Adeline de Monseignat Preface: Un Livre á la Hauteur
With their feet earthbound and their arms outstretched to the heavens, the physicality of ladders suggests a journey, a state of transition, an upward motion synonymous with progress. And, because they were originally invented for human use based on the body’s proportions, ladders are strongly anthropomorphic. We want to connect with these inanimate objects made in our own image, these enigmatic objects of desire and fascination.
Ladders have been an interest of mine for as long as I can remember. There is, however, one memory that stands out. In 2016 I walked around one of Tuscany’s largest marble quarries on a recce for my short film In the Flesh. There, engulfed in the stomach of the mountain, I encountered countless ladders lying around – distorted, disused, disregarded. The most heavily injured ones no longer served the quarrymen, and yet were still a part of their daily lives, their everyday sight, embedded in an ever-growing cemetery of ladders. Were they waiting for tombstones to be made from the surrounding stone? I photographed many, yet one, in particular, grabbed my attention. Still elegantly propped up against the exposed flesh of the marble block, the ladder seemed to be leaning back casually, right leg bent. It looked incredibly human and almost felt as though, should it stay there any longer, its skeleton would acquire a layer of its surrounding material – marble flesh. That was the ladder which in- spired me to sculpt Échelle Charnelle, 2017. Even with the help of my technically adept husband Pablo, it was no easy task to sculpt a ladder in marble – let alone a bent one. A steel structure was covered with a 5cm Mexican marble skin – Negro Monterrey. The whole piece – legs and rungs – came apart in order to fit in 23kg suitcases, suitable for the piece to travel for my upcoming London solo show. Like any puzzle, every piece only ever slots in one particular spot. Labeled accordingly, all 13 bits of the ladder flew from Mexico City to London. Once on the other side, parts had all jumbled together. Despite their tags, the puzzle no longer fitted. How? I soon turned into some sort of Dr Frankenstein with my Échelle Charnelle lifelessly laying on its operating table. The next time it ever stood upright again, both feet on the floor, its marble flesh was then 97% Mexican and 3% Spanish – Nero Marquina added in London. With its body bearing its fresh scars, I more than ever thought, it is alive!
My thirst for a deeper understanding of this object led me to search for books on the subject. To my great surprise, none were to be found. In the arts, design, architecture, literature, history, and anthropology sections: nothing. Something had to be done, the seed was planted, and I felt enthused at the thought of tackling this mission one day. The idea gestated for a couple of years, until, in February 2020, when I stumbled upon Paul Carey-Kent’s Elephant Magazine essay “The ladder is reaching new heights in visual culture”, I realized I had found myself a partner in this venture. A dialogue began, with regular Zoom meetings bridging Mexico to the UK. The Book of Ladders had begun.
During that investigative period, I also discovered an important piece of family history that would cement my belief that nothing happens by chance. My mother told me how my grandfather had started his career as a young architect in the Netherlands after World War II. The priority was to build fast, most efficiently done in concrete which became typical of post-war architecture. My grandfather, Jan Lisman, had contributed by way of fabricating staircases. As a handy woodworker, he was known to build everything in wood with his bare hands: my mother’s first cot, her toys, their family furniture, until one day he started making what all multi-story buildings need – staircases. He then had the idea to create molds and cast them in concrete, speeding up production. He started his own “Trappenfabriek” – staircase factory – a carpentry and concrete workshop. That ran at full capacity, producing – according to an old Dutch newspaper cutting – the staircases for more than 400 flats at once. It was the first time I had ever heard that my grandfather was involved with staircases, and yet, as it aligned with my interests, it only felt natural that he had been. In his memory, I made Arco, 2022.
One may argue that ladders and staircases aren’t the same. However, some cultures feel differently. In Spanish, “escalera” is the only word available, and it covers both. After all, the staircase is just a derivation of the traditional ladder – only sturdier, as an integral part of a building’s construction. Both offer the seductive potential for taking us someplace else, someplace new, someplace better, whether physically, emotionally, socially, or economically. Their spiraling or ascending direction influences the wild flow of our imagination. Louise Bourgeois is one of many artists to have recurrently made use of this motif in her work. Many a ladder has emerged from her dreams, seeming to embody the struggle involved in maintaining a balance between the safe and the unsafe, the calm and the chaotic, the sane and the insane. Using a ladder is also a game of trust between the one using it and the one holding it – I’ve got you! Such a balancing act is the perfect image of human relationships, where such roles regularly interchange, and where there are painful consequences if the trust is broken.
In this book we delve into the many worlds that ladders may lead us to, exploring 101 artworks by 101 artists who felt compelled to present the ladder either for its symbolic, aesthetic, psychological, functional, historical, or even socio-political value. Across the following pages, curator Paul Carey-Kent offers an overview of the ladder within the contemporary art landscape, while writer David Trigg places it within its historical and symbolic contexts. As in the Surrealist gardens of British Poet Edward James in Las Pozas, Mexico, staircases with steps that seem to lead nowhere are often the subject of fantasy. This ‘nowhere’ is the proposal of an open-ended space where our interpretation and desire may freely fill the gaps. Many of the works explored in The Book of Ladders offer that explorative space. My hope is for this book to take the reader on an inquisitive and adventurous journey. Last but not least, my ultimate wish is for many a library rung to finally become the means to reach a book that does the ladder the justice it so deserves – un livre à la hauteur!
Swimming pools are unusual in that the initial purpose of any ladder is to go down, not up. Into what? Croatian artist Viktor Popović proposes motor oil, provoking us to reflect on it as a toxin – who wants it in their pool? – and as the substance on which capitalism is largely built. That makes the work, in his words, “a global vision of a polluted environment and consumer society whose future floats uncertainly”. But the oil is very shallow: it’s the mirroring that tricks us into assuming depth, just as the shiny surface of the market may disguise how little is behind it. We’re surely meant to be reminded, too, of Richard Wilson’s seminal “20:50”, 1987 which generates an alien sublime by taking the viewer along an angular metal walkway across a room flooded with oil. Popović prefers a humdrum form together with the potential means of actually getting down and dirty: it’s not the art, but the problems alluded to which impress their scale.
The Book of Ladders, Grupo Fogra S.A. of C.V. in Mexico City, 2007, pp. 214-215
authors: Adeline de Monseignat, Paul Clarey-Kent and David Trigg