Ruins (of The Floating Staircase)
March 9 – May 3, 2002
Curator: Josephine Mills
The Floating Staircase is a major work by leading Canadian artist Tom Dean. Organized by The U of L Art Gallery in cooperation with The Trianon Gallery/Savill Group Architecture.
The accompanying catalogue for this exhibition, entitled “Ruins,”
is available by going to the U of L Art Gallery’s PUBLICATIONS PAGE.
Transcript of “The Floating Staircase 1978-1981 ” by Tom Dean
I had been interested in beds as a form for years because I found myself drawn to that prone position. All of this passive or without willfulness that didn’t attempt to defy gravity but acquiesce to it seemed more like wisdom to me than all that striding after wind. This sort of preoccupation with the unproductive position might seem a little dangerous and certainly in some circles it’s thought very indulgent. But the prone does have its function in rest and contemplation and in receptivity. And in some cultures the prone attitude is much more honoured than in ours. But at any rate, quite generally it has an appeal that can’t be denied and is usually never quite satisfied, it seems, even in those whose relentless vigour suggests they would never voluntarily lie down.
So I wanted to build a horizontal monument (which is a bit of a contradiction in terms), but a kind of an anti Babel monument to our peace, our death, rather than to our strident wilfulness. The prototype would be the sleeping Buddha monuments, or a lake, or a fallen tree or a person sleeping or dead, or prostrated before magnificence perhaps. Anyway the bed seemed to me the essential horizontal cultural artifact a wise cultural distillate of our horizontal components, storing in its form all those associations of the prone position, both our love and our fear of it. So I did an installation consisting of a room full of hospital beds all covered with tiny dots.
But having for years felt the horizontal form so compelling it slowly dawned on me that its complement, the vertical, really had a lot going for it and should be given serious attention. That it might be an even more sensible object of contemplation. I suppose it’s reactionary to be preoccupied by the horizontal because you only have to look around you at the vertical thrust of architecture, the trees and plants reaching for the sun, or at our proud upright stance to realize where the money is. It’s so obvious it’s banal and so it’s sometimes disdained, the way people don’t like the CN tower, but I don’t think we should be too hasty to disdain our very roots. Which might be romantic but does seem rather unhealthy spite.
So if the essence of the human horizontal part materializes in the bed, the vertical part, or rather the upright part, surely found its form in the staircase. I thought I’d build a giant staircase to complement the beds and to let on that I’d evolved from the mystical ennui of promoting the lake and was ready to promote the mountain. I knew of course that despite this being rather normal and healthy and natural that it is was not necessarily easy. Because many people have a lot of difficulty getting out of bed in the morning and look forward gratefully to returning to it again from their upright obligations in the world. But also there is a self fulfilling compulsion to the upright position. We take to it as automatically as the baby to a breast and feel the better for it. And for all its beauty or comfort the lake or bed will never inspire the kind of whole hearted compulsion that say the building of a cathedral did in a medieval town, or the climbing of Mt. Everest, or that the space program has in America, or that building of the tower did in Babel. A person would have to be a fool not to cash in on such a vigorous source of inspiration.
At first I thought I’d build it to fit an exhibition space, just a huge square staircase, that would entirely fill whatever space it was built for. But the lake seemed available, and provided a marvelous horizontal ground for this erection, an elemental sea for this cultural thrust to rise above. I began the construction with very little idea of what I was doing, or I only allowed myself to only think about it one step at a time because the thought of this impossible burden extending infinitely into the future was too much to contemplate. I just knew it had to be big, bigger than me.
Its scale from the beginning utterly overwhelmed me. Everything was a struggle. Just to order so much material completely oppressed me and I procrastinated for months, ordering bits and pieces so I wouldn’t have to face how big it really was. There was no place to store the material when it finally arrived, and I had to borrow studio space to begin construction. Dealing with tons of material, beams that I couldn’t lift, confronted by this massive, inert, dumb material so helplessly in the grips of gravity. It kept me in utter despair and constantly reminded me of the foolishness of all this uplifting and fairly unnecessary labor. The only potential after all was the creation of an even more clumsy form, and the conversion from useful and expensive raw materials into an awkward device of the imagination, an immense liability with no market value. From the beginning it was like a big truck with no wheels and nowhere to park. I always seemed to be in the position of having to move several tons of material from one place to another, having to find a new place to work or store things in.
That winter I stored the completed sections at a hydroelectric plan in an isolated industrial area of the harbour. In the spring I bought a car in order to get to and from this location. I hired an assistant and we spent the entire summer working in the shadow of this immense hydro plant with the workers looking on curiously down amongst the freighters and tugs and harbour activity. The area became a second home and the work was quite pleasurable, dealing with the various physical problems and questions of engineering. It seemed very straightforward and relaxing. But the thing’s awkwardness and unyielding scale were always present. I knew that I was creating a nemesis and from the beginning looked forward to burning it.
The dots on the stairs and beds I think were a way of saying I really mean it. I’m behind this 100 %. This isn’t just idle playing with form but an evocation of everything that overwhelms me. And if you don’t believe me, if making this thing and dragging it out here for you wasn’t enough, I’m going to cover the whole thing with dots by this painstaking ritual labor I’m going to evoke this thing’s profound heart. I’m going to touch every square inch, just so you’ll know I really mean it. And it was this attitude, tied up with not having the heart or conviction to form a pattern or an image by this painstaking process, more like turning a prayer wheel than building an empire. It’s like saying “I believe, I believe, I believe, I believe,” over and over again without ever having to say what you believe in. Because pinning down what you believe in is sure to get you in a mess. Of course when I was first painting dots and things in the early ’70s I did it all myself. Now with the stairs and beds I got lots of friends to help, which is a little like hiring someone to say your Hail Marys for you I suppose. But what had once been compulsive and overwhelming was now more a simple fact of life, in the background a background for other activities to be built upon, rather than a foreground. A kind of underpainting.
When we finally finished it, of course, it just sat there, bobbing in the water, innocent and proudly opaque. I would bring people down to see it on little private tours, and often we would have picnics or soir6es by the stairs down in the industrial harbourfront. There was always media coverage of the ‘isn’t he a crazy guy?’ variety. So although very few people saw it, it was well known. Photographers photographed it. Its image was used in fashion ads. I used its image in various articles and projects.
In a wind or storm its personality changed dramatically and it became wild and uncontrollable; the 24 foot square vertical surface of its back made trying to hold it in the wind like trying to hold a ship at full sail. We built an immense anchor for it and rigged it with 1/4 inch steel cables and 2 1/2 inch nylon ropes. Despite this, late one night, it escaped its moorings in a storm and took off across the slip. An immense dark shadow looming out of the darkness, bucking and heaving and striking terror into the hearts of yachters, snug at their moorings. And, finally, attacking a tugboat, fortunately damaging only itself.
There was never any rest. One had to figure out how to get it out of the water, where to store it in the winter, and how to get it back in. How to move it from one mooring across the harbour to another. There was always some shipping deadline or other that meant it had to be moved to a new place. And there was constant maintenance: boards torn off in the storms, vandalism to be repaired. I don’t think I have a lot of willpower, so I was very aware of this thing as an exercise in the will. An attempt to develop a strong arm, or labor as a kind of spiritual exercise by which to redeem the fallen world, make it upright again. Labor as prayer was St. Augustine’s way of seeing it. And it’s at the bottom of what they call the Protestant ethic.
But I kept recalling that other phrase the triumph of the will the title of the famous Nazi propaganda movie. There was another side to this upright business that seemed a little suspect. In investigating the phrase, I found that Spier’s first project for Hitler was, to quote, “A mighty flight of stairs, topped and enclosed by a long colonnade flanked on both ends by stone abutments.” (end of quotes here OK?) Undoubtedly it was influenced by the Pere de Montmarte, (end of quote here instead?) he said. It’s just this kind of getting up in the morning and being wildly enthusiastic that gets us into a lot of trouble. And about the same time someone sent me an image from the papyrus of Ani, an Egyptian papyrus from 1250 BC, showing a floating staircase strikingly similar to mine. Apparently it was the vehicle that conducted people to heaven in the afterworld.
Anyway it struck me that these two sorts of vertical aspirations the one expressed in the architecture of our churches, and the other expressed in political and military monuments very easily got mixed up with one another. The whole effort of culture climbing out of its primal goo was not entirely admirable. It seemed to me that these two forms of willfulness were the twin sleepwalking engines that drove us inexorably up from that primal goo. And you really couldn’t fully trust either because each contained suspect parts of the other, like two engines sharing a carburetor. I published a piece using these two phrases to contrast the two faces of our ambition: the will to grace and the indecent will to power. The triumph of the will, intended by accumulated intentions, by an insufferable (inseparable???) act of the will to invoke an apparatus that would act like a web throughout the texture of reality. A cultural locus so enmeshed and ingratiated (should be ingrained??? or integrated??? ingratiated means: to have worked oneself into a position of favour) with the natural world as to become a ubiquitous device to control reality like a puppet and tear its fabric to shreds by the motion of a hand. And under the title of labor as prayer the text read: “By labor we set the will of dreams against the inertia of the waking world. By labor we receive grace, our dreams become muscular. By grace we elevate ourselves, and we see rest.” (end of quotes here OK?) The top bunk, the bed of ease.
In the spring of 1980 we launched it again. The parks department chased it around the harbour for a month until I found a pleasant mooring for it off Ward’s Island, and having overcome some apprehension in the community by means of a door to door pamphlet and questionnaire. It had a happy enough summer there, prettily displayed and sometimes occupied by boaters having a picnic. Every once in a while kids would throw the moorings off and I would get a call from the harbour commissioner that the staircase was swinging free on its anchor and terrorizing boaters. And again in the fall it went back into storage, on shore.
Meanwhile I was utterly broke from the cost of all this, and was delivering pizzas to supplement my teaching income and put food in my mouth. The car broke down under the strain, and so I bought a second car to service my albatross. When a thing actually exists, there is a slow anticlimax during which the object of the imagination and will slowly begins to oppress its creator. And of course the created form never quite lives up to the fond hopes of the imagination. So you’d think it would be relatively easy for us to rid ourselves of the residues of our past attempts. But the created form nevertheless does maintain a pride and inertia of its own, not least because, its inadequacy notwithstanding, it remains as the only morsel of hard evidence to which one can attach one’s pride and career, at least until one can supplement it with further struggles. The artifact isn’t nearly so fluid as the thought, and remains mute, inert and demanding, reminding the creator of losing inspiration or indiscretion, and condemning or singing its praises, but certainly not letting them get on with it in a wholly uncluttered atmosphere.
It seemed to me that this was like all culture, with culture trying to get some elbowroom on that crowded dance floor. Artists not only have to climb out from under the conceptual framework of their last work, but have to figure where to bury the corpse. Culture and kids always having to crawl out from under the stiffening bodies of their inheritance. And all the graveyards are crowded and having their budgets cut. They’re still trying to figure out what to do with the ruins of Spier’s staircase, on Hitler’s rally grounds in Nuremberg.
And so I had to think about this thing’s future. Every time I turned around it cost me an arm and a leg. The various arts centers showed no signs of knowing how to deal with it. But finally the National Capitol Commission in Ottawa agreed to store and display it on Dow’s lake in Ottawa, if I could, as promised, deliver it the 400 miles up the Rideau Canal system. To this end, in the spring of 198 1, we began to rebuild it for travel: improving its hydrodynamics, building a two-¬floor interior living space, movable stages for performances that sat on the steps, huge motor mounts, a sliding keel, and a cockpit at the top of the stairs, hidden under a section of stair that folded back on itself. A system of pulleys, meanwhile, automatically pulling the dashboard, with steering wheel and motor controls, up into view in front of the bucket seat. An outboard motor company agreed to loan motors for the trip. Under power it moved with stately and ponderous grace, unless there was a wind, which threw it entirely out of control. The possibility of sailing it, with spinnakers and vents, was discussed at length.
I decided the stairs should have a going away performance. This got thoroughly out of hand when I linked up with a couple of wormy dealers called the Green brothers. We ended up with an immense party at the Palais Royale, and the last I saw of them they were counting the door money, and insisting that the losses were all mine. Getting the staircase to the Palais had been a nightmare, the workboat going aground in the shallows, the stairs drifting out of control among the yachts. My helper and I ending up, up to our shoulders, in the freezing November water of Lake Ontario, naked in the dark, hauling by rope this immense, inert and unlikely step shadow into its position. At the party someone gleefully cut the moorings, and several dazed revelers and I had to row out after it as it threatened to crush pleasure boats moored in the area. Later that night, watching this innocent bulk rocking softly in the lights of the party, and wondering what on earth I was doing there, I had a revelation: namely, that only an idiot would endure this creature’s demands a moment longer.
There was money available to move the stairs to its resting place with the National Capitol Commission. But the barge that was to take it on the open lake to the canal mouth was delayed, and it was clear that the trip couldn’t take place this year. Abusive collection agencies were calling me with immense mooring bills from the harbour commission. It was clear it would take another year of my life to get the staircase up the canal and settled in Ottawa. The call to move the mountain is strong, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the sacrificial victim any longer of this morality play. Some muscle of ambition beckoning from just outside of reach, whispering: “Come on I’m really worth it. Get it up just one more time.” And so I said to myself, “Bum it, as soon as possible.”
Even this created a bureaucratic tangle: the fire department, the harbour commission, the parks commission, the harbour police no one could quite see eye to eye about actually giving me official sanction. But of course I knew I couldn’t let this stand in the way of my resolve. So on a beautiful blue day in November of 1982, we hauled it out to an isolated cove, and with much difficulty set it afire for a small audience of birdwatchers, friends, and a photographer from the Toronto Sun. It made a wonderful blaze, and I felt something like ecstasy. Like having an immense weight lifted from one’s shoulders; like finally escaping a burdensome marriage I suppose. The next day I was woken by a call from Environment Canada, warning me that they had heard I was intending to bum my sculpture in the harbour, and that this was absolutely not permissible because of smoke pollution. I told them I’d keep that in mind.
Even that wasn’t the end of it. Not entirely enlightened (maybe should be lightened???) of my bondage to this artifact, I went back to the site, and over a couple of weeks, picked the charred ruins from the shore where they were washed up, numbered them, and assembled them into the reconstructed outlines of the staircase, like the archaeological remnants of an Indian village, or the bones from a burial site. The rusting barrels I sold to a scrap dealer for 40 dollars.
Now I still don’t know whether to view this as a failure of the will, or wisdom shrugging off useless burdens. Or on which days or at what time its best to get out of bed. Or just how forcefully or not to set about one’s ambition. Whether it’s best to move the mountain or let it rest. Or which mountain to move and how far. And who pays for it? And how many assistants do I get? [Voice fades out]
Video Technician: George Docherty, Ontario College of Art
Copyright Tom Dean 1983.
Copies of “The Floating Staircase” video are available from V Tape, 401 Richmond St. W, Suite 452, Toronto, ON, Canada M5V 3A8