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.
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.