Do Not Let the Past Rest in Peace

Thomas Kilpper in Conversation with Annette Kierulf

Since the mid-nineties, German artist Thomas Kilpper has investigated the possibilities of site related, sculptural and social interventions in public space. The basis has often been a building where important, historical events have taken place. Kilpper is based in Berlin, where he also runs a project gallery called After the Butcher in a restored butchers shop.


Thomas Kilpper, State of Control, 2009. Photo: Neuer Berliner Kunstverein/Jens Ziehe.

In his project State of Control, on view at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) in summer 2009, he made a large scale intervention in the former Stasi headquarter building, where he carved into an 800 square meter linoleum office floor. The floor carving displays a historical retrospective of various state surveillance and repression concepts from the Nazi period to the digital present, and includes stories of resistance against systems of injustice in the divided history of Germany.

Annette Kierulf (AK): Thomas, how did this project begin?

Thomas Kilpper (TK): In 2006 I learned that this large-scale office block on the compound of the former Ministry of State Security was empty. I found out who owned it and asked for an initial viewing of the building. That was easy to achieve. Then I developed a rough project proposal and asked the director of the Berlin Museum for Contemporary Art Hamburger Bahnhof, Dr. Eugen Blume, for a letter of support. But the owner – the German railway company Deutsche Bahn, which had acquired this and many other large buildings from the government in the early nineties for free, did not want an artist working in this building. They turned me down twice and wrote that they couldn't rent out the building. Since I wasn't convinced that my plans were unrealizable, I didn't give up. Together with the n.b.k. we successfully applied to the Berlin Senate for financial support, the so-called Hauptstadtkulturfonds. Not giving-up and tackling the owners has been and always is a key issue in the realization of such a project. You need staying power and patience.

Marc Dion

Thomas Kilpper, State of Control, fra installatsjon i ballsalen i det tidligere Ministeriet for Statlig Sikkerhet i DDR, 2009. Foto: Neuer Berliner Kunstverein/Jens Ziehe.

K: After you got permission, how long did you work in the building?

TK: I started in February. The carving took about three months and we started the big print in May, it opened on June 19th. The schedule was very tight for the scale of the work however the team I worked with was great. We carved maximum four and printed six or seven at a time.

AK: Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this building was open to the public for the first time during the exhibition. How was the response?

TK: We had a lot of media attention and many visitors. The fact that an artist worked with the history and political function of the site, and opened the building to the public, was welcomed.

AK: What will happen with the building now?

TK: This is not clear yet. The building is for sale - incredibly cheap. Developers want to set up a mixture of a GDR-museum, hotel and lofts. They're thinking of keeping the carved flooring and then we have to negotiate. The floor belongs to them but the artwork is mine. I'm sure this will be a long process. It would be great if the work could stay in the building but I doubt it'll happen.

Marc Dion

Thomas Kilpper, State of Control. Photo: Neuer Berliner Kunstverein/Jens Ziehe.

Thomas Kilpper has also made huge woodcuts or "floor cuttings" earlier: Don't look back (1998/2002), in Oberursel, Germany and The Ring (1999/2000), in London. In Oberursel the site was the gymnasium floor of the former US military base Camp King. During World War II the base was an interrogation center for the German Air Force and from 1945 the Americans continued using it for intelligence gathering. In 1968 it was under the command of the United States Army Movements Control Agency Europe.  Kilpper reflected on the manifold content and transformations of the site in his woodcut on the floor.

In London Kilpper found an abandoned office building in Southwark where he made a 400 square meter woodcut on the 10th floor. The site had previously been a popular boxing ring destroyed by bombing in World War II. Then the Ministry of Defence installed their office building and later the Oriental Collection of the British Library moved in with the oldest woodcut in the world, the Diamond Sutra from China. All these and many more of the historical references connected to the site were woven into the huge woodcut formed as a fictional boxing fight. Among the crowd watching this fight were people as diverse as Johannes Gutenberg, Adolf Hitler, Madonna, Charles Dickens, Mohammed Ali and Gilbert & George.


Thomas Kilpper, State of Control. Photo: Neuer Berliner Kunstverein/Jens Ziehe.

AK: How did you start to work with buildings due to be either demolished or restored?

TK: Empty buildings are a good opportunity to temporarily take over and establish a self made 'kunsthalle', something like an 'art-squat'.

AK: How did you start making enormous woodcuts in parquet floors?

TK:. During my studies at Städelshule I made large-scale charcoal drawings and when I wanted to heighten the resistance of my material I decided on woodcuts. I was looking for wooden material suitable for woodcutting and found parquet flooring in an empty building. While removing the floor, I came up with the idea of carving directly on-site, instead of reassembling and carving in my studio.

AK: Does your project start with the location or with a certain political or historical theme you want to explore?

TK: Mostly my projects start with the sites and places. Finding out or learning about empty buildings suitable to work with has been the starting point so far. I subsequently develop ideas or concepts for a project.

AK: With both The Ring and State of Control you've printed the floor cuts on huge banners and hung them on the facades of the buildings, thereby revealing the stories from inside to the public.

TK: Yes – I mirror 'inside' to 'outside'; I mirror my narrative to the public. If a building is in disuse it's somehow dead. Nothing happens, it's a standstill situation. To turn it back into life and give it my personal imprint is fun and possible for the time I'm working on site.

AK: As your work is so visible, does it also attract people from outside the art circle?

TK: Yes. Many visitors came to State of Control from the neighbourhood. Not showing the work on the façade would miss out on an intriguing opportunity. Public space is over flooded with advertising – and our reception is quite spoiled with it. It's a question of to what extent art, with its different ways of working, can be recognized within the public domain; of whether art will be ignored, like we learn to ignore so many other images because we become tired of them.

AK: Many of your projects are almost monumental, perhaps not in the traditional sense of large scale and scope however they involve collaboration with a variety of different funding bodies, assistants and others. Your way of working seems closer to a filmmaker or an architect than the average artist. Did your studies at Stäedelschule prepare you for organizing large operations?

TK: No, not in a direct way, however when I presented my idea for a large floor cutting during my studies, I received a little financial support and I was encouraged by the professors to do similar projects in the future. Indeed this should be part of the curriculum at art-schools: how to organize your project, to communicate it, how to approach funding bodies, institutions or the art market - even paying tax or insurance, we're never taught to manage these things.

AK: In another of your current projects, A lighthouse for Lampedusa, you reflect on the current phenomenon of immigration, focussing on the extraordinary case of Lampedusa. On this island, just 80 nautical miles away from the African Continent, thousands of refugees arrive annually, mostly in heavily overcrowded boats. Their journey often turns into deadly tragedy and aid organisations estimate one out of every ten die during their dangerous crossing. What are your thoughts about this place?


Thomas Kilpper, Model for A Lighthouse for Lampedusa!, 2009 Photo: Villa Romana, Firenze, Italia.

TK: Indeed European politics on the immigration issue is scandalous. Conditions to flee to a European country worsened dramatically over the last decade. Recognized refugees are becoming rare but immigration is increasing. One of the main problems for 'boat people' is disorientation at sea. They don't have nautical navigation equipment. Of course a new lighthouse at the southern tip of central Europe cannot solve the refugee problems as a whole – but to supply a strong light on the closest European soil can help to minimize the risk and danger of the crossing. About 5000 people are living on Lampedusa and in some years as many as 35 000 immigrants arrive. Of course this causes many organisational problems on the island itself. To establish a cultural centre on the ground floor of the lighthouse would create a meeting place for the Lampedusians – maybe with visitors and tourists - and to develop exchange with artists from abroad.

AK: Another of your projects that made a strong impression is the video of your Palestine project; AL HISSAN - The Jenin Horse, 2003 - 2004. You were invited by the Goethe Institute in Ramallah to head a workshop with Palestinian youth. Together you made a five meter high horse out of scrap metal from destroyed houses and cars, and with the aid of a tractor you travelled with it from Jenin to Ramallah and back, though all the checkpoints. Your subtitle on this work is Art in Public Space Under Conditions of Occupation. Can you elaborate on what this means?

TK: Since 1967 the Palestinian territories have been under occupation by the Israeli Army. In 2003 the war-like confrontation between Israel and Palestine escalated dramatically. Public space was closed down by the Israeli Army for long periods and the Palestinian population were contained in their homes. This was the situation at the time I was invited by the Goethe Institute to execute an art-project in Jenin. Two things were clear to me: as someone coming from Germany with the worst imaginable history and recent past – infected deeply by this very conflict - I could only be "one-sided" in the favour of justice; developing a project under such conditions, an artist has to be linked closely to the people and their public space. To present studio-work to the public was not an option. But an art-project that reclaimed public space and reopened it for social and cultural development seemed far more appropriate. When we toured the horse along the West bank through about two dozens checkpoints - it was amazing how the charm of the arts opened the gates. Soldiers were amused. Jenin kids were able to travel as far as Ramallah for the first time in their life!

AK: In the AL HISSAN project you collaborated with several people, something that's common to your projects. What part does collaboration play in your art practice? What sort of model for collaboration do you prefer?


Thomas Kilpper, Ground zero, AL HISSAN - The Jenin Horse (2003–2004).

TK: I don't collaborate in all my projects. It's not a must for me. But with The Jenin Horse and A Lighthouse for Lampedusa! participation of local people is crucial. Of course collaboration in its true sense only can be developed if it's free and not a must for anybody. It means it's not only me who decides. On the one hand you give away some autonomy and even authority, but on the other hand you gain so much. Ideally everybody in the team can deliver positive impulses and diverse personal impacts to the work. Establishing totally equal relationships in such a constellation may well be an illusion but to be come close would be great.

AK: In 2004 you made a work at Rosa Luxemburg Platz in Berlin, at the pavilion beside Volksbuhne, a gallery called Meerrettich. The press text says: "Ulrike Meinhof would have been seventy years old this year. After her death her brain was removed without the consent of her relatives and held for over a quarter of a century for 'scientific purposes' in the laboratories of German universities. As early as 1973 the state legal prosecutor wanted, against Ulrike Meinhof's will, to operate on her brain but was prevented from doing so only through international publicity and criticism. The media reaction to this 'brain theft' partly illustrates the return of this old attempt to pathologise Ulrike Meinhof and consequently the whole of revolutionary politics. In opposition to this attempt the artist places the reality of the works of Ulrike Meinhof herself; her texts and letters from 1960 – 1976." Again you point to history and facts that young people may not be aware of. At the same time the sculpture you made was far from any traditional monument, a very rough structure, rather humorous and surreal in the way her head sticks up from the ground. How did you combine the formal choices with the content in this work?


Thomas Kilpper, Ulrike Meinhof, 2004.

TK: Again the site and its social history dictated activity. This has been a politically loaded site in Berlin for almost 100 years. In the 1920s the communist party began many demonstrations and attempted to erect a Lenin-monument here in front of its HQs. During the Third Reich the Nazis erected a fascist monument here. I wanted to continue this tradition of politicising, however aesthetically I wanted to make a clear and visible break with its formal expression. Ulrike Meinhof was as well developed in relation to the Volksbühne-theatre. At the Volksbühne a dance-piece "Meinhof" was staged by Johan Kressnik. The material to build my Meinhof-head was wood-scrap collected from the Volksbühne stage-carpenters. I just hammered and screwed the wooden chips together as I received them. In this way even some formal questions were answered by circumstances.

AK: How is the relationship between politically and socially engaged art and the art market?

TK: I try to develop the work I want to do. The art market is far away and not interested in my sort of work. Luckily or not – I see no difference in my position whenever the market boosts or collapses.

AK: How would you describe the Berlin art scene in this perspective?

TK: No one is ever fully free of dependencies – never mind an entire scene. The art scene is large and diverse - of course there is a general lack of funds – but this isn't a new phenomenon in Berlin. Berlin always was and still is relatively poor and so are many of its inhabitants and artists. Relatively speaking the art-scene has developed survival-strategies with very small budgets. However this doesn't mean Berlin based artists are doing more politically or socially engaged art.

AK: Are you ever afraid of dealing artistically with very serious matters?

TK: Yes but that doesn't mean you don't "go for it". You become aware that you have to decide quite clearly, which is good. Dealing with serious matters easily turns into kitsch - it's always a ridge walk.

AK: Why did you start your own gallery, After the Butcher in Berlin?

TK: Because I found the space to set it up: the artist run project space I always wanted to have, a space to experiment together with other artists, free of commercial pressures.

AK: Some say that the 20th Century was like five centuries in one, we're in a situation where one really has to reflect on what happened. The buildings you've worked with all contain layers of political history and even trauma, and you dig into them almost like an archaeologist. You also combine the historical scenes with images from your own life. How do you see your role as an artist with regard to reflecting on recent history?

TK: I'm interested in the process of working with history first and foremost to bring about change and improvement of the present and future. History - the past - is gone and can't be changed anymore but that doesn't mean reflecting on it would be useless. How can we achieve social or political change if we don't try to understand what happened?

1 Städelshule, Frankfurt am Main

2 In A Lighthouse for Lampedusa! Thomas Kilpper in cooperation with others plan to build a lighthouse at Lampedusa. The lighthouse will include a house for culture.


Kunstjournalen B-post nr. 1_09: Feed Your Darlings