TOWER OF JOY, ULAN BATOR, APRIL 1992 / Studio Magazine (2011)
“Tower of Joy: Ulan Bator, April 1992,” in Studio Magazine 1: [from] CRISIS [to], Milan, 2011:
A few months after my friend and mentor Theodore Antonopoulos had passed away, his wife suggested that I organize his archives that had grown to consume the entire building of their home in New York. This “assignment” came to overwhelm me, as I was discovering a multitude of previously unknown books and references that seemed to have influenced Theo’s work considerably. I decided, then, that I would dedicate all of my efforts to exploring what made his films and novels so powerful.
At the end of my fifth day spent in the chaos of his archives, I realized that, so far, I had only succeeded in making the hundreds of documents, books and films of the house more disorganized. As I stood dumbfounded by this observation, my eyes encountered some text written on a VHS that was partly submerged in a pile of films covering most of the room’s floor. The caption was reading “Tower Of Joy, Ulan Bator, April 1992”. The fact that Theo shot a movie in Mongolia did not come as much of a surprise as I often reflected that he may have visited every country in the world; nevertheless, this title, “Tower of Joy,” piqued my interest enough that I stole it away to watch later.
The footage on the VHS was rather confusing and was clearly unedited. The first ten minutes consisted of a fixed shot of a gigantic structure under construction in an urban landscape that could only have been Ulan Bator. The structure seemed to be almost hynoptic; it maintained the standard floor succession yet the proportions of the building seemed gargantuan considering the rest of the city’s buildings likely did not exceed seven or eight stories at the time of the filming. After five minutes of hynopsis, I noticed something stranger yet about the edifice. It did not seem to be under construction at all, but rather appeared to be one of those towers that would remain unfinished due to an unnamed and unseen economical crisis or an administrative conflict. A few cranes remained lodged on the top of the structure, their movement dictated simply by the strong winds of the Mongolian capital.
The following shot was clearly filmed during the seemingly endless ascent of the tower and was in strong contrast with the first one; Theo was absolutely unable to keep the camera still. As I watched, I could not figure out what was pushing him continue on so high when the numerous floors he was bypassing would have been perfectly capable of conveying the interesting shots in the abandoned structure. The next hour or so consisted exclusively of the repetitive images of those stairs, floor by floor with the city behind, the syncopation of his feet on each step, and Theo’s progressive panting that was starting to occupy most of the soundtrack. Although I was amazed at the existence of such a tower, I was beginning to get bored by those rushes, and soon realized that I was far more accustomed to my mentor’s final product rather than the pieces of films that would end up on the cutting room floor. Just as I was about to move the video forward, I heard a sound that froze my hand just in front of the VCR. Within the film Theo had frozen similarly mid-step, and he turned around and went back a few steps to reach a landing, then turned to enter the core of the building. It did not take much time to discover the origin of the sound as the camera quickly captured a crew of children who were playing in the endless corridor of the tower. Although I could not quite understand how those kids ended up at what was probably the fortieth floor of an abandoned tower, Theo didn’t seemed surprised as he stopped filming them to resumie his walk within the corridor, quickly followed by the intrigued children.
Little by little, the rooms beside the corridor went from a state of complete abandonment to a surprising state of organization. Inside of them lived dozens of families that somehow managed to occupy this empty structure, and it suddenly occurred to me that Theo knew exactly what he was doing. Minute by minute, the film was showing more and more squatters of the tower who managed to create domestic spaces by appropriating the other destroyed spaces from this impersonal building.
Theo could not reach the end of the corridor before I heard a strong clamor coming from his left. By that time, it was not Theo who was in Ulan Bator filming this movie anymore, but me, hypnotized as I was by what I was seeing on the screen. The camera penetrated within a room that seemed more destroyed than in construction. On the other side of a pierced brick wall was the origin of this clamor and a continuous sum of voices talking one to another was occupying the space Theo was now entering. An important crowd was here gathered around a very large and deep stair shaft that seemed to respond via its echo to the collective conversation. Many people were sitting on the edges of the void, on this floor and on others as much as the camera was showing. The core of the discussion seemed nowhere and everywhere at the same time and, although I cannot understand a word of Mongolian, it seemed clear that the subject of the discussion was important and serious yet enthusiastic.
Although Theo was remaining still, the camera was slowly unfolding the totality of this space, insisting on the sunlight coming down almost vertically within the void and keeping the conversation of the tower inhabitants as a background sound, almost like an incantation. I was not sure of what I was assisting to from the other side of the screen and about two decades later, but it looked like this Babylonian tower in construction had been occupied by a self-managed micro-society that did not need to get back down to the ground in order to live. This hypothesis was adding to my surprise and my incredulity about the fact that I never heard about such a gigantic building and the fascinating society living in it.
In order to give an ultimate hit to this feeling, the film suddenly stopped and finished on a long shot of Ulan Bator almost identical to the first one, yet this time without any trace of the tower. Nothing on the screen was really allowing to register those two shots in a logical chronology and I was confused in the various hypotheses that could explain this last part of the film. Has the Tower of Joy been destroyed between those two shots, was this whole film a pure fictitious construction orchestrated by Theo, was it a temporary hallucination miraculously inscribable on the film material? At the time I am writing this text, I still ignore the answer to these questions.