This is one of a series of unique prints generated from a site-specific work created in an office block on Blackfriars Road, in the London borough of Southwark. Orbit House was abandoned and scheduled for demolition when Kilpper gained access to the building in 1999. He carved a giant woodcut into the mahogany parquet covering the tenth floor, comprising an area of approximately 400 square metres. The woodcut depicted a boxing ring surrounded by an audience of some eighty characters whose names were cut around the edge of the image. The artist derived the portraits from photographs and etchings which he made into slides and projected onto the floor before carving the relief with chisels and a chainsaw. He then made a succession of prints, constituting individual portraits, on a range of new and found materials. He used old curtains left in the building, often sewing several pieces together to make one large, rectangular support. Paper sources include advertising hoarding paper and sheets of purple ultra violet polythene film which Kilpper discovered screening windows in some rooms of the building. The herringbone texture of the parquet features strongly on all the uncut areas of the prints which were executed mainly in black ink using a specially-made giant, cement-filled roller. During the exhibition of the work, the prints were suspended on washing lines above the carved floor. Daylight from the surrounding windows filtered through their semi-translucent supports. Visitors would walk on the carved parquet while looking at the prints. A huge banner was printed from the entire surface (The Ring, collection the artist) and hung on the outside of the building for the duration of the installation. Tate owns twenty-one prints, twenty made on fabric (Tate P78537-P78556) and one on paper (Tate P78557). The Ring: Fight On (Tate T07671) is a section of the parquet flooring preserved before the building’s demolition in late 2000.
The subjects of the woodcut are characters and events related in ‘spirit’ and in fact to the location and to the artist. Kilpper selected Orbit House because of the fascinating history of the building and its site and their connections with his own personal history and motivations. His installation created a web of serendipitous interconnecting personal and political narratives. In 1780, the Wesleyan Surrey Chapel was erected on the site by the charismatic preacher and orator, Reverend Rowland Hill (1744-1833). It served as a chapel until 1890, when the octagonal building was taken over by first an engineering company and then a furniture warehouse. Between 1907 and 1909 it functioned as one of London’s earliest cinemas. In 1910 it became a popular boxing venue, The Ring, until 1940, when it was destroyed by a direct hit in a Luftwaffe raid aimed at the nearby rail link to Dover. During its time as The Ring, the building doubled as a music hall and theatre, hosting productions of Shakespeare by The Old Vic Company. Orbit House was commissioned in the 1960s to house the secret printing office for the Ministry of Defence. At the same time, the British Library’s Oriental Collections Department shared the building to store part of its collection, including the oldest wood-printed book The Diamond Sutra (868 AD) discovered in a cave in western China by the explorer Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) in 1907.
This print depicts the English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70). Dickens had a painful connection with the Southwark area: in 1924 his parents and nearly all his siblings were imprisoned in Marshalsea Debtors Prison in Borough High Street. This prison and several churches in the area (although not Surrey Chapel) feature in his novels. The portrait of Dickens was printed on a support made of four sections of fabric. A narrow vertical strip, composed of a blue floral print above a section of orange and yellow, lies between two wide sections of white.
Thomas Kilpper: The Ring, exhibition catalogue, Orbit House, London 2000, pp.14-15 and 43, reproduced p.25 in colour
Thomas Kilpper: The Ring, exhibition brochure, South London Gallery Projects 2000
Sue Hubbard, ‘An Eye for the Bigger Picture’, Independent: The Tuesday Review, 21 March 2000