Lesson: Urs Fischer: Ideal Scale on the Everyday

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grades)
  • Subject Area: Architecture, Art History, Literature, Film, Mathematics, Visual Arts
  • "Marguerite de Ponty," 2006-08."Marguerite de Ponty," 2006-08.
  • "Service à la française," 2009."Service à la française," 2009.


Written by Joseph Keehn II

In Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships, perhaps more renowned as Gulliver’s Travels (1726, amended 1735), the main character Lemuel Gulliver finds himself voyaging from one land to its reversal—a giant in one place, the smallest person to exist in the next. The major themes of the eighteenth-century state of European government and the petty differences between religions are satirically placed with the question of whether or not humanity’s corruption is inherent or conditioned. Similarly to Swift’s use of altering the scale of the lands around Gulliver, Urs Fischer uses scale as a device in his sculptural works to establish relations. According to Fischer:

“The scale doesn’t matter. Obviously large works allow you to participate in them: they surround you. But you can just as easily relate to a small piece in a corner. I work on the relation between objects. It’s the relations that are important, not the size. For example, the shape of the pyramids: their size is not just a function of what they needed to represent. They had to be that big. I assume they addressed the Egyptian notion of the universe. They’re an idea that’s bigger than the mummy inside. An ideal shape. They seem to be about the beauty of an idea.” [1] 

This lesson uses Fischer’s usage of scale and the banal to discuss ideas of aesthetics and beauty. Using the golden ratio—a number often encountered when taking the ratios of distances in simple geometric figures such as the pentagon , pentagram , decagon  and dodecahedron —as a departure point, students will mine their own aesthetics and ideas on what is beautiful. The lesson culminates with students creating their own work that speaks to their own aesthetics and notions of beauty.


Forty-five minute session and art-making project.

Subject Areas

Architecture, Art History, Literature, Film, Mathematics, Visual Arts


  • Students will describe a work of art formally, in terms of the elements and principles of art.
  • Students will be introduced to the golden ratio and its influence on aesthetics and notions of beauty.
  • Students will elaborate on their understanding of aesthetics and beauty by creating a work of art that builds upon the banal.


Aesthetics often refers to a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses, in particular to notions of beauty.

Archetype is an original model of a person, ideal example, or a prototype after which others are copied, patterned, or emulated; a symbol universally recognized by all.

Banal refers to the common; lacking originality, freshness, or novelty.

Beauty is a contested term relating to the pleasing quality associated with harmony of form or color, excellence of craftsmanship, truthfulness, originality, or another, often unspecified, quality.

Brute force is showing strength or exerting energy in a purely physical way.

Fibonacci sequence by definition the first two numbers are zero and one, and each remaining number is calculated by adding the previous two numbers.

Golden ratio occurs when the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ration of the larger quantity to the smaller one. Expressed algebraically: (a+b)/a = a/b = the Golden ratio (φ) which is approximately (≈) 1.6180339887….

Maquette is usually a small preliminary model (as of a sculpture or a building).

Proportion is an equation with a ratio on each side. It is a statement that two ratios are equal. Proportion refers to relative size.

Ratio is a comparison of two numbers. Generally the two numbers in the ratio will be separated with a colon (:).

Scale refers to the overall size. It is a proportion between two sets of dimensions (as between those of a drawing and its original).


Images of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and On the Divine Proportion

Image of Salvador Dalí’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper

Several medium- to large-size mirrors

Suggested Procedures

1. Look at Fischer’s Marguerite de Ponty (2008). Describe this work formally in terms of the artist’s usage of the elements and principals of art.

  • What traces, if any, of human contact remain in this work?
  • Tell students that Marguerite de Ponty was casted from hand-sized kneaded clay forms.
  • How do you think Fischer changed the scale of the original forms?
  • What are some of the reasons an artist would enlarge an object?
  • How does this change our perception of the work?

For this work and the other aluminum sculptures, Fischer kneaded simple amorphous forms out of clay, a selection of which he cast in an enlarged format. Traces such as hand lines are partly still visible on the metal surface and tell of a formative process that could hardly be more fundamental, or more arbitrary. When asked about this series of works, the artist cites terms such as archetype and brute force.

  • In what ways is this work an archetype?
  • How does Fischer employ brute force? How does his expressive handling of the materials turn brute force on end?

2. Introduce students to ratio and proportion. Have students solve word problems that address ratio and/or proportion. For suggestions visit Yale-New Haven Teacher Institute curriculum by Luis E. Matos on Problems Dealing with Ratio and Proportion

3. Introduce students to the golden ratio. Also referred to as the golden mean or golden section, the golden ratio has a long history with aesthetics. In Leonardo da Vinci’s illustrations in On the Divine Proportion or the Mona Lisa during the Renaissance exhibits the golden ratio as well as Salvador Dalí’s surrealist painting The Sacrament of the Last Supper is painted on a canvas with dimensions of a golden rectangle. Have students invest other works of art/architecture that use the golden ratio and report back to the class. Besides the golden ratio, what else could inform your notions of aesthetics? Beauty?

4. Discuss the relationship between ratio and proportion and how they relate to archetype and maquette. Look at Urs Fischer’s Service à la française (2009). Have your students break down the steps that they think the artist took in order to make this work appear the way it does. Share with your students that Service à la française consists of approximately fifty objects selected by the artist, 25,000 photographs, and literally tons of steel. Fischer had each object photographed from every side, and then had the images tiled together and silkscreened onto the mirrored chrome steel boxes of varying sizes. The reflective boxes are laid out like a city grid.

  • How do we know that not all the objects were scaled to the same ratio?
  • How do we know that all the objects are proportional? (At least approximately)

5. Continuing the discussion on Service à la française, have students in groups of three to four sit with their backs to one another. Have students hold up mirrors to their faces and have a discussion using the following questions as a guide:

  • How do you think you would navigate through the space where Service à la française was exhibited? What does it remind you of?
  • What effects do think the reflective surfaces would have on your experience? What are the mirrors doing to your experience in having this conversation?
  • Why would an artist use banal images within this disorienting optical work? What do banal objects have to do with the city?

6. Using Fischer’s play on scale and perception, students will create their own work that speaks to their own aesthetics and notions of beauty. There work can take form in writing, sculpture, painting, mixed media, or even performance. Whichever medium they choose, students will need to include the following:

  • Notions of banal, such as images or common language
  • Scale alteration
  • Seemingly illogical comparison between the banal and the scale
  • A reference of reflecting other than a mirror

7. Lead the class through a critique. Focus the critique on the students’ usages of the elements and principles of art: i.e. Sally enlarged an image of a paperclip, and now it appears to look like a giant pipe in an empty landscape.

Extending the Lesson into Film

1. Have students watch MirrorMask (2005). In a fantasy world of opposing kingdoms, a fifteen-year old girl named Helena who works at the family circus with her father and mother, who wishes—quite ironically—that she could run away from the circus and join “real life.” But such is not to be the case, as she finds herself on a strange journey into the Dark Lands, a fantastic landscape filled with giants, Monkeybirds, and dangerous sphinxes. She must find the fabled MirrorMask in order to save the kingdom and get back home.
Have students watch El Laberinto del Fauno (2006) a.k.a. Pan's Labyrinth. Pan’s Labyrinth is the story of a young girl who travels with her pregnant mother to live with her mother's new husband in a rural area in northern Spain in 1944, after Franco's victory. The girl lives in an imaginary world of her own creation and faces the real world with much chagrin. Fascist repression during the first years of Franco's dictatorship is at its height in rural Spain and the girl must come to terms with that through a fable of her own.

2. After watching the films, have students write a reflection beginning with:

  • “I think this film demonstrates aesthetics and beauty through its usage of….”

Extending the Lesson into Literature

1. Have students read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), a novel written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It tells the story of a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar and anthropomorphic creatures. This tale of the adventures of Alice in a fantasy world is plays with logic—considered to be one of the most characteristic examples of the genre of literary nonsense, and its narrative course and structure have been enormously influential, mainly in the fantasy genre.

2. After reading the novel, have students write a reflection beginning with:

  • “I think this novel demonstrates aesthetics and beauty through its usage of….”


Looking at the works of art and reflecting on the critique session, did students:

  • Show an understanding of the banal?
  • Show an understanding of the elements and principles of art?




[1] Urs Fischer: Shovel in a Hole,  Bice Curiger, Massimiliano Gioni, and Jessica Morgan (New York: New Museum & JRP Ringier), 2009.