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Once, after waiting at a red light at an empty intersection for what felt like forever, a friend gently alerted me to Los Angeles’ widespread use of pressure plates. These plates direct the flow of traffic based on congestion: stop your car on the plate and, as a result, the light changes. In essence, the pressure plates forge a relationship—a demanding one—between driver and light. Inching up onto the plate almost immediately changed the light to green, but doing this felt like having a temper tantrum, stamping the ground until I got what I wanted. Despite later learning that L.A. actually relies on a complex system of magnetic sensors and computers, the incident occurred to me while visiting Peter Fischli’s exhibition, Ungestalten, at Reena Spaulings Fine Art. In contrast to the dialogic relationship between driver and traffic signal, Fischli’s traffic light sculptures present, ironically, without the need for a viewer or interlocutor.
The exhibition is primarily composed of nine large, numbered sculptures. Each is titled Ampel (all 2023), the German word for traffic light. Made of vertical silver beams with horizontal arms intersecting at different points on each sculpture, the works all roughly resemble their title. Six feature lightboxes with either two or three traffic light-style circles in them that alternate between white, orange, or yellow. But unlike a traffic light, these sculptures are scaled to the human instead of the car. Additionally, the lightboxes sit at different points on each of the sculptures—some hang from the horizontal arm, others hug the vertical beam—suggesting an individuality not normally associated with municipal infrastructure.
At seemingly random intervals, the lights on each sculpture alternate with an audible click. While traffic lights convey meaning through orderly, color-coded messaging, Fischli’s sculptures follow no such script. As I wandered the gallery, the lights seemed to click as soon as I turned my back on them. Though I did manage to capture the switch eventually, the flurry of clicking lights lent the sculptures a playful quality distinct from the stoicism of the L.A. traffic lights that silently await my orders. It felt as though the sculptures were using some sort of morse code to communicate with each other.
The effect of this light-based conversation is a decentering of the viewer, as it does not depend on their presence. This sense of feeling left out, or absent, constitutes the overarching theme of the exhibition. Along the walls hang six untitled photo collages, each composed of a pair of inkjet prints on aluminum. The collages are formed from images Fischli took in Zürich of an innocuous adolescent tradition in which teens tag the city using shaving cream. In the collages, images of the sites of temporary vandalism are overlain with separate prints outlining the shapening the shape of the shaving cream graffiti. Many of the collages are printed as negatives, rendering the illuminated streetlights as black holes. Here, light is no longer a source of enlightenment or illumination. Similarly, the foam graffiti itself cannot serve as a sign, limited by its ephemerality and formlessness. Is this the ungestalt of the exhibition’s title?
Leaving the gallery, I encountered the exhibition’s final work, Rehearsal (2023), a sound installation that has been buried under a sidewalk grate. After bringing traffic lights inside, I loved the gesture of engaging with the street outside. The recording plays a rehearsal of the band ONETWOTHREE, to which Fischli’s late wife belonged. Listening to a band not yet ready to perform and not even present at the source of the sound, I felt again like an intruder. At least I think I would have felt that way. Admittedly, I didn’t hear anything; possibly, the recent rain affected the speaker. Possibly, it was waiting for me to walk away to begin. I didn’t mind this though. The silence felt positive, contoured by the music I could not hear. The band was present, whether or not I could hear what they were playing.
Peter Fischli: Ungestalten runs from February 17–March 31, 2023 at Reena Spaulings Fine Art (6916 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038).