December 2007, Thomas Zipp @ South London Gallery

(Born Heppenheim 1966; studied at the Freien Kunst Städelschule, Frankfurt and the Slade School, London from 1992-1998.)

ENDS 13th JANUARY 2008

Photos: Andy Keate  (1,2,3,11,12) and Roman März (4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

Thomas Zipp, PLANET CARAVAN installation view South London Gallery, Courtesy of Alison Jacques
Gallery, London and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

Thomas Zipp, PLANET CARAVAN, installation view South London Gallery, Courtesy of Alison Jacques
Gallery, London and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

Thomas Zipp, PLANET CARAVAN, installation view South London Gallery, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

It’s worth a trip to South London to see this installation (I took a tube to Elephant and Castle Station and then a short ride on a 343 bus - but do ask the driver to let you off at Peckham Road, as the stop is very easy to miss. You cross the road to a Primary School on the corner, walk past it, and The South London Gallery will come into view. An A-Z map of London may help if you are a visitor.)
Unless you are an expert on Thomas Zipp you may also need some good directions to get around the ‘thought map’ of this installation. And it may be a good idea to bring pen and paper because Herr Zipp presents an interconnected web of references which you may wish to google later. For example, amongst the first items that you will encounter are a multitude of green wooden apples – each on a separate stand. One of Zipp’s themes concerns the irresponsible actions of scientific and technological world leaders on environmental issues. How many of us are aware that Greenpeace has been pursuing an ongoing and successful battle in recent years against Apple - the technology giant - accusing it of lagging way behind its competitors on environmental issues? It instituted the "greener Apples" campaign, which included handing out green organic apples at Mac Expos. Greenpeace claimed that Apple’s products were needlessly toxic (chemicals included Arsenic, Mercury, poisonous PVC, Brominated flame retardants and others); didn't last long enough; and they ended up in developing world landfill sites. Apple announced targets to phase out the chemicals by 2008, but they keep reappearing in new products, e.g. in iPhones. Zipp’s apples are dead wood, and he also has concrete cows, which I will discuss further on.
I will summarise his ideology, the core of which is quite specific, and later I will attempt to interpret a few of his creations, but I suspect that there are a variety of interpretations to every reference. His ingredients are many and varied, with liberal sprinklings of dark humour, Dada-ist mischief, and more than a dash of mystery. In his manifesto he characterises modern society as “lethargic” to the extent that this constitutes privilege. He ultimately blames a deep seated “scientifising” influence in society for “protestant stiffness and pessimism”; “the soft irresolute”; and “false excesses which are, however, strictly channelled.” He contrasts this “scientifising” influence with that of the so-called “Tychonic System,” which apparently involves “a continual implosion of lethargy.” He further states that its adherents are “happy, daring, ethereal, electrically charged, dynamic, violent, and interventionist.”

Zipp is challenging the present world order and he attacks it at its very foundations. He goes back to the time of Copernicus when modern natural science became the dominant mode of understanding. Tycho Brahe (who created the Tychonic System) developled a fundementally different conception of the Universe which included theology. Copernicus is understood to have arrived at the familiar machine-like conception of the Universe which excludes the spiritual. Tycho Brahe combined this new materialistic world-conception with the older spiritual conception. So we have a fundemental dichotomy: a materialist scientist versus a material-spiritual scientist. Even though Brahe’s model was ultimately not accepted, he played a central role in the development of science. His very accurate map of the stars made it possible for Kepler to reach his famous conclusions concerning eliptical orbits. The names KOPERNIKUS and KEPPLER (with lines drawn through and thus rendered void by Zipp) appear at the top of one of the screens in the installation. Zipp clearly believes that the purely materialistic world conception has resulted in a fatally flawed society, and without the spiritual dimension, humanity is in danger of self-destructing.

He has chosen a fittingly complex tri-partite title, which seems to contain the seeds of the main themes of his installation. The first part is the title from the 1970 song “PLANET CARAVAN” by well known Heavy Metal Band ‘Black Sabbath,’ and I will quote the first four lines:

“We sail
Through endless skies
Stars shine like eyes
The black night sighs...”

You can find various versions of the lyrics on the internet and listen to the recording on youtube. Ozzy Osbourne recorded it through a ‘Lesley Speaker’ which created the illusion of his being far away, and of his voice fading away at the end as if lost in the depths of space. This is pure hallucinatory self-indulgent escapism and Zipp seems to identify it as one example of the “false excesses which are, however, strictly channelled.” This space-theme is a recurring one, and links to the astronomical world conceptions and also a focus of attention on Pluto.

“Stars shine like eyes,” perhaps explains the bright brass drawing-pins which he sticks into the eyes of the subjects of his portraits. This device does indeed make them look ridiculously ‘ga-ga.’ But these portraits are all of leaders from the earlier part of the twentieth century. They do not look like hippies at all – indeed they may have appeared very respectable before this treatment. However Zipp has drawn a crude ‘joint’ (cannabis cigarette) sticking out of one of their mouths, and other mocking scibbles on their faces – more Dada-esque dark humour. Zipp myschieviously links them with the hallucinating hippies because their “false excesses...’ in other spheres, chiefly religion and nuclear science.

An example of the latter is Fritz Haber (1868 – 1934) a German chemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his development of synthetic ammonia (important for fertilisers and explosives); he was also responsible for inventing chemical weapons and directing their deployment during WW1. He is typically defaced and his eyes given the drawing-pin treatment. Zipp, with some justification, characterises this man as ridiculously deluded in threatened the future of mankind. Other nuclear scientists singled out for such treatment are (see photos below): (4) Enrico Fermi (first nuclear reactor); (5) Glenn Theodore Seaborg (work on Hiroshima atomic bomb); (6) Harold Clayton Urey (1940-1945, Director of War Research, Atomic Bomb Project.)

 Thomas Zipp, Enrico Fermi, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
 and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

 Thomas Zipp, Glen Seaborg, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
 and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

 Thomas Zipp, Harold Clayton Urey, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery,
 London and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

These portraits are either placed on the screens in conjunction with crude grey post-apocalyptic landscapes, or on single wooden posts. They are intersperced with paintings of skulls. The use of screens is another Dada-esque touch. They are associated with the world of ‘official exhibitions’ (usually beaurocratic, scientific and especially archival.) Dada and related groups (eg. Monty Python) delighted in mocking and generally undermining such official paraphenalia (and the self-important attitudes associated with them.) Such display-screens are eminently suitable subjects for dark humour. One is smashed to pieces; another has its middle cut out leaving little more than a gaping hole, and yet another is riven with nails and pins of various sizes.

They are all painted in flat tones of grey - compound combinations of grey repeated ad nauseam. And very rarely is one treated to a warm grey. They have to be ash grey – the colour of death - and almost every screen has an ash-grey post-apocalyptic landscape at its base. The few touches of colour appear as harsh and violent intrusions.

On one screen, as stated above, is a Tychonian Chart repesenting the movement of the planets in relation to the sun. This is where matters become extremely interesting, as mockery is replaced with respect. In essence Zipp seems to be suggesting that natural science is ultimately dangerous because it fails to take into consideration anything other than the physical dimension.

 Thomas Zipp, Tychochart, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

 Thomas Zipp, Reverse of Tychochart, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

The other side of the Tychonian panel displays the names Kopernikus and Keppler. Their contribution to science is symbolised by a stool with its legs cut off, and reattached to the seat in cruciform, and the whole arrangement is fixed to the panel. It reduces a useful three dimensional object to a ridiculously one dimensional absurdity which is deliberately compared to the cosmic diagram on the other side. This may be Zipp’s comment on natural science as one-dimensional and lacking common sense in its applications. A conflict is thus engendered between the two sides of the panel representing a violent clash of world views. The panel riven through with nails demonstrates the violent intrusion of one ‘side’ into the other. These nails link to the Voodoo theme and its concern for making contact from ‘this side’ with spiritual forces on the ‘other side.’ Zipp’s characterisation of the Tychonian response to the natural scientific world view (ref. manifesto) is thus explained: “violent and interventionist” because repudiating and challenging natural science; “dynamic, daring and ethereal” because involved with spiritual forces; “electrically charged” possibly because involved with atomic forces in a positive way; and “happy” supposedly having discovered a better and more inclusive world view.

The art writer Kit Simmons has described another instance of this interplay between opposite sides of panels. “A schematic on one side of a panel shows the movement of alpha, beta and gamma radiation through a magnetic field in coloured lines, while on the reverse the same lines run riot in a loose form of a mushroom cloud. Hopes and aspirations are presented as the flip side of destruction, and vice versa.”

Thomas Zipp, Alpha Beta Gamma, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London and Galerie
Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

 Thomas Zipp, Alpha Beta Gamma Reverse Mushroom, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London and Galerie
 Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

In the London Installation Zipp has disrupted the neat order of screens extant in the previous venue. He places them at odd angles to one another – more mischief making I suspect - and he has thus made it very difficult to walk between and around them. I kept on knocking the large ‘feet’ of the stands as I attempted to negotiate them (to the muttered disapproval of the vigilant young man on duty.) I ended up being forced to walk very slowly and to raise my feet high over the many obstacles.

This inconvenient crowding is a conscious statement concerning space. The items of the installation are made to dominate the space. The viewer is rendered peripheral, and bombarded by a contrasting juxtaposition of objects, world views, ideologies, attitudes, and of spaces. The viewer is ultimately bombarded by the contrasting juxtaposition of the violent installation with the peaceful ‘shed-chapel.’ This is constructed of wooden planks, and has a big barn-style door opening into the centre of the installation. If you wish to go inside, the vigilant young man will close this door behind you so that you may experience the dimly lit interior in peace. But there is no real rest for the viewer in the shed-chapel - not even a hard penitential bench to sit on. At the centre is a large grail-like-object containing little growing mushrooms. There is nothing else in the space. The viewer must walk around the grail-form or stand still. The viewer might enjoy the space at last. The viewer may look at the small growing mushrooms. The viewer may feel reverence for their secret, silent life. The lethargic viewer might revere the fresh new life. The debased viewer might respect their chaste innocence. The world-weary viewer might breathe deeply. The relaxed viewer might begin to feel happy. The hardened viewer might begin to appreciate the fragility and vulnerability of life.

Thomas Zipp, PLANET CARAVAN, Chapel, installation view South London Gallery, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

This naturally brings us to the second part of the title: “IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH?” Will any life survive on earth after the world-death? This is where the mushroom – itself a symbol of nuclear devastation – enters the fray. The only hope that Thomas Zipp seems to offer a post-apocalyptic world is that evolution will have to begin all over again – from the mushroom stage. They are the only living things in his installation. Every thing else is dead, dead, dead.

Thomas Zipp, Voodoo Phone, installation view South London Gallery, Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin

The question “IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH?” is posed in other ways. There is a Voodoo phone (standing on a narrow table attached to a screen) which is apparently used for contacting the dead. But we have to wonder if this is mockery again because the phone is painted in his standard deathly grey colours (with the addition of army green) and thus appears post-apocalyptic. Surely such a phone would be useless after humanity had been annihilated. Is Zipp pointing to the “false excesses” of those who play such parlour games? On the other hand it may be just another Dada-ist metaphor for death. The Dada-ists were obsessed with contacting the dead, and attempted to contact and write down messages from ghosts, spirits etc. (eg. ouija boards, seances, automatic poetry, the ‘exquisite corpse’ game.) The Voodoo theme continues with the practice of sticking pins into images of enemies – surely Zipp’s darkest association of ideas. The theme is picked up again with the screen smashed through with nails and pins, and its association with contacting ‘the other side.’

The last part of the title is “A FUTURISTIC WORLD FAIR.” I googled this and came up with an audio-visual presentation on youtube entitled: “Futurama – the 1939/40 World Fair.” It begins with the symbol of the Fair - a huge white shining globe - representing a hopeful and confident world. An over-optimistic speaker announces a utopian vision of the future metropolis – scheduled to appear in 1960. A model of this city, complete with futuristic skyscrapers, traffic systems and green spaces, emerges before our eyes in strangely alien-green early colour film. It is a vision of the modern secular world – but without the reality. The devastated cities of Europe were mere months away; and the spectre of international terrorists targetting such secular utopias on a large scale must have seemed unthinkable. The 1939 World Fair links the “false excesses” of the early twentieth century science and technology with the “false excesses” of the 1960’s. Materialist delusions meet New Age illusions, and humanity blunders on blindly from one disaster to the next. It is no wonder that the young people of the 21st century are so disillusioned. Capitalism, Communism, Technology and Science have all failed, and where do we go next?

Thomas Zipp invites you to a FUTURISTIC WORLD FAIR in 2007/8. Unlike its counterpart in 1939/40, it does not have an enormous shining white globe at its centre, symbolising a hopeful and confident world. Instead it has a tainted globe at its centre, symbolising “the foreseeable....the tired and the already digested” (ref. manifesto.) This globe is painted in dirty colours and presides over a herd of concrete abstracted bovine forms. Do these symbolise the victims of mad cow’s disease - yet another example of science gone crazy. About ten years ago the international media proclaimed that Dr. Steiner (1860-1925) had given an unheeded warning as early as 1923 that cows would go crazy if fed on meat products. This is the same Herr Steiner who lectured at Dornacht, Switzerland, in 1924 concerning the significant contribution of Tycho Brahe in relation to Copernicus and Kepler. More recently there have been reports that some of Steiner’s recommendations regarding education are to be introduced into the British school system. Steiner also stated long ago that Pluto was not a Planet, and lo and behold the scientific community has recently agreed with him. The Pluto saga is the subject of one of Zipp’s screens.

I suspect that Zipp does not expect anyone to take any notice of his hidden plea for a responsible science and a more vital world order. I will end with a quotation from his manifesto: “In view of the existence of indifference and conformist, limited, ecstatic conditions, today, resistance to untruth will no longer interest anyone anymore.” The message of his installation is ultimately pessimistic.

South London Gallery:
Planet Caravan by Black Sabbath:

Richard Crowe

Born 1955 Colleenbawn, Zimbabwe. Studied Rhodes University: B.Fine Art (Hons); Master of Fine Art, cum laude (1973-9) Lecturer in Painting and History of Art, now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (1982-7) Manager of non-racial GAP Art Group (1985-6) Represented on first South African non-racial international travelling exhibition - Tributaries '85. Solo Exhibitions: Durban 1987; Johannesburg 1988 Settled in the British Isles 1990: ran 'Creative Force Gallery' 1990-2002 He is interested in Goethe’s Theory of Colours especially as used by the painter J.M.W. Turner ( to whom he is distantly related.) Working as Artist and Writer in London since 2002  







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