Lesson: Urs Fischer: Your Choice: Reality or Illusion?

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grades)
  • Subject Area: Graphic Novels, Film, Literature, Performing arts, Television, Theater, Video Gaming, Visual Arts
  • "Noisette," 2009."Noisette," 2009.

Introduction:

Our executive mental function that allows us to make a decision is always running. From the start of our day, we make decisions: whether or not to get out of bed, for example. Our threshold for executive function has its limits. Our brain is like a muscle: when it gets depleted, it becomes less effective. Each decision we make is weighed against the pros and cons of its potential outcome. Do I want to attempt to make coffee this morning and save that $4.18, or do I want to pay the billion-dollar corporation Starbucks and save the fifteen-minute brew time? In this lesson, students will use their executive function when looking at the works of Urs Fischer. Charging students to think critically about the reality and fantasy of Fischer’s works, students will confront their role as viewers and question the artist’s intentions using the methodologies of theater as a departure. Perhaps as indecisive as Björk in the song “Possibly Maybe,” students will make their own judgments about the work and its potential messages.

Time

 Two forty-five minute sessions and supplemental writing project. 

 Subject Areas 

Graphic Novels, Film, Literature, Performing arts, Television, Theater, Video Gaming, Visual Arts

Objectives

  •  Students will be introduced to Epic Theater and Theater of the Absurd.

  • Students will investigate different forms of breaking the fourth wall.

  • Students will analyze a work of art and its ability to have multiple interpretations.

Vocabulary

Aside is a short remark used in theater and made to the audience by one of the characters in the play.

Brechtian acting is an acting style in which the actors purposely try to alienate the audience from the characters in order to constantly remind them they are watching a play, based on the theories of Bertolt Brecht.

Distanciation occurs in Brechtian performance, when actors maintain distance from their character by reminding the audience through often stylized gestures or behavior that they are simply people pretending, instead of trying to identify with their "character."

Epic theater see Bertolt Brecht's Brecht on Theatre: The Developement of an Aesthetic 

Fourth wall is an imaginary surface at the edge of the stage through which the audience watches a performance. If a character speaks directly to the audience or walks on/off the stage, this is known as breaking the fourth wall.

Soliloquy is a monologue spoken by a character to him or herself or the audience to reveal his or her thoughts. 

Suspension of disbelief is a phrase that implies the audience tacitly agrees to temporarily suspend their judgment and overlook the limitations of the medium, so they do not interfere with the premises of the work itself. This of course is quid pro quo that the audience makes in exchange for the promise of entertainment.

Theater of the Absurd see Martin Esslin's Theater of the Absurd

Verisimilitude is the trait of seeming truthful or appearing to be real, from the Latin veri similis, "like the truth."

Materials

 Information on epic theater and Theater of the Absurd

Suggested Procedures

  1. Begin by assigning or watching a film that breaks the fourth wall. The phrase “breaking the fourth wall” has been around for over a century. Though as a concept it's been around since before Shakespeare the phrase itself originates from the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht. It simply means that a character makes an aside to the audience. Through the invisible wall those watching are addressed, acknowledged, and made to feel a little more “in on the joke,” so to speak. Some films that have used Brechtian acting are The Neverending Story (1984), Spaceballs (1987), and The Truman Show (1998).
  2. As a class look at Fischer’s Noisette (2008). Tell your students that Noisette is comprised of a motion-activated plastic tongue that pops out of a hole punched out of the gallery’s wall. The action of a tongue sticking out from the wall is almost as if Fischer, hidden behind his creations, is having a laugh at the viewer’s expense. Ask your students:
    • What are some correlations between Brechtian acting and Fischer’s Noisette?
    • What do you think Fischer is possibly having a laugh about? Who’s “in on the joke”?
    • How does this work relate to our discussion on breaking the fourth wall?
  3. By breaking the fourth wall there is an automatic awareness of the audience that they are spectators of “something” that is not real, preventing the audience from using that time as an escape from reality. Instead, they are confronted with a moment of relating to that “something” and that they are not void of it but a participant in it. Why would an artist choose to confront the viewer as a participant in the experience instead of letting the viewer escape into the work?
  4. Epic theater and Theater of the Absurd are two camps of thoughts that were a reaction against the use of audience escapism in theater. Divide the class in two groups. Assign each group one of the two camps and have them discuss their assigned camp. Provide them with Bertolt Brecht's Brecht on Theatre: The Developement of an Aesthetic and Martin Esslin's Theater of the Absurd. Have the groups report to the whole class the salient points about their camp. Lead a discussion focused on the similarities and differences of the camps.
  5. Have each student select one work from “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty. In a short comparison/contrast entry, students will juxtapose the theater camps’ theories and methodologies alongside the selected work. In what ways is Fischer’s work verisimilitude? Students’ compare/contrast entry should include visual evidence as well as examples from the theater camps’ histories. In concluding, students should answer the question: How is this relevant today?

Extending the Lesson into Theater/Television

  1. Have students watch Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and/or read Romeo and Juliet.
  2. Have students watch an episode of a children’s show such as Sesame Street or Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
  3. In class, have students discuss the usages of breaking the fourth wall. When does the work use distanciation (i.e. Puck at the end of the Midsummer Night’s Dream when addressing the audience he is no longer the character Puck but the actor himself)? How does distanciation create awareness of the viewer as a participant and not simply a spectator? Why do you think the writer/creator decided to break the fourth wall for these moments? Why is your awareness of “you” as a “part” of the work important? What message are you taking away?     

Extending the Lesson into Literature

  1. Have students read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. As this parody of Gothic fiction develops, the reader becomes more aware of the writer Austen; consequently, exposing the difference between their reality and the fantasy of Catherine Morland’s love interest in Henry Tilney. A major theme of parody is the naivety of adolescence and a young girl’s struggle with knowing who can be trusted as a true companion and who might actually be a shallow, false friend. Austen biographer speculates that Austen may have begun this book, which is more explicitly comic than her other works and contains many literary allusions that her parents and siblings would have enjoyed, as a family entertainment—a piece of lighthearted parody to be read aloud by the fireside.[1] 
  • Which character(s) employ soliloquy? Where else have we seen the use of soliloquy?
  • When does Austen, herself, become apparent in the novel? How does Austen’s transference from third person to first person narrative inform the reader? What do you think Austen wants the reader to be aware of?

Extending the Lesson into Comics and Video Games

  1. Assign students to read a comic book, manga graphic novel, or Shonen Jump magazine of their choosing. Suggestion include: Astro Boy, Dilbert, Dragon Ball, The Far Side, The Filntstones, Prince of Tennis, Superman, and X-Men. Introduce students to the phrase suspension of disbelief and ask them:
    • What are you agreeing to “provisionally suspend” in order to be entertained?
    • Based on previous conversations and assignments, where else could you discuss suspension of disbelief?
  2. Have students take their understanding of distanciation, soliloquy, and suspension of disbelief and apply them to video games. This can take the form of an analytical paper or their own creation of a video game where they write out the premise of the game including the suspension of disbelief. They will also need to include which characters are going to break the forth wall and the moments for these breaks. They should justify their reasons for such breaks.  

Assessment

Using the comparison/contrast paper, did students:

  • Compare the theater camp to Fischer’s work using specific examples?
  • Address the question: How is this relevant today?

 

[1] Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life (New York: Vintage, 1997), p. 165.