Knock it Out | Thomas Kilpper, ‘The Ring’, Southwark, London.

Knock it Out

My work is sort of a ‘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 (Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Johann Gutenberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Dennis Healey, Adolf Hitler, Len Harvey, Henry Cooper, Mohammed Ali, Marie Lloyd, Mata Hari, Richard Wagner, Georg F. Handel, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Bobby Sands, Ho Chi Minh, Madonna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Leo Castelli, Sigmar Polke, Gilbert & George…) From my perspective all are connected to the particular site, to the Southwark area, or to me.

Thomas Kilpper


On the tenth floor of Orbit House, an abandoned office block in Blackfriars, Southwark, Thomas Kilpper has produced a four hundred square metre woodcut. For the last five months, carving directly into the mahogany parquet floor of the building, Kilpper has inscribed it with its own histories, presenting a map of the vast socio-cultural, political, and economic changes happening in Southwark over a period of more than two hundred years. We can chart the various changes in social organisation, politics and economics from the Christian uses of the site in the 18th and 19th centuries to the advent of cyber-capitalism presently.

Kilpper’s use of woodcutting, the oldest form of printmaking, is highly significant. Appearing in Europe at the beginning of the 15th century, woodcuts were used to reproduce knowledge, literally inscribing events in history. One of the major shifts in worldview that came with the invention of the printing press in this period was the notion that the natural world is just passively waiting for us to appropriate it.  Mapmakers, for example, shifted from the activity of creating artefacts that explained existence to the creation of artefacts that charted the world.  In stark contrast, Kilpper’s woodcut is not simply a collection of images that convey information directly from an artist to the viewer. Its primary function is to serve as decoration which pays tribute to the psychogeographies of the site, the complexity of the work mirroring the complexity of these histories. By interlacing and interweaving 80 portraits, Kilpper emphasises that his print is not intended to be a naturalistic representation of the site and surrounding area, but to be schematic and symbolic. Kilpper’s illumination of The Ring, being open to different interpretations, poses allusive and meditative possibilities, making the histories of the area manifest in the subjective mapping process itself.

Kilpper’s narrative commences in 1780 when the octagonal Surrey Chapel was constructed on the site by the charismatic Reverend Rowland Hill, who was known to draw congregations of over 1000 to his services. The chapel was eventually abandoned in 1890 when it became Green & Sons Ltd. Engineering, and then a furniture warehouse in 1905. Between 1907 and 1909 the building was converted into one of London’s first cinemas, returning it to its original function as an arena of glamour, ritual and escape.  Kilpper’s interest in the relationship between spectacle and the historical erasure tallies well with this period of cinematic history.  At the beginning of the C20th actors were rarely given credit for their film work. Many of the early actors came from a theatre background, wherein film work was considered inferior. Often they did not want to be recognised in the films.  The mapping of this era is, therefore, necessarily schematic.

Designated as an entertainment venue, the building became the popular boxing arena known as The Ring. From 1910 to 1940, it played host to some of the most famous boxers in London.  During this period sports such as boxing became one of the central sites in the social production of masculinity in Western societies. Many attempts had previously been made to link combative sports with moral strength – such as in the ‘muscular Christianity’ espoused by leading Victorian headmasters. This was particularly conspicuous in the period spanning the two World Wars when the boxing ring became an arena for the development of physical presence, stoic courage in the endurance of pain, and judgement under pressure – unequivocally military values which were then portrayed as essential parts of the achievement of ‘manhood’.

Kilpper weaves the ideological role of boxing with more personal recollections of the sport, representing figures such as Mohammed Ali and Henry Cooper. This again fosters the leitmotif of the relationship between celebrity and historical erasure in The Ring. Boxing fame is particularly fickle and transient. We remember Ali and Cooper but, like greyhounds and racehorses, most boxers come and go. Kilpper draws parallels with the artworld. Kilpper reproduces Leo Castelli alongside Tony Shafrazi and Bruno Bischofberger’s famous poster of Warhol vs. Basquiat (1985) depicting the artists preparing for a boxing match. Like a successful boxing promoter, Castelli’s reputation outlasted his client’s careers. Of unsuccessful abstract expressionists, he once said ‘they accuse me of killing them; they blame me for their funerals. But they were dead already. I just helped remove the bodies.’

During this period the building doubled as a theatre and Music Hall, where the music of Wagner and Handel could be heard.  The Old Vic Company – with Robert Atkins and Leslie French – performed Shakespeare’s Henry IV at The Ring.  (The original ‘ring’, Shakespeare’s legendary Globe Theatre, had not been reconstructed as yet.) Alfred Hitchcock used The Ring as the set for his 1926 silent movie of the same name, in which a boxer falls in love with the ticket girl. Hilter also left his mark on the site. Nazi air raids struck The Ring twice, bringing an end to boxing and theatre at Blackfriars.

The current office building Orbit House, was erected in the sixties for the Ministry of Defence, commissioned by Dennis Healy to house the secret printing office of The Army. Kilpper illustrates this era by reproducing the first Western representation of a printing office, The Dance of Death (Lyon c.1500).  This macabre image raises the history of print as an instrument of control. The Church’s monopoly on information during the manuscript book period, ended with the arrival of print. European nation states flourished as the world could now be mapped without recourse to religious propaganda.  The world was no longer unknown, but a manageable, controllable resource to be exploited.  (A replica of Francis Drake’s 16th century galleon the Golden Hinde, docked adjacent to Orbit House, testifies to this.) As a Eurocentric world economy flourished, armies and attendant nationalist propaganda were needed to protect and develop the new colonial markets. Thus print liberated and imprisoned simultaneously.  As Kilpper observes, newspapers covered the windows of the Ministry of Defence’s secret printing office. The Ring traces the use of print as a means of subjugation during the Ministry of Defence’s occupation, reproducing newspaper images from the Falkland’s war and numerous reports of the troubles in Ulster.

For more than 25 years The British Library’s Oriental Collections Department mainly occupied Orbit House. The production of books and therefore the very existence of libraries are, of course, inseparable from the invention of woodcut technology.  In 1452, Johann Gutenberg conceived of the idea for movable type by bringing together technologies of paper, oil-based ink and the winepress to print books. At Bruges in Belgium in 1475 William Caxton and Colard Mansion printed The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, the first book printed in English, thereby heralding the standardisation of the language. Yet the printing press was not a single Western invention but the aggregation in one place, of technologies known for centuries before. The Oriental Collections Department is the home of the Diamond Sutra (868AD), the oldest dated and known woodprinted book of the world, a major source of technical knowledge for European printers. Kilpper simultaneously relates the Diamond Sutra to his own pre-history, to the genealogy of The Ring and to European colonialism.

Kilpper’s father was born in China where his grandfather was a missionary. His father recalls the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against European encroachments on Chinese territory and against Christian missionary activity. The Boxers formed about 1899 as a secret society, calling itself ‘The Fist of Righteous Harmony’. The Movement, centred in Peking, reached its climax in June 1900. Some Christian missionaries and many Chinese Christians were murdered. Kilpper’s grandfather was kidnapped. Foreign residents and many native Christians took refuge in the British legation, where they made a determined stand against the Boxers. On June 21st China declared war against the western allies. During this fight the allies destroyed Peking’s Summer-Palace. Foreign troops remained in Peking until the peace protocol was signed in September 1901, a severe humiliation to the Chinese. Kilpper’s Mao Tse Tung proclaims: “We took some of your missionaries to the mountains, you took our Diamond Sutra to Europe – we gave them back, you did not…”

Now Orbit House is abandoned and due to be demolished. The landlords intend to erect a new and bigger office building named Southpoint. Costing £90m, this will be the largest private investment in this area of London for 15 years. In such paperless offices, methods of mechanical reproduction such as printing are virtually obsolete. The ‘printed’ word and image are now used for real-time social interaction and for fully individualised navigation through interactive documents. Information flows digitally, making it instant and free, yet unaccountable. Consequently, the era of the nation state is over as we enter the epoch of cyber-colonialism. The might of the fully globalised economy has forced the Southwark area to change as a whole. Nearby Bankside Power Station, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, is being converted by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, transforming it from a building planned for an industrialised nation state, to one designed for an information-based global network. The first phase conversion into the Tate Modern will cost £134m. The London Borough of Southwark was a key initial investor, recognising the regeneration and employment potential the scheme offers the area. Typically of service-based economies, Bankside will provide employment but have nothing in common with the district it inhabits. When it is not simply ignored or erased, the history of the ancient market and port of Southwark is being neatly packaged (The Globe, The Clink Prison, the Golden Hinde) as the area is globalised to attract lavish international investment. Since the introduction of the Jubilee Line and the near completion of Norman Foster’s Bankside-City link bridge, the Dickensian alleys look destined for enhanced gentrification. The area’s rich history and plenitude of sights are transforming once again, but not, as The Ring intimates, without a fight.