New Museum of Contemporary Art
New Museum of Contemporary Art
New York NY 10012
June 2 – September 16, 2001
The first American Retrospective of William Kentridge at the New Contemporary Museum is a moving experience. Despite it’s political edge, his art does not become the “kitchen help of politics.” His animated films and related drawings are filled withinnumerable permutations. He turned to film in order to preserve the spontaneous gestures and accidents that occur during the drawing process. Before he begins a charcoal drawing he likes to have his cat or children muck up the blank surface. Sometimes his children ride a tricycle over the sheet of paper. He prefers charcoal because it is friable. He likes being able to move shapes and lines with ease, or to obliterate them with a brush or puff of air. The revisions become part of the finished drawing. They maintain a ghostly presence and provide texture. Kentridge deforms and rearranges space to suit his emotional needs, and working in film allows him to preserve every part of the drawing’s life cycle.
Film fundamentally altered his ideas about drawing. It made him realize that he could create a completely artificial sense of space and light on a two dimensional surface. In fact he began using a “multiplicity of vanishing points” and shifting perspectives in his drawings and etchings, and no longer felt confined to one point perspective, which he used in his early monotypes and etchings. His novel use of space makes the political content more ambiguous, allows personal poetry to blend with the terrible reality of apartheid South Africa. Harold Rosenberg has stated, “Styles carry emotions of their own, apart from what is said through them.” He lived in Johannesburg his entire life, and stated that the second biggest influence upon his art was a political science class he took in college. As a child, he longed for beautiful vistas, lush greenery, and as an adult artist he sought “revenge against the nothingness” of the Johannesburg landscape, against the “civil engineering detritus”; pylons, power stations, abandoned concrete pipes, half built highways, and mine dumps. Alfred Jarry said, “Nowhere is everywhere, but most of all it is the country we happen to be in at the moment.” By portraying a landscape he initially deplored he began to see beauty in it. That’s not say that he beautifies his subject matter. He prefers marred surfaces and roughness which make traces of the past visible.
Medicine Chest, 2000, a sculpturalinstallation put together especially for this show is intimate, and to my mind original. Projecting animations from the wall into the interior of a closed medicine cabinet, Kentridge uses film to make a transformative self portrait. “In this two dimensional drawing moving through time,” we see a thick necked and wrinkled white man staring out at us. Kentridge cleverly integrates the horizontal shelves within the closed medicine chest into the compositions. A black bird sits on a shelf/wire and tries to fly out of the rectangular space. The smudges left over from the multiple images crowd the bird in. The normal contents of a medicine chest appear intermittently throughout the film, along with barren fields with solitary figures walking through them, a flittering black colored bird. The film has the feel of a daydream, a stream of consciousness. In Kentridge’s film work, recurring symbols and constantly flickering or moving lines provide forward momentum. Instead of a sequential narrative, there is a nonsensical flow of imagery; repetitions and a continuous transformation of formal elements. Kentridge uses a minimal amount of narrative elements. There are no dramatic resolutions to the tenuous “plots”, but there is continuity through movement and culminating moments.
Kentridge’s films embody his complex political beliefs perfectly, without becoming didactic. They are also autobiographic. His films, intimately connected to the drawing process, are amalgamations. Recurring tropes in his films include the following: 1. interiors dissolve or transform into an outdoor terrain (This often happens in the films of Maya Deren.), 2. the human form is obliterated before our eyes and something new appears in its place, such as a pile of newspapers or endless rows of numbers; 3. interior spaces become flooded with water. These might seem typical dream events, but interestingly, according to the artist, they were inspired by conscious impulses and accidents. The drawing process itself dictates the imagery, and this is different from automatism. These films gain power from the use of surrealist imagery and social realist caricature. The portrayal of societal inequalities in the films may seem simplistic at times, but the clusters of ambiguous actions and symbols resonate with possible meanings. He is a master of timing: transitions between scenes are fluid; the pace at which images come and go is satisfying. It may not always be clear what is happening, but the design elements hold together perfectly and there is just enough continuity for the viewer to maintain focus. The morphing panoramas come to symbolize South Africa’s violent changes.
The two main characters in Kentridge’s first six films are Soho Eckstein, an overweight CEO, and Felix Teitlebaum, an artist lost in his thoughts. Eckstein doesn’t enjoy his privileged existence very much. He is a caricature, a flabby, bored out of his mind capitalist, with an adulterous wife, and a complete lack of interest in the plight of the worker. He is alienated from the common man and his facial expressions indicate remorse and inwardness. Teitlebaum is comically powerless, lost in his art. He sits in an overflowing tub of water, daydreaming about Eckstein’s wife. In a land with a scarce supply of water this could mean any number of things. Although charges of anti-Semitism could be brought against Kentridge, the big nosed Eckstein, and the other overweight, balding white men that appear in many of the drawings, etchings and films, should be considered self portraits or actors modeled on the artist. Kentridge admitted to using himself as a model out of convenience. A sleek and shifty eyed cat appears in all of these films and is a transitional device, connecting each tableau. The cat represents domesticity, the artist’s personal life, and becomes an extension of the main characters. Another important personage in Kentridge’s universe is Alfred Jarry’s conscienceless and absurdist Ubu. The drawings for the film Ubu Tells the Truth, 1997, are done on black paper, and a reduction of formal elements generates new concepts of space.
What do well-fed, self satisfied Caucasians, who make up a major portion of the audience viewing this retrospective, take away with them; memories of a pleasing aesthetic experience or empathy for the plight of the oppressed? As of April 2001 the situation in Johannesburg looked grim in many ways: “Black ownership on the Johannesburg stock exchange is estimated at less than 2%, while unemployment among young black South Africans is estimated at as high as 40%.” “One in four South African men surveyed in a three-year study by the Johannesburg city council said they had committed rape before they were 18.” We should be happy that someone is calling attention to South African history and politics, and at the same time, creating fascinating and expressive art. Kentridge’s political content is not merely an appendage or self conscious gesture. Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, images of oppression and alienation were deeply embedded in his psyche. The drawings, which are at the heart of every project the artist gets involved in, are “evocations of a fractured world.” A growing restlessness with the static image led him to take photographs of the drawing in progress and to edit the entire collection of images. Unlike Matisse and Picasso, who allowed themselves to be filmed while constructing a drawing, mostly for historical purposes, Kentridge worked in film in order to liberate technique, and to irrevocably alter what the final product would look like. “The only hope of generating an idea is in the physical process of working.”
An interactive CD-ROM, published by David Krut, is being sold by the museum in conjunction with the retrospective. It was created, in collaboration with Kentridge, by staff and students of the MultiMedia Department of CityVarsity in Cape Town, and includes reproductions of drawings and prints, excerpts from the animated films, excerpts from the filming of theatre productions, text and reviews of the work, and writing and transcripts of lectures by the artist. You hear narration by the artist when specific links are opened. Unfortunately, however, the reproductions of the drawings, etchings and monotypes on the CD-ROM are lackluster, and lose out to the embossed pages of the printed catalogue. Computer screens are still inferior to print resources when it comes to reproductions of visual art. When opening various links melancholic music begins to play. If you are going from one link to another quickly, the restarting of the soundtrack becomes quite annoying. There is an option available that allows the user to turn off Kentridge’s voice over, but there is no way to turn off the intermittent musical accompaniment. But still, these technical caveats aside, the CD-ROM is a nice memento of a memorable show.