Friday, December 01, 2006
Post-Modern Power or Merely Playtime?
Here in Berlin a competition is taking place. It is between neither football teams nor politicians nor beauty queens, but rather two Ferris wheels: the “World Wheel” and the “Giant Wheel.” Neither has been built yet, but in their planning stages both represent the city’s continual effort to transform into, and literally be able to see itself as, a first-class metropolis of recognizable stature. On the drawing board, the latter wheel is winning, sort of, with 5 meters of height on the merely 175 meter tall World Wheel, although the World Wheel is having an easier time collecting funds—200 million Euros--necessary to start construction. The competition also has a dicey tinge of East-West rivalry to it, with the World located near the famous Western transportation center Zoologischer Garten, and the Giant alongside the newly spruced-up Ostbahnhof, or “East-train-station.”
(Note: both Wheels bear names in the original English. Perhaps the world’s current-day lingua franca is employed to denote construction of international significance, or perhaps the owners simply know where the tourist dollars come from).
As with the London Eye, the premise behind these wheels is a popular and profitable tourist attraction that relies on the giddy pleasure of being high up in the sky and seeing all. And, as was the case in London in the pre-Eye era, there are sufficient extant look-out points in Berlin, for example, the cupola of the Reichstag or the cloud-grazing top of the Fernsehturm, or TV tower, unofficial icon of the city skyline. The added appeal of these wheels, then, is that their slightly peripheral location provides a view of all the viewing points, an ability to take in what you can’t take in if you are in the center of the city trying to take it all in.
But is that all? The paradox of a Ferris wheel is how sharply it exposes one’s atom-like existence compared to the spreading terrain out there while empowering the individual with an expansive gaze otherwise impossible to attain. The panoramic gaze has been a source of delight for centuries; in the United States nineteenth century landscape painters like German-born Albert Bierstadt showed their enormous canvases in conjunction with carefully constructed platforms, lighting, curtains, and curved walls so that the sweeping gaze would feel real, so that the view out over the landscape would be actual. These paintings were presented not as hermetic art but rather as entertainment; Bierstadt was no avant garde artiste but rather a showman.
In fact, George W. Ferris created his eponymous attraction for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair only twenty years after Bierstadt rose to the peak of his fame, at the close of the same era of wild geographic expansion and attempts at consolidation of the American identity. It was incredibly popular, grossing over half a million dollars at fifty cents per ride, and it rose about 80 meters, or 264 feet, off the ground. Its influence has been felt at fairgrounds ever since; the photos here depict an amusement Ferris Wheel from the current Christmas Market in Berlin’s Schlossplatz.
However, to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket, “this ain’t your granddaddy’s Ferris Wheel.” Unlike the amusement-park Wheel, which one rode as part of a larger fair experience of entertainment and oddities, and which positioned itself as part of a greater festival atmosphere, the new Wheel is proud of its stand-alone shock value and peddles itself as no more than the all-consuming gaze. These new Mega-Wheels are distinguished by this self-imposed uniqueness, evinced in their sheer enormousness as well as their physical distance. They are not for views of the terrain but rather out and over it; their marketing draw is the all-encompassing nature of their gaze which by definition stems from a point outside. If one is looking at something, one is not of it: the new wheels mark a boundary between onlooker and looked-upon, between individual and urban sphere.
This gaze is not just separate; it is also empowered by its mind-boggling breadth and reach. The equation of an all-seeing gaze with power has been discussed by thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, whose “Panopticon” prison tower posited a world where the threat of constant surveillance, rather than certain punishment, keeps people in line. (The Panopticon was popularized by French theorist Michel Foucault.) Art historian Allan Wallach has called the panoramic gaze in American landscape painting “Panoptic” to connote just these struggles to gain control over the landscape, to come to terms with new geography by forcing that geography to conform to the terms of one’s own vision.
So is this new Mega-Wheel proliferation a post-modern attempt to reconstitute the individual citizen as a powerful agent in the face of ever-larger and ever-more chaotic modern metropolises? Is it a way to make the nearly-atomized viewer, who increasingly counts for less in the over-populated globe, a judge on the perimeter of the brave new world? Perhaps a cultural attempt to figure out what to make of the sprawling society that we’ve created? A push to regain the upperhand over decadent millennial civilization through re-established visual supremacy?
Or is it just another way to make money and have fun?
If the link above becomes outdated, information about the two wheels can be found in Karin Schmidl, “Das Geld reicht sogar fuer sechs Raeder,” Berliner Zeitung, 30 November 2006, 27.
Wallach’s assertion is in: "Making a Picture of the View from Mount Holyoke," in American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, ed. David C. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 83-84.