Top 10%: Hickory, gold plate, copper, brass. 24' x 16' x 12"
While completing the final touches to "La Liga" and laboring over the slow process of restoring the truck hood down in the shop, I kept eyeing remains of an old orchard ladder gathering dust in the shop. I had a strong personal history with it, as well as it being a "thing" that was saved years ago. Originally the ladder was one of two orchard ladders purchased in order to build the studio in 1989. It was valuable because it has a third leg allowing it to stand alone which is essential when building a house with 12 foot walls on the ground floor. After the studio/house was built, the two ladders shared duties. One was for use in the studio and the other went out side to serve a broad range of needs. Over time the outside ladder had been exposed to the elements and one of the legs had broken and was no longer safe.
We do a great deal of winter brush clean-up due to the trees and natural growth on the property. Piles of dead limbs etc. must be collected and burned in the spring. One spring the broken ladder was thrown onto the pile as a way to get rid of it. When returning to the pile the morning after the burn, just outside the perimeter of the hot ash, lay the top part of the ladder. All else had been consumed in the fire. The question coming to mind was, should it be picked up and placed on top of the hot coals to complete its demise? As it stared back at me, there was a very powerful connection with it on two levels. One was remembering how much it served my needs over the years. The other was the overwhelming visual power it had as a "thing". I rescued it from the ashes and stored it in the shop.
The task of working on the truck hood was boring and hard to sustain. As a diversion the ladder was placed close by on the work bench and the thinking process on what to do with it began while laboring on the truck hood. For me, it takes time for a spark of an idea to immerge in the subconscious before a creative pathway appears. The form of the ladder was there but its function alluded me. I was evaluating the condition of the ladder when a discussion on public radio caught my attention. The discussion was between the commentator and an economist discussing how conservative economic policies have impacted the working class in comparison to impact on the wealthy class. Much of the conversation was in terms of statistics. One specific piece of economic data caused me to stop working and process what was stated. He said that the top 10% of the world's population controled 87% of its wealth. I was so astounded that I researched the statement and found that it had come from the annual "Global Wealth Report". Going back into the shop to resume work on the truck hood, I looked over at the ladder and my brain connected a function for the ladder as a representation of global wealth disparity. I was looking at the very top part of a 12' ladder that was screaming at me, "I am the top 10% of the ladder of success and I am all that matters in this world. Everything below me is of no concern and there is no access to the top step because everything below me has been allowed to be burned away.
It happened that fast. The components needed work to reflect wealth and opulence, eventually leading to a complete overhaul. The fir legs were reproduced in (all American) hickory wood, the mettle frame was cleaned up and sent out to be gold plated, and all of the fasteners were replaced with copper and brass. I wanted to overall look to drip with privilege and superiority. Once the legs were milled, I then created another burn pile and placed the legs in the fire to achieve the same results of the original. Taking the legs from the fire, I began to treat the charred parts of the wood to stabilize and protect them from flaking during handling. The mettle frame came back from gold plating and it exceeded expectation. After all was assembled and the work was mounted for evaluation, I realized that there needed to be a connection between wealth and lies. History has proven that the two concepts are often interdependent. The tobacco and petroleum industries come to mind. Therefore I took that ladder apart and burned the word lies on the underside of the top and final step so that it could be seen by those below but not seen from above. In mounting the work for exhibit, I felt that it should be placed 10 feet high on the wall so that it can only be seen from below. The desired effect was to allow the viewer to look up and the ladder and visualize that there was no access to the top of the ladder.
After living with the work in the studio for over a year, I kept putting off a question in mind asking "what about that part that got burned away? Finally, the left over Hickory wood was fashioned into steps and leg parts. They were then placed into another burn pile. When collected the remaining pieces were treated for durability, and some of the ash was recovered. It took another six months over the winter to decide how these new burn pieces of hickory would fit. Slowly, a visualization began to appear in mind.
I recalled visiting Greek archeological museums when spending 3 months volunteering on the island of Lesvos. The presentation of various recovered artifacts kept creeping into my creative stream on the project and I began to visualize the ladder as an artifact recovered from its discarded obscurity. I visualized a museum artifact professionally restored to what the ladder would have looked like as a whole. As a result, progress on completing the lower part of the ladder project started taking shape. It began with the base of the ladder. I needed to be able to attach the lower burnt wood shards to a base so they could be suspended into their reconstructed position.
It took about a month to resolve the base involving making studies of the surface treatment as well as appropriate dimensions to accommodate the needed shard presentations. Next came the shards that would have mounts attached to the wall that would hold shards in the proper position reconstructing parts of the ladder. Finally there were much smaller shard pieces that were assembled, museum style, to suggest what parts of the ladder might have looked like based on what had survived. When all of the elements of the ladder project were placed, the task of fine tuning each part so that they were aligned properly so that one could imagine a whole ladder and in conclusion realize that the missing segments were those found in the middle rungs of the ladder with a few remaining bottom parts still in tact.
This was were the metaphor gained its impact on the viewer. If the ladder was a simulacrum of the distribution of the worlds wealth, then the very top is overly preserved in its gilt, while the middle class is completely gone, with some elements of the "servant/slave" class still visible. The message being that the rich protects its own and could care less about the middle class other than it is used to produce their wealth and are therefore expendable because of there being ample replacement numbers. This leaves the very bottom of the ladder which is fairly well preserved. This is related to a historic connection between the top 10% and their servant/slave supports. In every major culture throughout time, the wealthy top 10% require the lowest class to serve them in their needs. They range from private secretaries, cooks, maids, gardeners, drivers, security, nanny's, and the list goes on and on. When artifacts get dug up from ancient civilizations, what objects are found are "things" that belong to both the rich of the house and their servants.
This was the image/idea that formed the final work of this project. It began as a work designed to make the museum/gallery goer to look up at the very top part of a ladder as though they were looking at the "Ivory Tower" of success and question why did so few have so much. It ended asking the question, "where is the middle class, where did it go"? It is a valid observation seen in every museum in the world. We know more about the rich and the slaves than we do about the middle people of human history.
While completing the final part of the work, it was clear that its initial title was no longer relevant enough to represent what the work had become. The new title:
Archeology of The Top 10%.
noun: The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.