History and Playful Unconcern in Kentridge's Art
Try Again, Fail again, Fail better
-William Kentridge, quoting Samuel Beckett’s Molloy
I am interested in a political art, that is say an art of ambiguity, contradiction,
uncompleted gestures, and uncertain endings; an art (and a politics) in which
optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.
It is difficult to pin William Kentridge down and identify him because too many angles of his genius dance on the head of a pin. For those who are not too familiar with his kaleidoscopic creations would hold him more in astonishment than in comprehension. A draughtsman, painter, sculptor, actor, set designer, stage director, puppeteer and filmmaker with a panache for symbolic activism against the wrong-doings in his native land-this South African artist can mesmerize with the variety of his creations.
But genius is the last thing that Kentridge would confer upon himself. By his own premise, this Johannesburg-based artist racked up a row of fumbling discomfitures before accomplishing in his polymorphic art practice. Born in 1955, he began his career early as a painter but felt discouraged after some time and moved to Paris to study acting. But he was no better in this either, although he could absorb the art of mime and movement, stagecraft and décor which would serve him in his following creative years. Leaving acting, he went back to South Africa and took up art direction for movies but he found himself totally out of place in the South African film industry. So there was one option left for him: to go back where he began as he was 'reduced to being an artist,' to use his own words.
It was indeed commendable that Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre in Kolkata arranged an exhibition of Kentridge's etchings, prints and films in its two floors earlier this year as both his works and himself entered the city for the first time. He was scheduled to hold a formal conversation with the noted American anthropologist and literary critic Rosalind C Morris but, being out of town, I missed this event of their encounter.
The centrepiece of the exhibition was Nine Drawings for Projection which was in fact his nine animation drawings in charcoal, with an occasional tinge of blue or red pastel, that were filmed in his own simplistic way – what he termed 'stone-age animation.' Instead of the usual way of drawing sequential cells on different pieces of paper to yield a clean and smooth movement on screen, he used one sheet of paper per scene and animated his drawings by erasing and redrawing each successive movement on the same sheet of paper while betraying the erasure marks of each previous charcoal drawing. However, it is only with the strength of these nine short animated films, ranging from 3 minutes to 9 minutes, that Kentridge could have made a stamp in the history of contemporary art as a mighty formidable artist.
Produced between 1989 and 2003 and shot on 16mm film (and transferred on to video and DVD), these neo-Expressionist animations display short visual narratives around a pair of alter egos: the domineering businessman Soho Eckstein who reigns over a crumbling corporate establishment, and the sensitive loner Felix Teitlebaum. Both these characters borrow their physical appearances – bald, avuncular and somewhat tragicomic – from Kentridge himself, are basically loners and are somewhat lost in the sociopolitical backdrop of South Africa's pre-democracy era. These two opposing characters represent, according to Kentridge, the two elements of South African white or Jewish life.
Kentridge made these films without a script or storyboard, and making them singlehandedly without any assistant was his own process of discovery through constant search for solutions to the technical problems he confronted with. From such artistic adventures, he conjured up moral allegories with his rampant visual imagination that united the personal with the sociopolitical and explored themes of sexual desire, love, loneliness, social class differences, oppression, and regeneration. In History of the Main Complaint (1996), for instance, Soho lies in coma in a hospital bed, hemmed in by doctors trying to rouse him.
But what we are flooded with is Kentridge's prolific imagination as we watch the thoughts of this sick property developer extraordinaire being visualized in myriad forms of drawing as they emerge through X-rays, CAT scans and other appliances. A naked and lonely Felix in his private exile consults the planets as he pines for his home in Felix in Exile (1994). In Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1989), a tussle between the despotic Soho, who employs workforce to build his corporate empire, and the romantic Felix, whose anxiety visually inundates part of his house, fills the narrative (if you at all call it one) against the backdrop of Johannesburg where Kentridge has lived all his life since the time he was born there. 'All of my work is about Johannesburg in one form or another,' he once revealed in an interview. However, while exposing the political and social climate of the city during the final decade of apartheid, these films do not reveal the state of living that the Whites, like Kentridge himself, enjoyed during apartheid. There is instead a slant towards the oppressed life of the Black workforce in South Africa in fragmented narratives through ironic contrasts and mutable imageries.
But what is typical of Kentridge's talent is to perceive a different form in an existing familiar form – and perpetually transforming one and merging into the other form with his wild imagination. No image can be counted upon to reveal persisting truth, yet the fleeting visual changes seem to suggest a quest for it. A man looks at himself in the mirror while shaving and sees his visage slip away, a weeping man makes his house sink with his tears or sweeps a landscape away with his tears, or a cat transforms into an old Bakelite telephone. In his 7-minute animated film Shadow Procession (1999), for instance – in which Kentridge used cut-out black paper figures, three-dimensional objects and shadows – the silhouette of a real punching machine with a long handles looks like a bull facing a charging silhouette with a lance that resembles a matador. Evidently, as an artist, he has as much panache and magical strength in wielding two or three-dimensional objects as line drawing and all of these appear in his oeuvre with a sense of melancholy and rough-edged, grim beauty. In this film, however, this melancholy and beauty is epitomized by a row of parading black figures, weighed down by their misfortunes and their displaced existence while lugging a host of their belongings, even the whole towns on their slouchy backs – including a miner suspending from the gallows – a visual testimony to the brutality of his native land's apartheid.
His acting involvement in 1975 with in 'Ubu Rex', an adaptation of Alfred Jarry's satire 'Ubu Roi' about a corrupt and demented despot, erupted years later in 1996 in his series of etchings collectively titled 'Ubu Tells the Truth' and the following year he made an 8-minute animated film of the same name which was in this show. Using charcoal drawings on paper, chalk drawings on black paper, documentary photographs and 16mm archival film, he vivified Jarry's despot to life while using both hand-drawn animation and an actor shown in black silhouette. There are also drawing images of those interrogated and tortured interspersed with documentary images thus linking the Mandelas and Lumumbas and the prisoners of Guantánamo Bay together, linking the history of South Africa with other histories of oppression. At one point, Ubu's eye transforms into a camera on a tripod (Kentridge's has graphically used the long legs of tripod in many of his animations) before becoming the wider screen itself, thus suggestively presenting the eye and the camera as potential tools for both imaginative vision as well as for watchful scrutiny. The films were programmed in circuitous loops and one could catch up from any point to concentrate more on the form than the sequential narrative.
Background music contributes significantly to the melancholic spirit of many of the films. Music is also part of his working process. While working in his studio, which is a psychic space for him ('like an enlarged head', as he once pointed out) Kentridge is wont to put on music as an anaesthetic so that he would not have to hear any other ambient sound. He is also known to choose a particular musical phrase and stride around his studio imagining different things that would gel with a segment of his film.
Comparatively what looked less significant were his 'Suite of 30 Etchings' (Nose 1 – Nose 30) which were small works of sugarlift, aquatint, hardground, drypoint, engraving with a strong accent on drawings although done in his characteristic slipshod style and often with strong drypoint marks.
The works were conceived from his own stage-work on Dmitri Shostakovich's opera 'The Nose' which was based on Nikolai Gogol's famous St Petersburg story of the same name, that narrates how the nose of the pompous government official Kovalyov walks away from his face to explore places around St Petersburg. Kentridge's errant nose is present ubiquitously either on horsebacks (Nose 6 and Nose 7), occupies the the entire upper part of a ballerina's pirouetted body, or replaces the head on the bust of a nobleman (Nose 25) and in many other positions. He chose this impossible tale because he believed that the impossible could be a common order in human existence in which the impossible and the possible can often replace each other. Out of the fifty prints available, these exhibits were of edition 12, each measuring approximately 6 x 8 inches and each plate is engraved with a number indicating its place in the series. It may be mentioned that the 30 etchings of Kentridge's 'Nose' was published last year by David Krut Publishing born out of a collaboration between the artist and David Krut Print Workshop. However, in the show, what I particularly felt the absence of were his other crafty experiments born out of his studies of sixteenth century anamorphic drawings and eighteenth century Venetian frescoes.
Humour and satire are inherent in Kentridge's art. And apart from his twin characters Soho and Felix that resemble him, he has himself appeared frequently in his film with the mimic flamboyance of Buster Keaton. In the cycle of 12 films Carnets d'Egypte (2010), also in the exhibition, he performs self-indulgently his gobbledygook slapsticks with musical instruments and a cone on a tripod while appearing manifold within the same frame. However, there is a self-conscious binary opposition in his art: while there is a layered use of history with the use of Ubu Roi's lens to explore the subject of apartheid and the use of The Nose to relate to the more contemporary situations of social oppression, there is also a playful unconcern for any message for his viewers.
ROMAIN MAITRA is an art critic and independent curator of contemporary art resident in Kolkata. He is also a cultural anthropologist by intellectual persuasion and worked as a consultant at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.