Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Interview: Thomas Kilpper

Thomas Kilpper, The Ring, 2000. Woodcut on fabric; view of the floor/matrix.

Thomas Kilpper is a German artist and activist currently based in Berlin. A prolific artist that does drawings, sculptural and performance-based work, he is especially known for his large woodcuts, or “floor cuttings.” Kilpper takes woodcut to another level in terms of scope and scale, so that it becomes site-specific and attains literally architectural proportions. Kilpper carves the entire floors of buildings slated for redevelopment or demolition, often taking inspiration for the images from the history of the building itself. The floors become vast matrices and can sometimes be visited, but often end up being destroyed. The prints, done in fragments on paper or as enormous banners on fabric, are the witnesses to this obliteration of urban history. They are hung on the facades of the buildings as a way to bring the hidden or repressed buildings to the surface, literally exposing them to the public gaze.

Perhaps one of the strongest works to date is State Of Control, currently on view at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Kilpper carved a linoleum floor of the former headquarters of the Stasi, the fearsome secret police of the German Democratic Republic. The building is accessible to the public for the first time, and it seems fitting that prints are the medium for opening up this symbolic Pandora's box of Germany's recent past. The images recall different aspects of German history, intertwined with images from Kilpper’s own biography as well as references to State repression, censorship, and resistance to injustice throughout history.

This interview was done via email.

J. Roca.

José Roca: When did you become interested in woodcuts in particular and printing in general?

Thomas Kilpper: I think it was in 1996 or 97. At that time I was still studying at the Staedel Art School in Frankfurt- where I was doing large-scale charcoal drawings- and I thought it might be good to heighten the resistance of the material, to do cutting rather than drawing to intensify the physical process of my work.

JR: How did your project of engraving the floors of condemned buildings come about?

TK: I learned that a building compound where I had been living got cleared for demolition and I knew there was parquet flooring. I went there and took some 12-15 square meters out. I considered reassembling it in my studio and using it for carving a woodblock and then printing it. But in the studio, becoming aware of how much labor was involved in reassembling all the bits and pieces, I changed my plan and went back to the empty building and started to carve up the floor. It was fairly quickly decided. I did not ask for permission. After four or five days of carving, when I was starting to do a test-print, I was discovered by the contractors. They kicked me out, but not without threatening to charge me for having destroyed the parquet flooring.

The artist carving the parquet floor with a power router and printing with a roller.

The following night I came back with a friend and took a print before the whole building came down. Afterward, I was not quite happy with the result. The image was not adequate for the concept and I decided to search for a building where I could get permission to do a site-related intervention. In 1998 I found such a site, where I was able to cut into the very substance and material of the building. Gordon Matta Clark's “house-splittings” and his other architectural interventions were among my favorite bodies of work when I was a student. I was attracted by the physical process of destroying, of hammering and cutting but creating something new at the same time. But in contrast to Matta Clark I wanted to refer not only to the aesthetic but also to the social and political aspects of the specific site.

I never took any printing course at the academy. I considered this project both a sculptural intervention and installation, and also a printing workshop- tattooing the skin of the building, and turning the architecture, the floors of the building, into a stamp. Maybe the attraction to do so has to do with my relation to my father, who was an architect too.

Thomas Kilpper, The Ring, 2000. View of the banner installed on the facade of the Orbit building, London, a former boxing ring.

Are you questioning a society of planned obsolescence, where things -even large “things” like buildings- are replaced in order to make way for something more economically efficient?

No. I love to take odd looking or smelly derelict houses. In the eighties I did some years of squatting, and it was exactly that same feeling of “conquering” something that is considered worthless for others, but that could mean so much to you. Vacancy is a widespread byproduct of our economy and as such, vacant space somehow becomes semi-public: it is privately-owned, but publicly neglected. At the same time it is an opportunity to get space for free or for cheap. I always find it interesting to do projects aside from the art-institutions. Right away, the projects are not just stuck inside an ivory tower, but instead try to communicate unprotected with people in society who are not museum-goers.

Two prints from The Ring (2000).

A printmaker recently told me that the best way to tell if you are a printer at heart is to check whether you have engraved the image backwards in order for it to read properly while printed, which is the case in all of your monumental projects. Do you consider yourself a printer?

I consider myself an artist and not a printer. An artist using installation, sculpture, drawing, video, photo, graphics and printing... and in the future maybe something else. But not only printers are able to mirror their images or texts- this sounds strange to me. Until now I have realized only two projects using printing and carving, and only after ten years, I am about to come back to it with a third project: a cut into a lino-like PVC flooring.

Thomas Kilpper, State of Control, 2009. Linocut on fabric.

Since the beginning, prints have been instrumental in social and political struggles, helping carry the message to many. Do you regard your work as drawing on the tradition of the politically–engaged print?

Of course I am in touch with this tradition and I can see a line to my floor-carving and printing projects. Nevertheless, I consider my work to be rooted as well in installation and sculpture. There are probably several streams amalgamated in my work.

Preparation of the linoleum floors for carving and final installation view of State of Control at the former Ministry of State Security (Stasi), Berlin, 2009.

Can you speak about your recent project at the former offices of the infamous Stasi police?

It was the first time I made a large scale linocut. The carving and cutting is very different. The ones done on wood have been much harder- you need a beater or toggle to carve, and wood splits off when the chisel is hammered in; it calls more for hard black-and-white contrasts. Linoleum is less resistant and softer, but does not jump or split away. It lends itself better to create gray-tones and details.
The stark history of the building prompted a massive intervention: to take over and try to dominate such a place with your artwork is always a fascinating challenge.

Linocuts printed from the floors at the former Stasi building.