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This is a rectangular section of carved mahogany parquet floor comprising 112 pieces arranged in a grid of seven rows and sixteen columns. It is part of a site-specific work created in an office block on Blackfriars Road, in the London borough of Southwark, known as Orbit House. Kilpper carved a giant woodcut into the tenth floor the building covering 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. He used chisels and a chainsaw on the parquet to carve the relief. He then made a succession of prints on fabric, paper and sections of UV polythene film. Twenty-one of these, constituting individual portraits, are in Tate Collection at P78537-P78557. During the exhibition of the work, the prints were suspended on washing lines above the floor. Daylight from the surrounding windows filtered through their semi-translucent supports. Visitors would walk on the floor 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 technicians carefully removed the area of parquet after slicing it into metre square sections and reassembled it on boards.
The subjects of the woodcut are characters and events related in spirit or 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. 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 soup kitchen for the poor, a music hall and a theatre hosting productions of Shakespeare by The Old Vic Company. It was also used by Alfred Hitchcock as the set for his silent movie The Ring in 1927. Orbit House was commissioned in the 1960s by Labour minister Denis Healey 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. Orbit House was abandoned and scheduled for demolition when Kilpper gained access to the building in 1999. He has commented:
My work is a sort of reinstallation of the Blackfriars Boxing Ring in the British Library. I picture the very special audience of a special boxing fight. About eighty people are packed together to join this spectacle, some are well known, others not ... From my perspective all are connected to the particular site, to the Southwark area, or to me.
(Quoted in South London Gallery Projects.)
The section of parquet comprising The Ring: Fight On contains the portraits of the Vientamese leader Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) and the three founder members of the German Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang), Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Ulrike Meinhof, with their slogan ‘Fight On’. An urban terrorist group, the Red Army Faction developed after the student protest movements of the 1960s and was committed to violence against perceived growing fascist tendencies in Germany and the post-second world war US military presence in Europe. Kilpper’s previous project (following the same process as The Ring) was executed in a decommissioned American military base in Oberusel, Germany. Entitled Don’t Look Back 1998 (private collection), it made more overt reference to this part of German history. Kilpper believes that images of the Vietnam War which he saw on television and in newspapers when he was a boy had a profound impact on his political consciousness. He links the Vietnamese fight for independence to the revolutionary ideals of equality and self-determination of the RAF which he believes are violated by the retention of The Diamond Sutra by the West. Kilpper’s father was born in China. His grandfather, a missionary, was kidnapped but later released during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Chinese characters for Boxer Rebellion combine justice, peace and the fist. Kilpper uses these connections to suggest an interweaving narrative linking the personal with the political, high art and popular culture.
Thomas Kilpper: The Ring, exhibition brochure, South London Gallery Projects 2000
Thomas Kilpper: The Ring, exhibition catalogue, Orbit House, London 2000, pp.14-15, 32-3 and 40, reproduced p.12
Sue Hubbard, ‘An Eye for the Bigger Picture’, Independent: The Tuesday Review, 21 March 2000