Thuistezien 166 — 03.02.2021
In English, the title of Jasper Niens video work translates to ‘The man who climbed a mountain with a step-ladder’ Niens' work was part of a group exhibition in the summer of 2008 at West Den Haag. Filmed on what seems to be a late 90’s DV-quality handycam, the video takes place on a warm bright day. We see a man wearing shorts and climbing shoes, and carrying an item which, if not for the film's title, a ladder. We see him mainly from a side view, through a distant wide angle shot. The man slowly starts to climb a mountain. The ladder often proves more of a burden than a useful tool, making it uncomfortable for the viewer to watch his efforts. Ultimately the man carries with him an encumbrance, which yet is often also a necessary solution.
The imagery of Niens’ work proves potent and complex and is reminiscent of works that both precede it and follow it. On the one hand there is a similarity to the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is punished by the gods for trying to cheat death. His torturous punishment makes him repeatedly push an immense boulder up a mountain. Every time he reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down. Sisyphus is forced to repeat the process each time from the beginning, keeping him trapped in the same situation for eternity, with no hope of success.
Similarly, in the 2019 video game ‘Death Stranding' the player takes on the role of a delivery porter who needs to climb difficult terrain while carrying high tech gear, in order to deliver packages. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world where humans live in bunkers and shelters from strange invisible dangers as nature enforces its dominance once again onto the human species. Both the man in Niens’ work and the porter of the video game carry with them a ladder to overcome obstacles during their difficult ascents. Whereas Niens’ protagonist is stripped to the bare essentials and seen half-naked, the porter of Death Stranding is heavily equipped with survival gear as he combats the menacing ascent. Yet both carry with them tools that at times are helpful and at other times are a burden. And they both seem to endlessly keep climbing, without any apparent resolve in sight. Whatever each of us takes from these similar narratives, we see protagonists who never give up against the constant failures inherent in their situation. They accept the repeated setbacks they face and push forward. Maybe we too should learn to accept our failures in a similar way, and in a similar way to how we accept our achievements.
Text: Thijs Jaeger