Process, Loss and History
South African Projections:
Films by William Kentridge
The Jewish Museum, NYC
Until September 19, 2010
New York has gone through a William Kentridge craze this year. There have been scattered exhibitions in galleries throughout the cities, in addition to lectures and live performances. From the blockbuster Five Themes show at the MoMA, the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Kentridge’s directed-and-designed multimedia version of Shostakovich’s The Nose, the South African artist has been a dominant voice on the New York art scene. For those who missed the incredible MoMA retrospective-or for those who simply wish for another Kentridge fix-a final salvo can be caught at the Jewish Museum’s exhibition of part of Kentridge’s Nine Drawings for Projection series.
Though all of the pieces in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition were on display at the MoMA earlier this year, there is something to be gained by seeing them again in this smaller, more intimate setting. The very broadness and inclusiveness of the MoMA exhibition could be overwhelming: though the overall impression was incredibly powerful, some of the individual pieces could get lost. The Nine Drawing for Projection are amongst the most personal and moving pieces in the artist’s oeuvre, and the concentrated focus of the current exhibition allows these works the time and space to make their impact. It is a shame, however, that only the earlier works in this series-“Johannesburg” “Mine” “Monument” “Sobriety, Obesity, and Growing Old”-are on view. While they are thematically cohesive, the series as a whole is severely weakened by the absence of “Tide Table” and “Stereoscope”-in my opinion, the mature culmination of the elements raised in the earlier pieces.
William Kentridge, Mine, from Drawings for Projection (video still), 1991, 16mm animated film transferred to optical disk. The Jewish Museum, New York; Purchase: Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund, Fine Arts Acquisition Committee Fund, and Lillian Gordon Bequest.
The context of the Jewish Museum exhibit highlights different aspects of the artist than the MoMA exhibition. William Kentridge is seen primarily as a South African artist. He first came to international attention with his highly political works made in the wake of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Indeed, the struggles of the emerging South Africa are in his blood. His paternal grandfather was a member of parliament; his maternal grandmother was the first female barrister in the country’s history; both his parents are attorneys who played prominent parts in the struggle against apartheid. Though most of his family has emigrated, Kentridge still lives and works in Johannesburg and his work is deeply affected by the landscape and history of his birthplace-as is evident in this exhibition. From “Johannesburg: Second Greatest City in the World after Paris” to “Tide-Table” (not on view in this exhibit),the short films are intertwined with references to his country’s saga. “I have been unable to escape Johannesburg,” the artist acknowledges. “In the end all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city. I have never tried to make illustrations of apartheid, but the drawings and films are certainly spawned by and feed off the brutalized society left in its wake.” Yet within the overtly political content of the Nine Drawings, the Jewish Museum draws attention to the more sublimated-but equally important-aspect of the artist’s identity: his Judaism.
The Nine Drawings are in some ways the most overtly Jewish of the artist’s works. In this series of short films, he introduces his two invented characters – Soho Eckstein, business tycoon in a pinstripe suit and Felix Teitlebaum, bohemian dreamer, often depicted in the nude. These characters and the relationships between them become archetypes for the emotional and political struggle of the country as a whole, yet their names set them firmly within the South African Jewish community, of which Kentridge is a part. Indeed, the artist used himself as the model for both characters and they share his slightly portly build and “Ashkenazi Jewish nose”-to use Kentridge’s own, unselfconscious description.
William Kentridge, Monument, from Drawings for Projection (video still), 1990, 16mm animated film transferred to optical disk. The Jewish Museum, New York; Purchase: Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund, Fine Arts Acquisition Committee Fund, and Lillian Gordon Bequest.
The presentation of Soho in the early films as rapacious, gluttonous, heartless and money-grubbing thus treads an uncomfortable line, sliding perilously close to Der St?rmer-like stereotypes of hook-nosed Jewish capitalists. In an interview with Lilian Tones, Kentridge admits that “initially [he] would always conceive Soho as an other, as an alien, very much based on images of rapacious industrialists from Russian and early Futurist propaganda drawings, of George Grosz and German Expressionism.” Yet the introduction of Soho’s anti-establishment antagonist, Felix, serves to counter the shadow of stereotype. “I find that very disarming,” says Norman Kleeblatt, chief curator of the Jewish Museum. “You see Jews play both roles.” And as Soho and Felix engage in a primal struggle that evokes Goya’s powerful images of war, the film becomes about universal human dualities. Indeed, Kentridge ultimately came to see Soho and Felix as “two different sides of one character rather than two fundamentally different characters” -and both as doppelgangers of himself.
In interviews, Kentridge has openly questioned why his two characters have Jewish names, and whether they are meant to represent or comment on the Jewish community. Leaving the question open, he says that the characters-complete with their names-came to him in dreams months before he created his first film. As such, their Judaism may simply be part of the artist’s familiar surroundings. As Kentridge’s alter-egos, they partake of his environment. Yet, in these most personal of the artist’s works, the political and personal are intertwined. As Kentridge says “the films are about space between the political world and the personal, and the extent to which politics does or does not find its way into the private.” So on another level, these films can also serve as a personal, idiosyncratic metaphor for Jewish life in South Africa.
The duality of Soho and Felix-one formally clothed, the other unclothed; one civilized, the other natural; one part of hierarchal society, the other an outsider; one a businessman, the other a dreamer-can be seen as embodying the paradoxical position of Jews in South African society. On the one hand, many Jews-Kentridge’s family included-arrived as refugees to South Africa. They came as the oppressed and felt the precariousness of their position. This drove many of them (Kentridge and his family at the forefront) to take part in the struggle to end apartheid. Indeed, one can sense the shade of the Holocaust in Kentridge’s presentation of apartheid, especially in the imagery of showers and barracks of Mine. On the other hand, Jews benefited from the racial hierarchy. Many were actually granted refuge because of their skin color: when other countries were closing their doors to Jews, South Africa was allowing them in to help boost the white population. Kentridge grew up in an affluent Jewish community that reaped the benefits of being part of the white elite minority. In Kentridge’s own words “a central irony exists for South African Jews. Our Passover ceremony every year commemorates the Jews as slaves in Egypt. And there was always an understanding that here we are in South Africa talking about having been slaves in Egypt, yet in the present we are certainly not slaves In the present, we are absolutely not part of those most oppressed. We are part of the privileged whose lives are made comfortable by an immediate sense of the society we are living in. That remains an uncomfortable irony to live with.” Guilt and the weight of racial violence permeate the Nine Drawings, a sickness within.
William Kentridge, Johannesburg, Second Greatest City after Paris, from Drawings for Projection (video still), 1989, 16mm animated film transferred to optical disk. The Jewish Museum, New York; Purchase: Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund, Fine Arts Acquisition Committee Fund, and Lillian Gordon Bequest.
Yet ultimately, with all the contradictions, tensions and discontinuities, these films are about the words that flash at the end of Stereoscope: “Give/forgive.” They are united by a sense of hope and reparation. Kentridge’s idealism, expressed in political activism, is perhaps embodied most powerfully in his conception of drawing. Kentridge sees “the activity of drawing [as] a way of trying to understand who we are.” Though he is primarily a draftsman, he stands in opposition to the carefully measured space and proportions of a Renaissance artist. Drawing for him is a chaotic, developmental process, in which an image arrives in the work. This is reflected in his favorite drawing medium-the impermanent, endlessly moveable and changing charcoal. His conception of drawing is emphasized in his stop-gap animations, where the process is extended through time, every change preserved in a moment of film. Even as history is recorded, the ephemeral nature of the material is emphasized: it is primarily the movement of the eraser that creates the animation, the images emerging, changing, transforming, the shadowy blots of the eraser’s former movement preserved in the changing frame. Each object contains its whole history, a falling woman embodying every stage of her fall.
Kentridge’s method of working dovetails perfectly with his subject matter: the animations are histories of changed drawings, with all their failures and resurrections, and they deal with the history of post-apartheid South Africa, with all its failures and possibilities. Contingent, always on the verge of being erased-but therefore also preserved from the permanence of evil. “Everything can be saved, everything is provisional,” Kentridge says. “A prior action is rescued by that which follows. A drawing abandoned is revived by the next drawing.” In conceiving of his art as process rather than object, in focusing on time rather than space, Kentridge’s work is hopeful. All failure and contradiction are subsumed within an ever-changing picture, a broadening understanding.
It is this unity of form and content, medium and message that gives Kentridge’s work its power. His overt politicism does not descend to propaganda because it is sublimated by his personal artistic language. History and loss, records and restoration: these are both the thematic and visual/material thrust of the work.
As quoted in William Kentridge: Drawings for Projection, Four Animated Films. Johannesburg: Goodman Gallery, 1992, n.p.
Interview with Lilian Tones, February 22, 1999, http://artarchives.net/artarchives/liliantone/tonekentridge.html
Interview with bell hooks, Interview. September 1998.