Times of trauma and healing hands: Encyclopaedia Ball collaboration with Uli Jaeger.

Uli’s collages

This blog post is about my Encyclopaedia Ball collaboration with artist Uli Jaeger. Encyclopaedia Ball is my project to convert a set of 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid papier-mache ball, page by page, starting with ‘A’ and working through to ‘Z’ (see my blog post about the Ball). Various milestones along the way have been the occasion for meals with friends or collaborations with other artists. Usually, these milestones are predetermined (i.e. each new letter of the alphabet), but sometimes the Ball suggests on its own what it wants celebrated. Such was the case when the Ball reached the article on Germany, and was covered with pictures of German cathedrals, mountains and factories etc. Local German friends were summoned to an impromptu celebration of Germanness, sausages, Schnitzel, Strudel and woodruff jelly. The ball was ritually painted (kind of) in the colours of the German flag*. 

On the back of this, I sent Uli, a German artist living in the UK, two pages from the article on Germany for her to respond creatively to. The encyclopaedia was published roughly a decade after the Second World War, and reflects a Germany in the midst of the ‘economic miracle’. The pages I sent contain sets of plates entitled, “German handicrafts”; “Some features of interest in Germany”; “The German countryside”; and “Large industrial plants and equipment in Germany”. 

Uli responded with some beautiful collages using the encyclopaedia pages and contemporary German printed materials. The most striking collage juxtaposed an image of a painting of a woman in a blue dress leaning forwards with a pensive expression on her face and with her hands crossed prominently on her knees. A little digging revealed that the painting is by Rudolf Schlichter and is in the collection of the Lenbachhaus museum in Munich – in fact Uli has collaged the cover of a magazine or brochure from the museum**. The cover has been torn, and two pieces containing the head and hands collaged onto the encyclopaedia page about handicrafts, so that a glass blower and a musical instrument maker intrude into the woman’s space. An image of the Deposition of Christ from a mystery play performance occupies the bottom right of the page.

Uli’s collages

The theme of hands emerges strongly from the collages. The hands of the woman in the Schlichter painting have a strong presence against the blue dress and brown background. They are crossed in a way that suggests tension or anxiety, the lower hand upturned and with the fingers curled inwards and the upper hand palm-down and covering the lower hand as if protectively. Other hands are also evident: the hands of the glass blower and instrument maker. On other pages Uli has collaged an image of a hand making jewellery from an advert for some kind of school and a young hand holding an elderly hand from an advert (I think) for a care home. The jewellery school advert has the words: “Deine Hände schaffen Ewigkeit” (“your hands create eternity”) and the care home advert has the name Diakoneo, the New Testament Greek verb meaning ‘to minister to’, ‘to serve’.

Another thing that interested me about Uli’s collages was their juxtaposition of things relating to two different periods of emergence from times of trauma. The only overt references to the war in the pages I sent were (I don’t know if deliberately) covered up by Uli: the Nuremberg stadium and an Autobahn (noted as built under the Nazis). Images of industry and making speak of how Germany dragged itself to prosperity by hard work. One image which struck me when I sent the pages to Uli is of a young couple placing two young children in a motorcycle sidecar. The caption says, “The motorcycle is popular with German families of moderate income, serving them in lieu of automobiles”. The motorcycle wasn’t to remain in lieu of the automobile for long. Uli has added to these images part of a leaflet from a covid test kit, speaking to a more recent time of trauma. 

Hands making. Hands expressing anxiety or caring. Experience of, or emergence from, times of trauma. Times of optimism (Uli covered the Nuremberg stadium with an image of smiling young people showing off some kind of computer equipment; “Your hands create eternity”, says the jewellery ad). Uli also sent me two art postcards, both with paintings of the crucifixion of Christ, one by Gaugin and the other by Sieger Köder***. The painting by Sieger Köder depicts Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the cross and has four prominent hands framing the two figures, two on the bar of the cross and two round the waists of the figures. Two hands about to be pierced. Caring, supporting, making.

As agreed with Uli, I collaged her collages onto the Ball. I first added the pages of an art magazine which Uli sent (which had several more hands, mostly holding brushes) and then the collages. It felt like an odd act of healing, because Encyclopaedia Ball had recently been rolled across an area of common land in York called Hob Moor as part of the celebrations for it reaching the letter ‘H’. The Ball came back filthy and scarred, with pieces of paper hanging off. Uli’s magazine was one of the first things to be layered onto the Ball after this event and I could still feel the scars and bumps as I used my hands to smooth down the pasted pages. The magazine was colourful (unlike most of the encyclopaedia) and it felt like the Ball had been given a new life, or new clothes. My family and I traced our own hands onto the Ball around Uli’s collages and I painted them in blues similar to that of the Schlichter painting.

See more of Uli’s work on her website.

See my video of rolling Encyclopaedia Ball on Hob Moor

* I say kind of, because I accidentally put out a pot of pink paint instead of red for the ritual. No matter: before I could rectify the error, the Ball was duly painted black, yellow and pink. When I asked about it, I learned that it reflects a very German attitude of getting on with the task in hand regardless. I like the fact that some people are comfortable enough in their national skins that they can happily paint their flag the wrong colour without a murmur.

** The painting is of Helene Weigel, actress and second wife of Bertold Brecht. There is a great article (in German) about this painting and a companion portrait by Schlichter of Brecht on the Lenbachhaus website. It mentions how Schlichter’s realism originated out of the trauma of the First World War. It also talks about Brecht and Weigel’s love of cars, which were status symbols in interwar Germany. The Brecht portrait has a car in the background.

*** The postcards have now been acquisitioned into my other project Map Jacket.

Ball with Uli’s collage

All hands on the Ball.
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Encyclopaedia Ball goes to Glasgow

On a grey day in July 2022, my family and I loaded a solid paper ball, weighing 16.5kg and with a girth of 115cm, onto an old pushchair and boarded an LNER train heading north from York. It fitted surprisingly well underneath the train table and behaved itself there, not getting many strange looks. Encyclopaedia Ball is my project to convert an entire set of 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid papier mache ball, page by page, A to Z (see my earlier post). A tradition has grown up of celebrating each new letter of the alphabet reached, involving things (usually food) and people beginning with that letter. When the ball reached ‘G’, my wife suggested the idea of taking it on a trip to Glasgow, and so I reached out to Glasgow artist duo Gardner and Gardner to see if they would like to be involved. I thought maybe we could roll the ball in Glasgow with the Gardners. It was the first time the ball had been on a jaunt like this and the first time I’d rolled it, except round the garden to see the flowers when it was covered with colour plates of flowers from the article on flowers. On that occasion, it had got covered in sap.

The following day, also grey and threatening drizzle, we pushed the ball in the pushchair up the steep hill to Glasgow School of Art, where I studied in the late 1990s. I noted with sadness that the carved stone head of Beethoven was missing from the old piano store building on Renfrew Street and that the building looked more derelict than it did when I lived in Glasgow. I’d envisaged photographing the ball beneath the massive august ball of Beethoven’s head and now wished I could think of a way of placing my ball instead on Beethoven’s still extant shoulders. The art school was also a ruin, of course, the famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh building having been gutted twice by fire during the past decade. It was sad to see nothing more than a scaffolding sarcophagus holding up a fragile shell which you could barely see. It reminded me of the sarcophagus they built round the burnt out reactor at Chernobyl. The site of the art school was utterly cheerless (we were outside of term time, so the other school buildings were deserted as well). 

Nevertheless, we met the Gardners and our other friends beside the Vic bar and the whole group of us started the roll. It was somewhat terrifying to pose for photos with the ball in the middle of Scott Street – a street so steep that releasing the ball down it would have caused catastrophe down on Sauchiehall Street below. Peter Gardner and I did most of the rolling, with help from others. I had planned a route for us to roll the ball, but hadn’t given any thought at all to how to actually roll it. Did it need to be rolled by hand, which meant bending over all the way? That quickly got tiring and we defaulted to kicking it. Neither of us were football players. Once up the slope of Scott Street and onto the level or gentle downward slope of Hill Street it was more of a matter of shepherding it with our feet. The ball got bits of gravel embedded in it and became pock-marked, but didn’t start to disintegrate, as I’d feared. We avoided urine as best we could. 

The ball admired the view at the end of Hill Street over Charing Cross, Park Circus and the M8 motorway. The slope and steps down from Garnethill to Charing Cross were negotiated (by us) backwards. Here the ball needed restraint and guidance, rather than encouragement. It cracked fallen cherry stones audibly as it rolled over them. I wondered if the drop from one step to the next would be enough to crack the paving slabs, but sadly it wasn’t. The ball made a solid thud, thud, thud. Peter and I were cautious in not allowing the ball to gain momentum – reviewing the footage it looks like we are treating it as something delicate, like teaching a child to walk. I was just scared of it rolling loose and taking somebody off their feet or bouncing onto the motorway slip road and caving in the bonnet of someone’s car. In the footage we seem overly cautious, like anxious parents. 

Over the Charing Cross footbridge. Here the children with us had to be kept sustained by gingerbread men that I bought for our picnic and we nearly picked some American tourists up in our wake; if only they’d had more time. We got some good photos of the ball with traffic on the M8. The level pavement of Woodside Place was home stretch and even my son had a go. The ball was still in good nick and I was disappointed that it wasn’t dirtier. I think that rolling the ball with Peter gave focus to our walk and conversation. Each of us had a job to do keeping it from rolling off on our side and it required concentration and team work. Someone else made sure that we didn’t get run over by a silver van when we crossed Elderslie Street. The gentle slope and wide open spaces of the park allowed us to relax and I let the ball roll on ahead down the path between weedy herbaceous borders, greatly upsetting a leashed Rottweiler dog. 

We picnicked near the elaborate fountain, no longer functional, which commemorates the Lord Provost who established Glasgow’s first permanent supply of fresh water. Enid Blyton style, I’m obliged to list what we partook of: gammon (aka ham); guacamole, gorgonzola, gouda, gruyere, goat’s cheese, grapes, grapefruit juice, guava juice, goji berry juice, fruit gums, gherkin (cucumber), gingerbread men, garlic crackers, gooseberry jam (which we forgot to eat), Gujarati mix, giraffe bread (aka tiger bread), Greek yoghurt. Mariuca, one of our friends, made a paper collage on the ball which included fragments of what later turned out to be a valuable edition of The Hobbit. Thus ended the Rolling of the Ball. Later in the day we posed the ball between the paws of one of the great carved lions in George Square and accidentally left our suitcase nearby, only retrieving it, miraculously and with much stress, from Glasgow City Centre Police Station, unexploded, with minutes to go before our train home. The ball was tired but (I think) happy after its day out, and slept like a dog under the train table.

The Ball between the paws of the lion in George Square.

Bank Street Residency Day 3, 5th April 2012

Today was a contrast to yesterday: bright and sunny, but still cold (at least early on). Today’s walk took the following route.

Howard St

Arundel Gate

Furnival Gate

Carver St

West St

Glossop Rd

Northumberland Rd

Witham Rd

Beaufort Rd

Severn Rd

Tree Root Walk

Claremont Crescent

Claremont Place

Glossop Rd

Clarkehouse Rd

Botanical Gardens

Thompson Rd

Ecclesall Rd

St Mary’s Rd

Queen’s Rd

B&Q

Today I bought Dulux Sea Blue. This choice was inspired not only by the colour of the sky, but also a house painted with blue windowsills I noticed. A lot of my gaze was directed upwards, looking at roof lines and details of soffits, entablatures, corbels, consoles and chimneys, so I decided to place some elements high up on the same wall I used yesterday, using the top line and the spacing of the verticals of yesterdays painting as a starting point. I wanted to avoid the temptation to paint a roof line or anything too literally architectural, so I decided to use a motif I have painted before, which is derived from landscape. I haven’t finished painting out yesterday’s painting, so the photo is of Sea Blue with Isobelle half painted out (I have decided to name them after the paint names, for now). Sea Blue turned out to be a bit darker than I expected, but it doesn’t matter.

Susan Sontag book

The Central Library was selling off vast numbers of books today, and Ioana and I filled both my bike panniers and a rucksack with books. As if we don’t have enough books! I guess they’re good insulation: might save on heating bills. On book we bought is a volume of Susan Sontag essays. The first time I read Sontag was in the kitchen/living room of the youth hostel on the island of Iona. It pissed it down with rain one day, and blew a gale, so we sat in and read some books from the bookshelf. I read Sontag’s book on the depiction of pain in photography, without finishing it. Outside the picture windows was the sea, grey as goose down, and, on the machair a few tens of metres away was a group of whimbrels, poking their long, curved beaks into the soft ground. Inside, it was cosy, with a cup of tea never beyond reach. (The room is clad with wood from dismantled whisky vats). It’s funny that the thought of an American essayist can unfailingly bring up memories of the pleasure of that particular reading (the atmosphere of Iona, the tea, the drizzle, the whimbrels, the undulating machair, the maddening corncrake); and that that pleasure can make me anticipate the pleasure of reading the book I just bought. As if pleasure, like bank interest, or flexi-time, can be carried-forward and invested for the future.

[Written 22 October 2009]