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 in some way related 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. 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. Kilpper was born and educated in Germany. His father was born in China, where his grandfather, a missionary, was kidnapped and held prisoner for several months during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The Diamond Sutra, which contains a drawing of a symbolic fist as well as the Buddha bearing the reverse swastika sign, is one of the cultural objects many modern Chinese feel were robbed from their country by Western explorers in the nineteenth century. Kilpper included the communist leader Mao Tse-Tung (1893-1976) in his woodcut to reflect his personal sympathies with these views and with left-wing politics.
This print illustrates the earliest known representation of a printing studio, which is a French woodcut created around 1500. Kilpper copied the woodcut and captioned it with the words ‘The Ministry of Defence Presents:’ above the image and ‘Its Printing Office’ below. The printing office is portrayed invaded by skeletal figures. They interact with the men setting up the blocks of letters, operating the printing press and organising printed papers behind a desk. The skeleton figures belong to the medieval allegorical tradition known as The Dance of Death, in which death, symbolised by skeletons, is portrayed present with the living. Kilpper included a portrait of German renaissance artist Hans Holbein (1497-1543) in The Ring (see Tate P78546). Holbein published a famous series of woodcuts illustrating the dance of death in 1538 (Lyons). Kilpper’s Dance of Death was printed on a single section of nylon fabric patterned, appropriately for a presentation by the MoD, with a camouflage design of the type used in the army.
Thomas Kilpper: The Ring, exhibition catalogue, Orbit House, London 2000, pp.14-15, 18 and 44
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