Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Making Things Go (1985), videotape transferred to digital video disk (DVD), 71:27 minutes, NGC. © Peter Fischli & David Weiss, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
The Rube Goldberg machine has a long and zany history. A homemade contraption that uses wheels, gears, ropes, pulleys and pendulums to create an elaborate chain reaction, it has appeared in myriad forms in 1930s cartoon strips, Disney movies, TV shows, car commercials and music videos. Peter Fischli and David Weiss turned it into art in their influential 1987 film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go), now on view at the National Gallery, along with Making Things Go (1985), which takes a fascinating look at the making of many of the film’s stunts.
Working collaboratively from 1979 until Weiss’s death in 2012, the Swiss artists created an extensive oeuvre of photographs, sculptures, videos and installations that explore extraordinary transformations of ordinary objects. In Sausage Photographs (1979), the artists photographed food arranged in quirky dioramas, with a gherkin playing the part of a child, a turnip as salesperson, and half a bratwurst standing in for a queen. In Equilibres (1984–1986), household gadgets and pieces of studio debris are arranged in tenuously-balanced assemblages. Borrowing from chemistry, physics, theatre, comedy, and Marcel Duchamp, Fischli and Weiss are equal parts artists and mad scientists.
The Way Things Go was close to two years in the making. In their large warehouse studio in Zurich, Fischli and Weiss painstakingly arranged a 30-metre circuit of ramps, tires, plastic bags, bottles, tin cans, balloons and candles to set off a domino effect, captured on film by cinematographer Pio Corradi. The resulting half-hour film has elements of both a suspense narrative and a slapstick comedy: rising action, anticipation, conflict, climax, humour, accident, even characters (a walking ladder, a swaying table) and a soundtrack (pop, whiz, splash, bang, crash). One critic called the film a “comedy of objects.”
The opening scene offers a close-up view of a plastic garbage bag, slowly spinning from a rope. As the camera pulls back, we see a tire set precariously below, on a wooden ramp. Gradually as the rope unfurls, the bag is lowered, until it hits the tire, which rolls down the ramp and collides with the counterweight attached to a pivoting board. And so follows a series of actions that involve not only rolling and rocking, but also liquid spills, chemical reactions, fire and smoke. The final scene, in which a cloud of dry ice spreads over the screen, is a bit like Bogart disappearing into the fog at the end of Casablanca.
Peter Fischli and David Weiss, The Way Things Go (1987), 16 mm film transferred to digital video disk (DVD), 29:57 minutes, NGC. © Peter Fischli & David Weiss, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
The Way Things Go is full of contradictions and paradoxes: plodding slowness and sudden explosions; rudimentary props and an intricate system; a silently spinning garbage bag and a crashing table; ephemera and permanence; balance and precariousness; chaos and order. It addresses questions of time, matter, space and human fallibility.
First shown in 1987 at Documenta—the contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany—The Way Things Go has since been shown in exhibitions and screenings around the world and on television. Visitors to the National Gallery will have the rare opportunity of seeing alongside it Making Things Go, the 72-minute film that documents the process of trial and error, collaboration, determination and ingenuity that went into this work of art.
Although Fischli and Weiss’s crazy Rube Goldberg machine was ultimately an ephemeral piece, The Way Things Go remains a timeless classic.
The Way Things Go is on view at the NGC in Gallery B106 beginning 31 January 2014.
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