‘The Way Things Go’ Celebrates Simple Mechanics in Bates Museum of Art


Dieter Villegas/The Bates Student

Osceola Heard ‘22 watches “The Way Things Go” by Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss in the Bates Museum of Art

A high pitched, firework-like whistle cuts through the silence as a rocket ignites, shaking a large metal box with a soft boom as it combusts within its insides. There are chairs laid out (six feet apart, of course) in the airy display room, positioned carefully for the audience to assume the best vantage point of the action. 

This may sound like a description of a socially-distanced test run for the latest NASA space mission, or maybe a trial of a special ops military endeavor. It perhaps evokes an elaborate prank pulled by a cunning younger sibling. It is none of those things; however, it is actually a scene from the Bates Art Museum’s latest exhibit, the 1987 film “The Way Things Go by Peter Fischili and David Weiss. 

“The Way Things Go, which began playing in the museum in late August, pays homage to the playfulness of mechanics and physics. The film showcases a 30-minute-long consecutive chain reaction, completed through the careful positioning and design of everyday objects like tires, bottles, shoes, string, and candles. 

The extreme precision and creativity with which the reaction needed to be designed in order for it to run smoothly is nothing short of absurd, becoming comedic in its craziness as it unfolds throughout the film. It is a true feat of science, appearing like something out of an inventor’s pile of discarded, too-ambitious blueprints.

 “It essentially looks like one giant real-life Looney Tunes cartoon,” said Caitlin Patton, the Museum Education Fellow for Bates, who is in charge of community outreach, coordination, and promotion for the gallery. “It’s humorous and chaotic, and is very oddly hypnotizing to watch.” 

The art film is the primary installment in the gallery’s first ever season as a socially-distanced space. The piece is projected onto a large wall on the top floor of the museum, with chairs laid out for a maximum of 15 viewers to enjoy the film at a time. The museum has coordinated with Bates Health Services about measures that are acceptable for safely facilitating the museum’s operation, which mostly pertain to designing exhibits so that they are conducive to social distancing. 

“Most of our current restrictions are very space based, which isn’t a huge deal for something like a film projection because we have chairs laid out so you just sit in a chair and watch it,” Patton shared. 

Thankfully, the openness of the museum allows it to remain an excellent outlet for students and other Bates community members to find enrichment in a space on campus, which has been a recurring challenge this year due to the copious building restrictions. The exhibit has been open for classroom engagement, with certain courses coming through to see the film and to use the downstairs space in the museum. 

In the future, the museum even plans to open up as a study space for students, filling the need for additional indoor spaces on campus while doing so in an environment that facilitates creativity. 

“One of the things that I love about museums is their multifunctionality,” Patton said. “To me, a museum’s [purpose] can range from many different things. It can be a safe space that you can go to if you don’t have anywhere else to go because they are usually always free, it can be a quiet area where you can relax and unwind while in the presence of art, it can be a place where you can connect with people, it can be a place where you find a new interest. Using a museum as a study space is another example of one of their many uses, because museums are a place of rejuvenation, of relaxation, of coming back to yourself. You can forget all of the hustle and bustle and just unwind, even if it’s for just fifteen minutes.” 

And amidst all of the absurdity, unpredictability, and chaos that has defined this year thus far, “The Way Things Go” is an almost too on-the-nose source of comic relief from the craziness of the outside world. So while you find yourself needing to pass the time during the wait for your test results, you should come to the museum, where you can watch and wait for a teetering shoe to set off a stick of dynamite.