War is peace. Now we know.
It's only going to get worse.
The Metaphysical Club
U.N. diplomats give Bush a blank check.
Next Stop, Southeast Asia?
The United States may have a new target.
Nation building vs. globalization.
Anthrax is bad, but smallpox is worse much worse.
At the Gates of Power.
I cannot find the glory in this day.
Patriots and scoundrels.
Israel's Labor Party is silenced as violence erupts.
Bush administration hawks want to deploy "mini-nukes" against Osama bin Laden.
Under cover of war, the Bush administration pushes for fast track.
Green takes the runoff amid charges of race-baiting and miscounted votes.
Ecuadorian Indians fight Texaco with U.S. tort law.
Suffering in solitary confinement.
ART: William Kentridge's animated politics.
BOOKS: The story of Arming America.
October 26, 2001
Love In The Shadows
The scene is as vivid in my mind as it was two years ago, when I witnessed
it for the first time: A man standing alone in an empty room begins to leak.
Water drips, then pours, from the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Soon, the
black-and-white man in his black-and-white world wades in a small blue ocean,
while shouts and screams penetrate the watery room from a battle raging outside.
The man is one of three recurring characters inhabiting the animated films
and drawings of South African artist William Kentridge. Stereoscope,
the last in a series of eight shorts, is the one I saw first at the Museum of
Modern Art in 1999. Since then, Ive been waiting impatiently for this,
his first American retrospective, recently on view at the New Museum in New
York and now touring nationally.
The exhibition features all eight films of this 1989-1999 seriesanimated
by the meticulous alteration of charcoal drawingsas well as new film installations,
projections, videos of his puppet, theater and opera work, and more than 60
drawings, including early etchings and large figurative drawings. The show is
at Chicagos Museum of Contemporary Art until January 20; Houston, Los
Angeles and Cape Town are next.
The first work in the exhibit to confront the viewer is the projection piece
Shadow Procession. It opens with a giant robed man climbing his way up
into the picture as though over a ledge, heaving into the screen. His enormous,
oversized hands gesture and circle madly in the air, like a call to arms or
a rounding up of unseen people, while his bloated belly shivers and shakes.
With his girth, suggestive of greed, wealth and power, he summons up a sad string
of thin, flat people shuffling across the screen. Then the music changes, other
figures enter and exit the frame, and all the noise and light is reflected by
the black floorand by the rest of the gallery as well. Music from his
other films sneaks around the walls of the museum, and soon were in Kentridges
world, walking through the shadows and echoes and rapid transformations of his
Though well-known in his country for more than 15 years, Kentridge didnt
gain wider acclaim until he caught the attention of curators at a 1997 festival
in Germany. Kentridge, whose Jewish family came to South Africa from Lithuania
a century ago, was born in 1955 in Johannesburg, where he still lives. He hails
from a line of lawyers, including his father, who represented the families of
apartheid victims in the 60s. In college, Kentridge concentrated on politics
and African studies; he went on to study drawing, printmaking, mime and theater,
all of which are visible in his work.
While his virtuostic control of charcoal, socio-political nuances and family
background are all unique, especially in combination, so too is his technique
for filmmaking. Additive animation, as he calls it, is different
from the usual process, which uses a separate animated picture for each frame
of film. Kentridge starts with one drawing, which he alters again and again
on successive trips between camera and canvas, concluding a segment with that
same, now modified picture. For a completed film, he ends up with just several
drawings instead of the usual thousands for more traditional work.
He develops the plot, if his dreamlike sequences can be called that, as he
works, rather than following a storyboard. Its the very physicality of
the work that gets Kentridge into the story, the charcoal itself perhaps suggesting
where the drawings go next. The drawing doesnt begin as a moral
project, he said in an interview with author and curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.
It starts from the pleasure of putting charcoal marks on paper.
The shrouded inner lives of his charactershow they merge and diverge
from their outer selvesprovide much of the drama for his work. Stereoscope
illustrates the latest personality developments for his three main characters:
Soho Eckstein, the greedy developer and real-estate tycoon; his wife, Mrs. Eckstein;
and Felix Teitlebaum, a quiet, reflective, perpetually nude man and Sohos
alter-ego. By the time we get to the end of the eight-and-a-half-minute film,
Sohos empire has crumbled and he has lost his wife to Felix. Though hes
the villain of the series, we start to feel a little sorry for him. Hes
drawn with a less menacing stature, his head is often held low, he broods and
seems to stare passively into the face of fate. After all that has happened,
we recognize the battle as an internal one and watch Sohos persona take
on the characteristics of introspection and humility normally associated with
In addition to personal narratives, social commentary and questioning abound.
Even if youre unaware of specifics, Kentridge churns up a sense of the
unjust. His projection Ubu Tells the Truth takes material from the Truth
and Reconciliation Commission convened in 1995 and is inspired by Alfred Jarrys
1896 play Ubu Roi. In Kentridges version, Ubu, stripping his outer
garb, morphs into a video camera. He then dances with a black cat, who at different
times is Sohos companion, agent, spy, tool or protector. The cat ambles
in and out of scenes and in a split-second morphs into a piece of office equipment
or a telephone or a bomb.
The ubiquitous, mysterious cat dances to Hawaiian slack-key guitar music, part
of an exceptionally odd and varied soundtrack of voices and loud, banging noises.
The film builds to a feverish pitch, culminating in video footage of police
shooting and beating black South Africans. Ubu-cum-recorder shoots a man three
times in the head, the body reeling backward. He places a bomb under the fresh
corpse and blows it up. He gathers up the pieces of the body into a pile and
then blows them up. Finally, he collects these bits and blows them up
once more, until the remains are scattered like stars across the night sky.
Kentridge didnt dredge up this bizarre act from his imagination: It is
what South African police called Buddha, the act of blowing up a
body over and over until it is unrecognizable.
By the end of Ubu, its hard to tell who the bad guy is supposed
to be. Kentridge senses danger from those who claim to know the answer to complex
and timeless questions. To say that one needs art, or politics, that incorporate
ambiguity and contradiction is not to say that one then stops recognizing and
condemning things as evil, he told Christov-Bakargiev. However,
it might stop one being so utterly convinced of the certainty of ones
own solutions. There needs to be a strong understanding of fallibility and how
the very act of certainty or authoritativeness can bring disasters. Illustrating
this ideal, his drawings often appear unfinished, unsettled and sketchy.
Looking at the aftermath of his filmspictures that were drawn and redrawnwhich
comprise much of what is hung on the gallery walls, is telltale. They hint at
things past: violent strikes on dirty, marked-up paper; ghostly images of words
that have been erased, reading FELIX or hair? To make
the pages of a book turn on film, Kentridge first must literally rub them out
on paper and then redraw them, like so much history that is too troublesome
to record precisely. Charcoal marks, which are easily erased even by a breath,
leave traces in much the same way as turned pages or rotted corpses. When the
film runs and the pages of a book rustle in the wind, each leaf leaves behind
a fading imprint, the memory of itself and of the books contents, the
It may be Kentridges ability to articulate ambiguities, both personal
and political, that makes him now so cherished an artist. But surely, too, it
is his sheer skill at bringing a charcoal drawing to life, making it move around
in time and space. A Dutch curator was sitting next to me on the dark couch
during the film series. At moments of clarity, he explained the films to his
two children: These are the poor people protesting the greedy man.
But at other times all he could do was mumble, mostly to himself: Isnt
Hilary Russ is a freelance writer and editor living in Manhattan.