Running through the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district is Diagonal street, one of the oldest roads in Johannesburg, it is characterised by it’s old architecture and low rise buildings with street front stores. Victorian neo-classical and 1930’s Dutch flatiron building are amongst the eclectic mix of architectural styles that lend Diagonal Street its unique character. However this arterial route through the western end of the CBD, boasts some modern skyscrapers that sprang up in the 1980’s as a monument to South Africa’s economic development.
During the early part of the 20th Century, the town centre began to shift eastwards towards Rissik and Eloff streets, which, in the face of loosely enforced Apartheid laws, allowed marginalised races and religions to create and maintain their own trading area on Diagonal Street. Today the area maintains it’s uniquely multicultural identity, with the strong presence of Indian and West African cultures.
Once the financial centre, Diagonal street boasts such tenants as FNB towers, The old Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Richfield graduate institute of technology, and it terminates in a vibrant informal trading market that sells mostly clothing, but also fresh produce and culturally diverse ingredients from all over Africa.
Informally known as “the Diamond Building”, the skyscraper at 11 Diagonal Street is the jewel of the district. Modelled on the aesthetic of the classic, cut-and-polished diamond, the perfect symmetry of the building is accented by it’s angular faceting, and vast tessellated glass shell. It is in the lobby of 11 Diagonal street, that “Ascent, descent” is housed.
Stainless steel columns of various heights are topped with laser cut, mild steel, powder-coated figures. The columns, arranged in a snaking line have both the feeling of a fence, or boundary, and a series of podiums. The figures are derived from photographs of people who commute through, work in or inhabit the CBD, and their characters range from well dressed business men and women, commuters hailing taxi’s and informal traders transporting their good on their heads, to everyday pedestrians.
The arrangement of the characters, both in relation to each other, but also in relation to their height from the ground, weaves a more complex narrative that talks to socio-economic issues ranging from inequality and privilege and formal vs informal business, to the history of Diagonal street as a site of economic development during apartheid.
Ascending and descending the podiums of economic success, physical space and fluctuations in social circumstance, the characters become points on a graph, that when seen in its entirety is symbolic of the unpredictable, the variability of all things. The glass wall that flanks the sculpture, reflects it back at an angle, creating an echo in a visually ambiguous parallel that speaks to the inherent cyclical nature of life, economics and social change.