An eye for the bigger picture

After months of searching London, Thomas Kilpper found the perfect site for his vast woodcut. So why did he choose the 10th floor of an abandoned tower block?

As you come out of Southwark Underground station, Orbit House faces you on the opposite side of the road. Commissioned by Denis Healey to house the Army's printing office, this tired, unprepossessing 1960s tower block seems ripe for demolition. The views, though, are fantastic, and rumour has it that the secret services used to carry out Orwellian acts of surveillance from this high belvedere. Later it was acquired by the British Library for its Oriental Collection.

This was formerly the site of the octagonal Surrey Chapel, built in 1780 by the charismatic Reverend Rowland Hill. His famous sermons drew vast crowds, but by 1890 the chapel had been abandoned and taken over by Green & Sons Engineering Ltd. After a spell as a furniture warehouse, it found glitzy glamour for a few years as one of London's first cinemas. From 1910 to 1940 it was known as "The Ring", south London's most popular boxing venue. The ring was erected in the pulpit - a nice irony in an era when the "muscular Christianity" espoused by Victorian headmasters still held sway.

The German artist Thomas Kilpper spent months looking for an appropriate building in London in which to work. One where the resonances would bump-start a series of loosely interwoven connections. On the 10th floor of Orbit House, he has chiselled a 400-square-metre woodcut directly into the parquet flooring. It is an eccentric labour of love, with no guarantee that when the building is demolished there'll be any future for the work. All that may remain are the large prints taken directly from the images on the floor.

The woodcut itself is a vast spider's web that sprawls across the old office floor, appropriating the history of the building and locality to create a geo-historic map that charts the sociological changes of the area. But it is also a visual version of that word game "knee, elbow, tennis", when participants have to make a sequential daisychain following the last given word. Kilpper likes the ironies and random connections thrown up by the building. The use of the woodcut is itself significant. Not only is Orbit House home to the British Army's printing press, but the woodcut is the oldest form of printmaking. It appeared in Europe at the start of the 15th century, etching events onto the pages of history for the first time.

The spirit of the Renaissance is exemplified by the map, that printed symbol of expanded horizons. In 1452, Johann Gutenberg conceived the idea for movable type, while in 1475, William Caxton printed the first book in English. The Oriental Collections Department is also home to the Diamond Sutra, the oldest-known wood-printed book. The woodblock from which it was taken was found in a Chinese cave. This image forms a central motif in Kilpper's carved floor. That Kilpper's father was born in China, and that his grandfather was a missionary, is another pleasing coincidence.

But Kilpper does not simply stick to "facts". He has allowed his imagination free reign. His own experience of the orient is coloured by his grandfather being kidnapped by the Communists, so an image of Mao Tse Tung is included. Not far away is a portrait of Marx, Communism's intellectual catalyst, who worked in the British Library. Mata Hari also gets a look in, as does a portrait of Handel, whose Messiah was performed when the octagon doubled as a theatre and music hall.

Kilpper was delighted to find that his elderly neighbour, Henry Abraham, remembers watching a fight at the ring as a boy, so his image is incorporated, as is the fantasy pairing of Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper. Kilpper relishes the irony that the spot where boxers fight is known as the canvas; a resemblance between the transient fame of many boxers and artists, whose fortunes are both dictated by a manager, is highlighted in a portrait of New York gallery owner Leo Castelli (who died last year) alongside Tony Shafrazi and Brischofberger's famous "big fight" poster of Warhol vs Basquiat.

In Kilpper's game, the connections become more and more labyrinthine. What he has created is a sort of novel in pictures where fictional relationships are struck between the likes of Churchill, Madonna and Alfred Hitchcock (who used the building as a set). Snippets of conversation and random details have sent him off on trains of thought that have been intertwined into a vast "tapestry" of social history that echoes the very process of remembering.


'The Ring' by Thomas Kilpper: Orbit House, 10th floor, 197 Blackfriars Rd, London SE1 (020-7703 6120) Tue-Fri 12-6pm, Thur 12-7pm, Sat, Sun 2-6pm, to 26 Mar