JACOB’S LADDER NORBERT FRANCIS ATTARD
JACOB’S LADDER Steps painted red, nine different colours painted on each platform. Nine gobo projected images on the platforms by night. Commissioned by Artworkers Alliance, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. In collaboration with Brisbane City Council, Queensland, Australia. ‘Inhabit 2009’ - creative art and event initiative in the city of Brisbane. St. Edward’s Park, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 2009.
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Directed by Kevin Wilson, director of Artworkers, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Funded by Brisbane City Council, Queensland, Australia. Exterior paint by Resene Paints Ltd., manufactured in New Zealand, supplied by Resene Paints (Australia) Ltd. Stairway painting by Maicon Building Services Pty., Brisbane, Australia. Nine projected images designed by Norbert Francis Attard and made in collaboration with Areaone Ltd., Malta. Gobo slides made by Gobotech, Southport, Queensland, Australia. Gobo projectors supplied by Selecon New Zealand Ltd. Aukland, New Zealand. Installation of gobo projectors and projections of images by Peter Rixon.
The artwork by Norbert Francis Attard presents a joyfully colourful treatment of the easily over-looked Jacobs
Ladder stairway, offering an intriguing multi-layered reading stemming from the nature of different interpretations of the Old Testament story of Jacob’s desert revelation. The jumping off point for this reading is in noting the physicality of this pathway, installed to ease the radically steep hill climb that demanded a steady foot when scaling the hill toward the city’s old Windmill. The peculiar formation of this stairway itself produces an intriguing optical conceit—viewed from the plaza at its base, the stair’s nine landings disappear from sight; from the top it is the stairs which disappear leaving only the landings and their connections into the quiet of the park. Approaching from its base, the stairway still offers a long and sometimes daunting climb, its summit partially obscured by the park’s overhanging tree canopies. This experience of the Ladder has a close conceptual correlation with a number of Jewish interpretations that describe the meanings of ‘ascension’ found in the story. In one Hermetic concept, a ladder may be shown pointing towards the sky, but not able to reach it; the ladder may reach towards heaven, but must stop at a certain point because God is incomprehensible. In Kabbalah, the conceptual ladder suggests that one may both ascend and descend. Here the purpose of ascent is to gain a higher perspective, a view from above. The purpose of descent is to fulﬁl one’s purpose in creation. Both movements are essential. Kabbalah commentary explains: “Only when one ascends the ladder of creation does one perceive true reality, allowing a sharper and more focused perspective upon re-entry into earthly spheres… while rising level after level, the view from above is stunning. The material world below is almost a joke, pathetically insigniﬁcant…” Similarly, the early Christian church presents Jacob’s Ladder as an analogy for an ascetic spirituality in life. This interpretation is found in Saint John Chrysostom who writes: “… For the ladder seems to me to signify in a riddle by that vision the gradual ascent by means of virtue, by which it is possible for us to ascend from earth to heaven, not using material steps, but improvement and correction of manners.”
From the start of our climb, the landings might be conceived as the Ladder’s ‘rungs’—these points of virtue one aims toward. However, their view is obscured, their attainment not assured, and the climb to be undertaken with faith. The artist’s use of the crimson red that dominates this view and the soft-layered greens and dappled sunlight around it, may symbolise for us the Christian analogy whereby Christ is presented as being the ladder that bridges Heaven and Earth. From just about any point on Edward Street below this wave of colour commands the eye, lifting the gaze up and out of the myriad distractions of the streetscape below, drawing it up and over the hill, and into the soft blue sky. Once the stair’s summit is achieved, the reverse view opens up to us. From here the work can be read as metaphorical revelation—but patience and multiple viewings will be required; the full extent of the works offering is revealed only once night begins to fall, a time when entering any city park is often accompanied by a prayer for safe-passage. At this time the presence of accompanying angels on the Ladder’s rungs is revealed, and the hard work of climbing in the spaces between is forgotten. Indeed, any view of what lies past the steps is equally hidden, insigniﬁcant. But look close—the artist has offered a range of angelic presences far removed from robed, harp-strumming cherubs. Here Attard engages deeper levels of history, place, and shared memory. Improbable, eery dreamscapes that reference this place and its past are beamed downward—the viewer is asked ‘what angels, and devils, of past and present inhabit this place?’ The movement created by this work, between what is visible from either position, echoes various themes in both Jewish and Christian interpretations of this well-known story. Perhaps users of the stairway may see in the images the angels said to accompany them on their journey down into the city. ADAM J MARGERISON Open Spaces Curator, Brisbane City Council
Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov, The Ladder, www.chabad.org; accessed 29/01/09 John Chrysostom, The Homilies on the Gospel of St. John n. 83,5.
s you head uphill along Brisbane’s Edward Street, it becomes too steep for vehicles when it meets the escarpment of Spring Hill at Wickham Park, and the street veers sharply to the right. If you’re walking, however, you continue straight ahead and ascend Jacob’s Ladder, perhaps Brisbane’s most evocatively titled landmark. Commissioned to produce a work in Brisbane, Maltese installation artist Norbert Francis Attard chose this site as much because of its name as anything else. Attard is a multi-disciplinary artist and works proliﬁcally all over the world, in whatever medium seems most appropriate. He gained international attention early in his career as an installation artist when he represented Malta at the 1999 Venice Biennale. He was ﬁrst introduced to Australia by Kevin Wilson in his former role as Director of the Noosa Regional Gallery, to participate in the inaugural Floating Land project in 2001. That project’s ecological theme was conveyed by Attard’s fragile cargo of twigs on the Noosa River, in a boat that was rendered almost invisible by mirror cladding. Wilson is now Director of the Artworkers’ Alliance in Brisbane, and has again drawn on his strong international connections to collaborate with the Brisbane City Council in bringing the artist back to work in a radically different setting. This time Attard has used paint and projected images to transform a pedestrian facility into a sequence of illustrations that allow the viewer to walk through a dream-like version of history. There are multiple Judaic and Christianinterpretations of the story, from the Book of Genesis, in which the Biblical patriarch Jacob has a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Most of Attard’s digitally montaged images allude directly to angels or their feathered wings, and he interprets the history of the site in visual terms that are as fantastic as Jacob’s vision. His own cultural background, coming from intensely Catholic Malta, has heightened his interest in translating an Old Testament story into a Queensland setting. Like dreams that incorporate elements of reality with pure invention, the images are all based on details from the story of nearby landmarks, such as the mill tower, are projected onto the broad landings that punctuate the long staircase. Research is an integral part of Attard’s working procedure. He examined historical documentation to devise images that relate to the use of the tower when Brisbane was a convict settlement, and its subsequent role as a rudimentary public time piece and signalling station. Delving into the archives also produced information about the
way Jacob’s Ladder had at times become neglected. He discovered public complaints about them being unsafe and unsanitary, not to mention unsightly. Urban renewal is an aspect of this project that ties it closely to the interests of Brisbane City Council. People who regularly use the steps, or pass them daily, are conscious that a lot of work has suddenly been done on this venerable landmark; virtually overnight it became brilliantly colourful. While taking documentary photographs the artist has been able to observe public reactions and describes his pleasure in putting a smile on the face of ‘ordinary people who never think about art.’ As a site for an artist project, Jacob’s Ladder isn’t quite as inspiring as the name suggests. It marks the point where the regular grid of city streets is defeated by difﬁcult topography, and represents the equivalent of an urban planner’s too-hard basket. It’s a zone of anonymously low-key corporate architecture, and provided a home for the group of large Arnaldo Pomodoro sculptures recently displaced by major redevelopment of the square in front of City Hall. The steps run along the interface where Wickham Park comes to an abrupt end against the nondescript side wall of a tall building. The steps communicate between the relatively sedate Spring Hill and the much busier city centre. As such, Jacob’s Ladder is a zone of transition, the type of location in which Attard has worked successfully to produce several previous installations. Attard trained, and for twenty years, practised as an architect. He has also had parallel careers as a painter and a graphic designer, and the skills acquired in these ﬁelds of work are incorporated into his approach to urban art projects. There has been no recognisable personal style, method or medium employed for his installations in public places around the Mediterranean, North Europe, East Asia and the Americas. He has an advertising art director’s skill for re-packaging and re-branding. The vertical rises of the steps have been painted intense red. When approached from below, Jacob’s Ladder now resembles not quite a stairway to heaven, but the stairway to the grand tier of boxes in an opera house. This creates a vividly colourful escape route up and away from the city streets when they start to get tangled at the downtown fringe. TIMOTHY MORRELL
HISTORY The projections by night makes reference to the various layers of history at the site. The Angels provide one level of meaning but if people look hard enough they will be able to unravel key events and activities in the area over time.
NINE PROJECTED IMAGES
TELEGRAPH SIGNAL STATION 1861
TRADES HALL 1891-1985 &
TIMEBALL 1861-1930 & CANON FIRING 1866
CONCRETE DRAUGHTS BOARD 1938
1st. TV BROADCASTS IN QUEENSLAND 1934
CONVICT ERA 1824-1842
HARRY OAKMAN 1906-2002
WINDMILL 1828 & USED BY FIRE BRIGADE AS AN OBSERVATORY POINT 1890’s
CODE OF SIGNALS 1861
WWII AIR RAID SHELTER 1942
NORBERT FRANCIS ATTARD www.norbertattard.com firstname.lastname@example.org