William Kentridge: Zeno Writing
William Kentridge Zeno Writing
Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57 Street, New York
November 8, 2002- January 4, 2003
‘Zeno Writing’, a multi-media project by South African artist William Kentridge which included a short animated film and supporting drawings, recently on show at Marian Goodman, is based on Italo Svevo’s 1923 novel Confessions of Zeno. The novel, set against the backdrop of industrial development and war in the early decades of the last century, centers on an individual living through extreme social transformation. Zeno is an individual caught in the fray, continually frustrated in his aspirations. He has strong passions, but he is too weak in character to stand up for them. Thus, he is set on a repetitive pattern of understanding his shortcomings and covering them up. Instead of dealing with the chaos, he uses distractions as a way of balancing his psyche and, seemingly, the world around him.
Technically humble in their composition, Kentridge’s films are rich in meaning and vision. He begins with a single sheet of paper, laboriously erasing and reworking the image, photographing each drawing after its alteration. Kentridge’s figures, all of them in silhouette, might bring to mind the work of Kara Walker at least in format, but his figures are merely half-human and appear so from only one point of view. As they turn and shift throughout the course of the film, they reveal themselves to be mechanical apparatuses, not really human at all.
The music accompanying the film is at first slow and pulsing, and creates a dismal tone that is reinforced by the monochromatic, edgy scenery. The landscape scrolls to melodic chanting, “Zeno, . . .Zeno.” It then rises to a furious tempo, the soprano’s voice rings out in a crescendo, and the dark figures are thrust toward the front of the screen. Then, just as quickly, they are pushed to the back. Numbers and letters scrawl angrily across ledger paper only to rundown the screen in a wet mess as background imagery flits by in quick succession.
Mimicked by the flutter of cigarette smoke and by the looping of warplanes, the writing draws attention to the film’s title. Zeno, encouraged by his psychiatrist, writes his autobiography, a stream-of-consciousness project that Kentridge translates into visual form. A typewriter’s phalangeal fingers dance rigidly as the sound of the carriage return rings out. The landscape scrolls horizontally, mimicking the movement of words across the page. The landscape starts as a picket-fenced yard, and then is zapped into barren land encased in barbed wire. The transformation alludes to the dichotomy between the idyllic life Zeno wants to lead and the brutal reality of the war that surrounds him.
All of this back and forth, pushing and pulling, stopping and starting blatantly exposes the inherent uncertainty of the modern world. The figures have holes -they are uncertain creatures in their make up. “I promise my wife to stop smoking at 2 pm.” Even this is uncertain. Is he going to make his promise at 2 pm or stop smoking at 2 pm?
The film plays on a loop in a small room off the North Gallery, while the drawings used for the film are tacked up with push pins in the gallery’s main space. The cold gray and white of the gallery resonates with the melancholic sound of the film; viewing the drawings with this soundtrack is like watching the film in slow motion. What you get is an in-depth look at Kentridge’s process. The tape marks on the edges of the pager where it has been secured in place are clearly visible, the chalk dust making a distinction between clean paper and worked surface. In Trieste Drawing 1 and II, two cemetery scenes, red editing lines charge through the blackness of the charcoal, rubber eraser marks dash across the grass. Kentridge has even made notes to himself in the upper right corner. The charcoal is feathery, allowing not only for quick erasure and change, but also for delicate build up, which creates an extreme sense of depth through intense chiaroscuro. In Landscape, text fragments, the charcoal delineates the ledger lines crisply. Yet, the faint remnants of script, erased again and again, create a gray haze like the smoke on the battlefield. The text fragments appear as strange hieroglyphs superimposed over an apocalyptic landscape. Again, uncertainty takes hold. Is the scene old, current, or futuristic?
On another wall, four machine drawings dominate with their deep, rich black backgrounds, the machines’ stark whiteness hinting at their metallic nature. Their names reveal their use: Object-Pressure Plant, Object-Telescope, etc. Technically sound, and fully rendered, in these Kentridge manages to evoke not only the scientific drawings of da Vinci but also the machine drawings of Picabia and the readymades of Duchamp.
Most stunning are the Ledger series and the adjacent suite of photogravures. Encased in a glass vitrine on yellowed book pages, the Ledger images appear as relics, the aged script drawing attention to just how far away we have moved, in this computer age, from the “good hand” required for calligraphy (and, some would argue, for art.) In these drawings, we see Kentridge’s process for morphing his figures into human-mechanic collaborations. A woman, over two or three successive doodles, becomes the scissor-legged creature we see in the film’s beginning. The photogravures are haunting, layered and dense. In one, the hazy smoke from Zeno’s perpetual cigarette habit is captured with a Hitchcockian film noir feel that the film’s jerky imagery cannot capture.
Kentridge makes Zeno’s uncertainty and self-destructive behavior look gorgeous. That’s not really his intention, but the sensuousness of the imagery diverts attention from the true, depressed nature of the message. That, however, is the point – of discovering our vulnerabilities and consistently covering them up with something more beautiful. Whereas most artists reveal to us the personality and change in our society after the fact, Kentridge reveals what is constant-our continuous search for balance. It is this aspect of Kentridge’s work that makes it so important, and its intelligence is reinforced by his ability to relay visually the literal ideas of the book in a way that is imaginative, technically marvelous, approachable, timeless and conceptually rich.