The history of grandiloquent architecture is a long and rich one, a fact that Berlin-based artists Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani have explored in previous works that highlight how would-be great buildings – like the national Broadcasting House in the former East German sector of Berlin or Oscar Niemeyer’s headquarters for the French Communist Party in Paris – inevitably come to symbolize failed Utopias. Most recently, Fischer and El Sani were offered a residency in Amsterdam’s ‘South Axis’ development project, a playground of gleaming office towers with transposable names such as Eurocenter, Forum and Atrium that will soon house the usual mix of international banks and consultancy firms. The result is a 17-minute video installation, The Rise (2007), which features a youngish man in generic business attire harriedly climbing an endless series of stairs on the periphery of the South Axis’ most salient new building, designed by American architect Rafael Viñoly.
The video is inconspicuously flanked by a slight leaf of paper ripped from Thomas de Quincey’s 1821 chronicle ‘Confessions of an Eng-lish Opium-Eater’. The quoted passage details the multivalent connections between architecture and madness, with De Quincey recounting how his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge described to him a series of prints made by Italian artist Giovanni Piranesi. While in the throes of a fever-induced delusion in 1745, Piranesi drew a dystopian series of ‘Carceri d’invenzione’ (Imaginary Prisons), replete with Sisyphean staircases. Their absurd proportions struck a chord with De Quincey and Coleridge, who recognized similar patterns in their own drugged visions: ‘With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams […] The splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural,’ wrote De Quincey. Though millennia old, this compulsion to build ever higher shows no signs of abating. Whereas the claim to the world’s tallest building used to trade hands every few decades, it’s now an almost annual occurrence, with the title passing contentiously from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei, from Shanghai to Moscow. And the people who now occupy these towers, like those who toiled in Piranesi’s fantastic prisons, are lost somewhere between confusion and panic. The protagonist of The Rise, for example, races endlessly upwards to the familiar filmic cues of chase and suspense – he pants and looks over his shoulder as the camera follows him at close range, a spectacle soundtracked by ethereal hums and screeching violins. The running man is propelled forward by an undefined menace: job-based performance anxiety, the impending global financial implosion or a broader postmillennial angst. Like Piranesi’s prisoners, this office drone is also imprisoned; a condition demonstrated most clearly when he sees his doppelganger in an identical tower across the way, trapped behind the glass.
The stairwell he ascends is actually the fire escape, one of the building’s most impressive features, which has been set into the side of the tower and which, from a distance, makes the building appear to have been slashed through the middle, as if by a knife. In an apparent imitation of this effect, Fischer and El Sani have slashed the page from De Quincey’s book, as if to imply that they, and possibly Viñoly himself, are very much aware of this building’s transience; however mighty it may seem today, it too will likely be razed one day in favour of a newer version of Utopian invincibility.
But to pillory the aspirational materialism of the conformist yuppie is to shoot fish in a barrel, since accusations of blind careerism can be thrown just as readily at the art world, in which a phalanx of look-alike hipsters deathlessly pursue a better residency, a cooler gallery, a bigger booth at the art fair. In fact, Fischer and El Sani seem to have (perhaps unwittingly) internalized the very pursuit that they lambast. Their previous installations have featured a significant ‘making-of’ component, with behind-the-scenes shots of camera dollies, computer screens and complex scaffolding installations. And The Rise takes this slickness a step further; its hearty embrace of conventional film grammar, plus its long list of Hollywood-sounding credits – steadycam operators, stylists, compositors – makes one wonder if these conventions are being critiqued or championed. Maybe the ultimate purpose of The Rise is to serve as a calling card, setting up Fischer and El Sani as the next Miranda July-like crossover success to graduate from the white cube to the silver screen, bringing the duo that one level higher. Yet the historical perspective provided by De Quincey’s text, and the slight gesture of its inclusion in the piece, may be the thing that saves The Rise from running aground.