On a narrow ledge above the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, an inconspicuous wooden ladder leans against the wall. The oldest evidence of its existence is a woodcut from 1728 on which the ladder is depicted. But it may also have been there for much longer. No one knows for sure. The original function of the ladder is also not entirely clear: was it left there after work on one of the windows was done? Was it once used to enter the church when the gates were closed?
Only one thing is clear: the ladder must not be removed because it is part of the so-called Status Quo. This principle regulates which parts of the church belong to which of the six Christian confessions which share this perhaps holiest place in Christianity: Catholics, Copts, Greek, Syrian, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and Armenian Apostolics. One can imagine the Status Quo like a complicated cleaning schedule in a sizeable flat-sharing community: it regulates who owns which shrines, which tasks are to be done by whom, and who is allowed to pray where at what times. As in every sizeable flat-sharing community, this principle leads to disputes - and these have a long tradition. Between the monks who look after and care for the church, it sometimes comes to physical violence.
The centuries-old dispute between the confessions means that everything at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remains as it is. Because to change something, everyone would have to agree. Every building measure, every change without the agreement of all those involved, would be a violation of the Status Quo - including the utterly useless ladder. So it has become what it embodies today: an integral part of the architecture of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a funny anecdote in historical city tours, a symbol of the absurdity of religious conflicts.
Mathias Weinfurter learned about this ladder during a stay in Jerusalem in 2013. Based on this, he began to install his Status Quo Ladders in various places in 2018.
Nils Altland: In the meantime, you have installed ladders on three continents, a beautiful series has been created. Which ladder do you look at with the most satisfaction today?
Mathias Weinfurter: It's hard to say. I only see the project as something whole. It only works because of the quantity and the idea that there will be more. A single ladder doesn't work at all. When you look at a single installation, you have to know that it is part of a series to get an idea of it.
NA: You’ve installed your ladders in countries as diverse as South Korea, Bosnia, or Colombia. What role do these places play in the project?
MW: I wouldn't go anywhere just to install a ladder. It must somehow be possible to combine it with a trip or a residency that I'm doing somewhere anyway. Otherwise, it would be A) ecologically questionable why I'm traveling to South Korea now just to set up a ladder there. And B) the personal aspect of the project is that it is long-term. Retrospectively, it documents where I have been over the years. I try to install a ladder on every trip. Maybe the project is also a kind of travel diary.
NA: So it is also a very personal project?
MW: For sure. I installed one of my most recent ladders in Siegburg at my school, where I was for two and a half years. For me, it was about the personal connection to the place, in addition to the exciting architecture. This school is like a secret place of pilgrimage for me. Since I moved away from there in 2002, I have been going there at least once a year. I like to walk around the school to get some nostalgic feelings. That's why I felt like installing a ladder there as well, to mark this place through this project as a station in my life.
NA: However, these ladders are usually in places that are difficult to access. How do you choose the sites once you are there?
MW: Of course, the ladders must not be in a place where they are immediately gone the next day. It's also about them being exposed. That is also the case with the Jerusalem ladder, which is always the model. It stands on a ledge at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, high up, inaccessible to passers-by. That's a rule I also apply to the other ladders. But I don't have a fetish about impossibility. I don't have to abseil down from a skyscraper or fly somewhere with a drone. A) I don't have the economic power for that. And B) I also find it an inspiring moment when I see an installation or an intervention and know that it didn't cost that much. I can go to the hardware store and buy a rope for ten euros and then rope down the ladders with it. I find that rather inspiring.
NA: Nevertheless, you also took risks with some of these actions, didn't you?
MW: Yes, but I have also become more cautious. Ten years ago, I would have thought differently. I don't want to fall off a house because I put a ladder there. I also can't risk installing the ladder, which falls on someone's head. If my intervention hurts someone, I have failed.
NA: You are not the first artist to work with ladders. How did you approach this object?
MW: When I started to deal with the ladder, I researched: What kind of art is there with ladders? Then I found cool things and started to create an archive. Last year, I thought to myself: if I make this archive publicly accessible, maybe I can even expand it. It works well on Instagram with the help of the community. So every few days, I upload an artistic work with a ladder. And people regularly send me other works that somehow have to do with ladders or their works. Accordingly, this archive is already vast. Many people who make installations with ladders change something about the ladder itself. For example, they saw off the rungs or exchanged them for kitchen knives. But what I like about my project is the simplicity of the gesture: the object itself remains unchanged.
NA: Does the ladder play a role as a symbol? Theoretically, it could also be a bucket or a mop...
MW: If there were the legendary broom at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is leaning against the wall and cannot be moved, then perhaps it would be a broom now. But the ladder is also so attractive as a tool because it appears so often in public spaces. There is always a ladder leaning against the wall on a balcony somewhere. It's a universal tool. That's also the project's beauty: I can go somewhere, to South Korea or Colombia. And I know beforehand that I'll find a ladder there. I don't have to bring one or go to the hardware store and buy one. I've never done that before. The ladder is already waiting for me there. And it's always different: sometimes it's made of wood, sometimes of aluminum, once I used a rope ladder.
NA: ...and beyond the ordinary?
MW: The ladder as a motif is historically and theologically charged. It is quoted early on in art history and runs through frescoes to Dürer woodcuts. You can always find a ladder on them - like a ladder to heaven. As a metaphor, however, I find less interesting this religious motif of climbing to heaven, but rather the motif of the tool. A tool that creates accessibility for me: there are two levels. I am at the bottom, take the ladder and get to the next level. The ladder is like a bridge.
NA: Why are you so fascinated by the principle of the status quo?
MW: This principle is especially noticeable in Jerusalem or the Middle East in general. And it can be applied to minor social contexts. We are all confronted with this principle insanely often in our lives: I have a need, you have a need. And maybe our conditions interfere with each other, and we compromise. It sucks for both of us. And we declare it the status quo and keep it, even though we are both dissatisfied. Because we can't agree on anything better, we don't change anything now. This can be in the family, a relationship, or a friendship. You can scale it up to a geopolitical conflict.
NA: Is this the political dimension of the project?
MW: It repeatedly happens that an injustice occurs somewhere, and we don't find a better solution to the problem, even though it is clearly visible to the outside world. So there is a status quo. We don't find a better solution and maintain the injustice. As an artist, I find this a fascinating phenomenon without offering a solution. And the ladder illustrates that. It is also beautiful because it is so profane: it doesn't matter whether the ladder is standing there in Jerusalem or not. Perhaps all those involved would more or less agree on that. It has no function. But above all, they decide that they don't want to change the status quo for whatever reason. So the ladder remains there, no matter how irrational that may seem.
NA: Does the project have nothing to do with religion?MW: If you look at the emergence of religious rituals, it always works through multiplication. Someone somewhere has done something strange, others have performed this action according to the same stereotype, and this action is declared a ritual, ritually charged. And that is the key idea. I take this moment from this ladder and multiply it, make it a ritual, to claim: these are also Status Quo Ladders that are equivalent to the original one. That's why the original ladder is also part of the photo documentation without having installed it myself. It has nothing sublime, nothing sacred, more godly than the others. Quite profane.
NA: Isn't the decisive difference between your ladders and the ladder in Jerusalem that yours will not be there forever?
MW: The exciting thing is that the ladder in Jerusalem may not be there forever either. I'm even sure that it won't be there forever. But it will be there for a very long time. And that brings us to the exciting topic of monuments. After all, the ladder in Jerusalem is also a monument. Just as my ladders are also monuments linked to a time and a physicality. I mean, if an earthquake happens or a bomb explodes or whatever, then the ladder is gone. Then you can think about putting a replica there. Or you can say: OK, that's it then. Then the ladder was there for 400 years, and now it's gone.
With my ladders, it's a bit like the classic Beuys story about the grease that is wiped away by the cleaner. It's nice when I know that next week the caretaker will come to the school and see that there's a ladder and think: I have no idea what that's about, but of course, it has to go. He probably won't ask himself whether the ladder could have any significance.
NA: Do you know of any ladders that are still standing where you put them?
MW: I could ask Bogotá if it's still there. At least it was still there months later when the Google Street View car drove by. At least that's how it's recorded on Google.
NA: So, you would be okay with people adapting it. Just like people at some point started lacing their trainers together and throwing them over some overhead wires?
MW: Such phenomena arise socially, perhaps from a desire for ritual and play. I don't know if I, as an artist am in a position to spark such a social phenomenon. I have created this moment artificially and am not responding to a need. That is perhaps the difference. I can't tell you ad hoc the idea behind throwing trainers over the overhead line. But there must be one; otherwise, this ritual wouldn't be repeated stereotypically, would it?
NA: Are you questioning architecture, too?
MW: Questioning is good! Architecture plays a significant role in the project. I sort of exploit architecture. I take a parasitic approach to it. I always try to turn architecture into a pedestal. That's the point. The ledge in Jerusalem is also a pedestal. True, there are reports that the monks already grew plants on it. But as far as I have seen, this ledge was not used - except as a pedestal for the ladder. I always try to find comparable pedestals in architecture. On bridges, for example, the bridge pillars are already pedestals for the bridge itself. Most of the time, they stand a bit over. But contemporary, super functional roughcast architecture offers little room for maneuver. There's rarely an impassable protrusion that you can use as a pedestal. That's why older buildings are often more suitable.
NA: What specifically attracted you to the bunker in Berlin-Schöneberg?
MW: There were other places in Berlin that would have come into question. But at this location, there was such a mixture of aspects that I found incredibly interesting: of course, the historical architecture, the bunker, the Palasseum, which is superimposed on it. Architecturally super exciting. But also subculturally, it's a charged place, a place of historical significance, especially for me personally. I remember it from the True 2 the Game DVD, where the graffiti writer Poet walks along there and explains what an incredible spot it used to be. It used to be his hall of fame; now, the walls are all white. Long before I came to Berlin for the first time, I already knew the place. This area had an attraction for me, all the way to Frankfurt. And then, when I was there myself years ago, a friend took me there, we went to Downstairs, the shop was close by. That was exciting for me.
NA: To what extent did your background as a graffiti writer lead you to start this project? Do you see any parallels?
MW: There certainly are some parallels. It would be silly to deny that now, as someone who was socialized in the graffiti subculture, doing public interventions. Of course, it's related. But what I wouldn't do is spray a piece somewhere and and claim this to be my art. For me, that has its place quite well in the subculture. That's where it's pretty well placed.
But there are people - we're probably thinking of the same people directly - who get to the heart of their graffiti approach in public interventions much more than I do. I see it more poetically. So it doesn't have to be the riskiest place, but the poetry of the ladder itself is much more important to me, the poetry of the statement: this is now the Status Quo Ladder. It doesn't have to be on the Brandenburg Gate at all, but on a bunker in Schöneberg, for it to be the Status Quo Ladder Berlin. The graffiti sprayer says: You have to climb the Brandenburg Gate and place a ladder there. But the poet in me says: No, you have to make the place relevant through the action, not the other way around.
NA: You speak of “the poetry of the statement". Are you more concerned with seeing something beautiful and fascinating in this statement than with criticizing the fact that the "status quo" always means that people somehow assert power structures?
MW: I don't want to approach my art didactically, I don't necessarily want to criticize, and I don't want to articulate solutions. Instead, I feel the need to discuss it to establish a basis for discussion. I would feel honored if someone in a philosophical or sociological discussion were to quote my work as an example and say: 'Look! Speaking of the status quo, Mathias Weinfurter has taken up the problem and has contributed to it. How he dealt with it is interesting.' But there is no criticism or solution in it.
NA: What then is the intention behind the project?
MW: What is particularly important to me personally is to take up narratives from reality and to continue them or to tell them differently and anew. And not to judge everything as set and finished. As in this example: Someone put a ladder on a ledge 400 years ago. It's not as if you have to accept that as a given, but you can also say 400 years later: I'll start from there. I'll move on. I'll change the narrative. And depending on how successful I am with it, there might be a moment when the narrative continues with my work and then stops somewhere else entirely. I would find that interesting. I think that would be a moment when I would say: Now you have created something.
1 "Downstairs" in Yorckstraße in Berlin-Schöneberg was a shop for spray cans and an important meeting point for West Berlin's graffiti subculture in the Nineties and Noughties.