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ART: William Kentridge's animated politics.
Gun Crazy
BOOKS: The story of Arming America.

October 26, 2001
Love In The Shadows
William Kentridge
From Stereoscope, 1999.

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, I’ve 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 series—animated by the meticulous alteration of charcoal drawings—as 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 Chicago’s 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 floor—and by the rest of the gallery as well. Music from his other films sneaks around the walls of the museum, and soon we’re in Kentridge’s world, walking through the shadows and echoes and rapid transformations of his South Africa.

Though well-known in his country for more than 15 years, Kentridge didn’t 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. It’s the very physicality of the work that gets Kentridge into the story, the charcoal itself perhaps suggesting where the drawings go next. “The drawing doesn’t 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 characters—how they merge and diverge from their outer selves—provide 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 Soho’s alter-ego. By the time we get to the end of the eight-and-a-half-minute film, Soho’s empire has crumbled and he has lost his wife to Felix. Though he’s the villain of the series, we start to feel a little sorry for him. He’s 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 Soho’s persona take on the characteristics of introspection and humility normally associated with Felix.

In addition to personal narratives, social commentary and questioning abound. Even if you’re 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 Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi. In Kentridge’s version, Ubu, stripping his outer garb, morphs into a video camera. He then dances with a black cat, who at different times is Soho’s 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 didn’t 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, it’s 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 one’s 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 films—pictures that were drawn and redrawn—which 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 book’s contents, the story.

It may be Kentridge’s 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: “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Hilary Russ is a freelance writer and editor living in Manhattan.

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