the scenario taking place in front of his camera, as the group makes eye contact with and reacts to him.
Meier undertakes the theme of identity in 48 Persons (1974-75). These self-portrait photographs feature the artist as 48 different types of men, such as the aristocrat, the rocker and the businessman. For As Time Goes By (2005/2012), he developed biographies, presented as texts, for several of the characters from 48 Persons. For example, the businessman goes through ups and downs in his career and family life. The texts are accompanied by photographs and videos, showing some of the individuals in their milieus.
In a new series from 2013, “Accidental Birth,” the intersection of photography and sculpture is considered. Meier created abstract, headlike forms out of Plasticine, took portrait shots of them and printed them at a very large scale. The seeming physical deformations of what appear to be heads are disturbing from a distance but elicit a giggle when the viewer realizes they are just blobs.
Throughout the exhibition, Meier’s use of humor made the works particularly engaging. His approach opens the possibility for conversations, as the show’s title suggests, and establishes a direct bridge to the audience, who, in many instances of Conceptual art, is somewhat shut out.