This past weekend, New York-based artist and designer Ian Stell debuted Diagint, his very first work to be shown in Berlin, along the bank of the Spree River. The installation consists of a pair of interlocking staircases cleverly configured in such a way that five steps on each flight pivot open like a door, allowing Diagint to become a four-way passage. Stell's design is placed (thanks to the support of collector Brian Stonehocker) at the newly developed Spreestudios, a new hub for creative events, artist studios, and the like set in a unique German historical site that previously hosted both the municipal public river baths and the GDR's customs authority.
We spoke to Stell on the eve of his German debut to get to know him—and Diagint—just a bit better.
AC: What was the inspiration behind Diagint?
IS: I wanted to build a mezzanine in an extremely narrow storefront space with high ceilings that I was renting in Chinatown, New York. Out of this the notion of a folding staircase came to mind. When deployed, the stairs would of course connect two levels, but it would also effectively become a closed door on the first floor—it would have to pivot open in order to walk from front to back on the ground level.
This hybrid doorway/stairway presents a series of negotiations from its user(s) that seem contradictory, and require an unusual negotiation that I find interesting. One expects a stairway to be a fixed, static element, and a doorway to allow access between two places, not three.
Diagint borrows much of its physical form from the ubiquitous wrought iron fire escapes that adorn the façades of so many nineteenth century buildings in New York City. I’ve always found these simple shadow-casting passageways compelling—like the lines of a musical manuscript, describing movement within a fixed structure.
AC: What does it mean to you to have your work presented at a historical spot like this in Berlin?
IS: This is an incredible opportunity in many ways. I’m a native New Yorker, and for this to be my introduction to what is, of course, a radically different urban environment has been rich and inspiring. Spreestudios is at the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a long and fruitful narrative of creative energy and community.
It’s been a great pleasure to meet and work with [Spreestudios founder] Christian Rosche and his team on this project. He has a broad and nuanced vision for the rehabilitation of this unique site—one in which a sensitive balance is struck between the preservation of Weimar/GDR palimpsest and the nurturing of natural flora that has returned to the banks of the Spree after many years of limited human intervention. Christian is safeguarding this precious combination of ingredients—part Caspar David Friedrich painting, part Bladerunner set—while providing a habitat for a diverse array of gifted creatives. It’s amazing, and I’m honored to have a modest connection to these people and this place. I’m also very grateful to Brain Stonehocker, a forward thinking collector for both connecting me to Spreestudios and making all of this possible.
AC: What do you hope people take away from seeing the sculpture?
IS: It’s an open proposition, and I’m pleased with the diversity of initial impressions that Diagint has triggered. Most people are surprised at first to see something so familiar altered in this way. Wonder has been followed by everything from argument to laughter.
For years this was purely an idea, and even when I built a scale model as a proof of concept it remained primarily abstract. But to experience Diagint as a full-scale passageway, one is forced to address its functional specificity on a corporeal level as well. Our bodies have a relationship with stairs that is many thousands of years old—they are components of mechanized hills. My hope is that Diagint can allow access to unexpected places.
AC: Is this a permanent installation, or will it be taken down at some point?
IS: Diagint will be in its current location for at least the next year, but it is both my hope as well as Brian Stonehocker's that it will find other temporary homes elsewhere in the world. The staircase was built out of stainless steel and aluminum by a company in northern Italy that specializes in the manufacture of performance automobile parts. It will remain maintenance-free and functional through snow and sun for many years to come.
AC: And what's up next for you?
IS: I have an upcoming show at Matter, opening in late September. In addition to yet unseen kinetic work, there will be several pieces utilizing unique, text-derived optical patterns. My work will also be featured this fall in two exciting group shows—at the MFA Boston, as well as a show curated by Felix Burrichter at the Swiss institute.
*Spreestudios is located at Köpenicker Chaussee 1-4 / Ecke Zur Alten Flussbadeanstalt, 10317 Berlin
*All images courtesy of Ian Stell.