Charles Booth-Clibborn first encountered the work of Thomas Zipp at the Cologne Art Fair in 2004, where Zipp’s Berlin dealer Guido Baudach had a booth directly opposite Paragon. Zipp’s sombre paintings caught his eye, and Booth-Clibborn has since collected his work and followed the artist closely. Initially trained as a painter, Zipp soon branched out into range of other media. His multifaceted exhibitions feature installations that incorporate – alongside his paintings – photographs, videos and sculptures, as well as live performances by his own band. Thematically, Zipp is preoccupied with the nexus of science, civilization and the idea of human progress, which he scrutinizes through his work with a strong pinch of scepticism and irony. His interest in science is also reflected in the way he frequently presents his work in the style of traditional displays in museums of natural history.
With the support of Guido Baudach, Booth-Clibborn approached the artist and suggested working on a portfolio of etchings. The right moment for such a project arose when Zipp was invited to participate in a small group exhibition, Rings of Saturn, at Tate Modern in September 2006, and Booth-Clibborn suggested that Zipp work with Peter Kosowicz at Thumbprints Editions. The portfolio of Black Dada was created over the period of a week of intensive work at the printer’s studio in South London. Prior to the artist’s visit, Kosowicz had been sent digital files of 15 images that Zipp wanted to use for his series of etchings. Among the images were snapshots of masks displayed in an ethnographic museum, a detail taken from a Pink Floyd LP album cover, as well as slightly fuzzy portraits of the Central African dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa and the German scientist Otto Hahn, taken from magazine or newspaper clippings. Zipp’s installation at Tate Modern had featured collages that combined portraits of Otto Hahn with some of the above imagery.
Along with his files, Zipp had given detailed instructions pertaining to size and positioning of the images for the plate-making. The files were used by the Kosowicz to make films for the preparation of the plates. The printer used photo-etched plates for the simpler, more rugged images and polymergravure plates for the images where sensitive detail needed to be retained. Whilst Zipp was in the studio, an additional aquatint plate was made for the green background colour which underlies and frames all images. The green hue replicates the coarse green paper Zipp sometimes uses for his drawings and collages. Each of the 14 etchings has the portrait of Otto Hahn, printed with a photo-etched plate, as the primary image on which the other plates were superimposed. In trial runs, superimposing the secondary plates did not immediately bring the desired result, as it often rendered the image of Otto Hahn illegible. In order to achieve the right balance between the underlying image and the secondary plates, Kosowicz experimented with different inks and sometimes made new plates, tweaking the films beforehand so that the secondary image would not obliterate the portrait of Otto Hahn.
Once Zipp was happy with the calibration of the images, he began working on further plates for some of the prints. For sailor schweres wasser, he scratched a sketchy outline of a speech balloon on a drypoint plate. For snow, he drew little white circles that, set against the black image surface, give the impression of a starry sky. In achtung he drew a faint outline of a speech balloon in which he stamped the letters ‘a-c-h-t-u-n-g’ meaning ‘caution’. For aggregat he drew the outlines of a plinth for the superimposed image of a V2 rocket engine. In mens agitat molem he stamped the Latin letters (meaning ‘mind drives matter’, a quote taken from Virgil’s Aeneid) on a plate and had them printed above Otto Hahn’s head obscured by an entanglement of power cables. A few other prints also have additional drypoint plates with interventions by the artist. Zipp explored the possibilities of etching with great panacheand both the artist and the printer Kosowicz found the experience of experimenting with the technique very rewarding. After a week the prints had progressed enough to be signed off for editioning. Zipp returned later in November of 2006 to sign the completed edition. Working closely with his typographer Kai Erdmann in Hamburg he also designed the box cover, title and colophon page for Black Dada.
The German chemist Otto Hahn has been a recurrent theme in Thomas Zipp’s work. Hahn won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1944 in recognition of his discovery of nuclear fission, and after the war became the founding president of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science in Germany. Hahn’s own research and discoveries had been instrumental in the subsequent development of the nuclear bomb. In 1957 he was one of the Göttinger Achtzehn, a group of 18 German nuclear scientists signing a declaration against plans for nuclear armament of the West German army. A year later he was also one of the signatories of the Pauling appeal to the United Nations, calling for an end to all nuclear testing. Until his death in 1968 he was an outspoken opponent of the use of nuclear energy for weapons technology.
Within Black Dada Zipp has spun a complex, if sometimes impenetrable, web of associations and meanings around Hahn, his discovery and its consequences. Zipp begins the series with apfel, which takes its title from the detail of a painting by Max Ernst. It seems an appropriate beginning, the image of an apple – the forbidden fruit – symbol for the Fall of Man. Hahn, like Adam, was initially unaware of the outcome of his research. It also links the series visually to one of the activists of Dadaism in the 1920s, Max Ernst. In sailor schweres wasser Zipp uses a ‘primitive’ wood carving of an English sailor. The title alludes both to the subject, as well as to Hahn, ‘schweres Wasser’ meaning ‘heavy water’ or deuterium oxide – an important component of early nuclear programmes during the Second World War. The clue to the ominous title itself, Black Dada, might be found in the third image of the series entitled dada, in which Zipp superimposed a portrait of the African dictator Bokassa – a warning reminder, perhaps, of the danger of nuclear capability potentially ending up in the wrong hands. The use of ‘primitive’ artefacts from the South Seas in 0.4 and snow can be related to atomic tests carried out on the Moruroa atoll and the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. Lewmorc has the facial features of Oliver Cromwell printed upside down, and the title itself is a palindromesque play on this. In ffw, an acronym for fast-forwarding, Zipp used an x-ray photograph of radioactivity, while relics has Hahn hidden behind a grotesque four-eyed face; this is in fact an antique bottle opener, which Pink Floyd had used on the cover their album of the same title. A girl in traditional folk costume is overprinted in broil (lise m), the title referring to Hahn’s Jewish research colleague Lise Meitner, who was forced to emigrate to Sweden. In mens agitat molem, the closing print of the series, Zipp buries Hahn behind knotted cabling, the title a poignant quote taken from book VI of the Aeneid, which sees Aeneas descending into Hades, where he is presented with a prophetic vision of the future of Rome. Like Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice who could not tame the spirits that he summoned, in the provoking images of Black Dada Hahn is overshadowed by the fateful consequences of his actions.