Swords Drawn: William Kentridge

In the work by the South African artist apartheid remains an inscrutable memory

At the heart of William Kentridge's work is a very simple process. You take a piece of paper, charcoal, and coloured pencils; draw on the paper and shoot two frames with a 16mm movie camera; draw some more, shoot again, erase and add a gesture, expression, action, and so on. The results, though laborious and formal in structure, are wondrous, exhilarating and psychologically very complex animations.

Unlike conventional cell animations which use a different drawing for each sequence of an action, Kentridge's work relies on the cumulative process of drawing and erasure to achieve his result. Because the cognitive aspect of making a mark and watching it mutate is so central to the look of the films, he is able to take the strange but familiar turn of phrase and turn it into a narrative at once public and private, grandiose and quotidian, meditative and playful. While Kentridge works initially without any predetermined narrative or storyboard, the films are not products of chance; they usually begin with a central image and then, like a montage, fragments are drawn, cutouts are attached until the narrative builds to a coherent picture. Traces of indecisions, hesitations, erasures, reversals, corrections and alterations are often left for us to see. The films take as their primary subject the beleaguered landscape of apartheid South Africa: its history, memory, industry, ideology, nativism, politics, fraught racial relationships, and the mindset forged by its corrupting and debasing influences. Part of the way the country is coming to terms with this legacy is been through different methods of public disclosure, and from this process new narratives, especially in the arts, are beginning to emerge, of which Kentridge's work is at the forefront. Even in his recent works, though, apartheid remains an inscrutable memory.

Of course, they could be read as ordinary stories of human circumstance, with its complications and contradictions, its failures of faith and so on, were apartheid just an ordinary story. But apartheid is no ordinary story. Both visitors and residents of South Africa are ensnared by it, entangled in its now almost dysfunctional legacy. Though it has ceased as an ideological and legal form of governance and discrimination, its foundations, from monuments to the current orgy of confession, are inscribed everywhere and are much more difficult to eradicate.

The narratives in all Kentridge's films can be seen to plough three distinct seams: the post-apartheid, post-holocaust and post-colonial. To date he has made eight, not counting those that are distinctly part of his theatrical work. (Although he has been received as a video artist, it is a very limited view of his interdisciplinary practice.) The first in the series, Johannesburg, the 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989) is a paradoxical story. Here Kentridge introduces his two regular protagonists: the pin-stripe-suited, avaricious industrialist Soho Eckstein, based on Kentridge's grandfather, and the melancholic, sensitive and naked Felix Teitlebaum, modelled on the artist himself. In a classic morality play, Soho comes to town to pursue his fortune and before long owns half the city. Soho's suit is like a second skin to him. He wears it throughout all the films, in bed as well as at work. According to Kentridge, the pin-striped suit is not only the quintessential symbol of modern capitalism, but in an eerie way also relates to the concentration-camp pyjama. His comment adds a charged psychological dimension to the character of Soho. By contrast, Felix's nakedness seems rather too convenient – so rehearsed and neatly stated, a conceit. His muteness in the face of intractable catastrophe makes us suspicious. This pose as an injured loser, who lives beyond the hard reality of money and low politics seems slightly reactionary. It is almost a disguise to allow Felix to avoid the responsibility of action and decision. Nonetheless, Soho and Felix serve successfully as foils in guiding us through the complicated morality of South Africa.

Rather than seeking merely to illustrate or describe that world, Kentridge searches for ways to analyse it; to probe it, jab and scratch at it as if it were a sebaceous node, tumescent flesh bubbling with an abscess about to burst. With his detached, dispassionate consciousness of both the historical and more recent past, his subtext is a humanist one, suggesting that it is not so much history that fails us, but human memory. This is the reason his work has always been grounded in exploring the immediacy of his country's political history, as it stutters towards emancipation as a democratic state. Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991), for example, made immediately after Nelson Mandela's release, explored the frailty of faith in the emerging state. In the film, Soho Eckstein decides that politics are too complex for his sensibility. Rather than confronting the new context, he adopts a scorched earth policy, demolishing his assets so as to free himself from the demands of the future.

In his treatment of South Africa as a subject, whether in his films or theatrical productions - such as Woyzeck of the Highveld (1992), an adaptation of George Buchner's 19th century drama about violence and desperation, and Faustus in Africa (1995), which turned Goethe's classic play into a text about the different kinds of colonial contracts with the devil - Kentridge in some ways reminds me of Art Spiegelman, whose Maus series likewise explored the relationship between memory and past events. Stylistically, Kentridge's work draws from a host of powerful and disparate sources: literary texts (in May, 1998 he will be restaging Monteverdi's opera, Il Ritorno d'Ulisse, in Brussels), Weimar expressionism, Goya's Disasters of War, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, the writings of Alfred Jarry and Athol Fugard, the work of Dumile Feni and David Goldblatt. Sometimes there is even a creeping sense of Social Realism that recalls the Mexican Muralists or their Russian counterparts, which shouldn't come as a surprise: Kentridge spent much of the early ’80s making posters for various unions and 'protest theatre' performances.

However, these varied influences are less emphatically stated than subtly suggested and distilled. The artist offers a vision of a world that is far from representative; a world in which the true measure of the answers we solicit from it are brought down to scale and concentrated in the workings of the psyche of both victim and perpetrator, demagogue and conscientious objector. However, it is important to add that bringing these often irreconcilable opposites together is in no way empathetic with the pervasive, reactionary relativism that exists in South Africa today, where victim and perpetrator are joined in the same galley. Nor does it place him in that milieu which a dismissive South African colleague of mine called 'white guilt and middle-class sentimentality', although this accusation does raise some interesting questions.

What does it mean when a work that sets out to explore the complexity of what whiteness in South Africa might add up to gets accused of repeating its anxieties? Ever since first visiting South Africa two years ago, I have been fascinated by the ways the white population has sought to avert its gaze from the anxiety and horror of blackness that surrounds it, by building make-believe worlds which attempt to mask and eradicate the harsh reality that waits, lurking, everywhere; especially in the patterns of the country's landscape. Throughout its history and in post-apartheid South Africa, landscape and memory represent more than spatial and temporal dynamics. They symbolise the very essence of identity and its construction: what the land does not retain, memory seeks to efface. The threat imposed by a landscape that bears gloomy signs of past horrors awaiting future discovery is a major source of anxiety in this country.

Throughout his films landscape serves as an emblem both for remembering and unremembering. It is always drawn schematically, as fluid and changing; always contingent and under what critic Robert Condon has described as a perpetual state of erasure. The most pervasive of its features are the flat-topped, soft-edged mounds of the mine dumps which to a visitor first appear to be hills. Kentridge positions his films as critiques of our tendency to behold landscape as a phenomenon of 'pure undisturbed nature', by drawing it as if it were a naked body, ploughed, eroded, bruised and battered. It is portrayed with such vigour that the very act of marking space becomes almost tantamount to surveying it in an archaeological dig; loosening and making it reveal itself. Land in his work is under perpetual exploitation, whether it is being mined or used by other industries. According to Kentridge, he inveighs against the picturesque because of the inherent lie of the horizonless, open, unoccupied veld a trope very much part of the colonial representation of the country as empty and unoccupied prior to European arrival, best exemplified for Kentridge in the work of J.H. Pierneef, the darling of the apartheid state and Afrikaner nationalists.

Despite the dazzling, technical mastery of the films, it is the drawings - whether delicate etchings, aquatints, wall drawings or those created for the films - that reveal the full measure of his art. It is their old master-style authority and their modern character that make his films sing. The fluidity of his line and precision of his gestures enable him to convey very intense emotions - violence, tenderness, ambiguity, melancholy - with just a few lines. Faces, in particular, are drawn so expressionistically, using a hatching technique of criss-crossed lines, that they often resemble masks. Kentridge's spare, powerful and mysterious personages are close to those of Giacommetti, with their existential tension. In other instances, especially those that exhibit a social realist dimension, Kathe Kollwitz might spring to mind. Despite these methodical affinities, the work remains resolutely contemporary in aesthetic.

Nowhere is line used more successfully to render movement and ghoulishness than in his latest film, Ubu Tells the Truth (1997), part of a larger theatrical project, Ubu and the Truth Commission, in collaboration with the writer Jane Taylor, choreographer Robin Orlin, and members of Handstring Theatre. Here Kentridge engages directly with 'memory, truth and responsibility' as a way of coming to terms with the apartheid years. The film borrows from Alfred Jarry's original Ubu Roi (1896) to deal with the question of truth in post-apartheid South Africa. It is the story of one of apartheid's killers and his wife who had no idea of her husband's dreadful job. She attributes his nocturnal absences to infidelity, but later discovers the truth, much to her relief. Ubu himself is relieved that his marriage is going to remain intact, ascribing the responsibility of his crimes to higher powers. At the end of the play no one is convicted and like Jarry's original character, the contemporary South African Ubu is able to flush his conscience down the toilet. Totally cleansed, the re-made man sails into the sunset with no qualms.

The story mimics the farcical and lengthy process of testimonies to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged to investigate apartheid crimes and to bring the chief perpetrators to book. A toothless dog unable to convict, the commission can only recommend and has so far only been able to deliver small fry. The film version of Ubu Tells the Truth is radically different from the stage version. For the first time, Kentridge worked with secondary images, such as archival photographs, puppetry and footage, spliced together with his own schematic drawings to create a surreal montage of forms as tense as it is menacing. Spare and taut, there is a total absence of colour. Instead, against a dense black background, the fast moving actions of the chalk figures reach a crescendo of shocking violence – drowning, asphyxiation, electric shocks, strangulation, window death plunges – the full repertoire of apartheid thuggery. Yet despite its irreverence and brilliance, there is something unsatisfying about this film. It seems oddly self-conscious, too direct, without the nuance and complexity of the earlier work.

Kentridge's earlier films posed, and strove to answer, such questions as: how does one explore history or memory in a site of trauma without being merely revisionary, sensational or simplistic? How does one write history in a landscape ceaselessly dedicated to the effacement, concealment and eradication of all traces of that history? How does one remember or call upon memory in a culture of amnesia, especially one riddled with colonial conceits? And what is the artist's critical responsibility towards such questions? In Ubu, though these questions are put forward, they are neither elaborated nor fully explored, but merely illustrated. It feels as if the artist became too immersed in constructing the notion of truth to then engage with it.

Kentridge is currently working on the final edit of a new film and preparing for several projects, including his first US solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. Weighing and Wanting, which will form part of this exhibition, is based on Balthazar's feast in the book of Daniel. The film's premise revolves around one question: 'How does one bring the entire representation of the world inside one's head?' The film will incorporate X-rays, brain scans and scans of the inner workings of the body (his wife is a physician) as a means to explore the unconscious.

At their eloquent best Kentridge's films are suggestive and elliptical, rather than straightforward, concrete narratives. Each is like a chapter in a larger epic whose resolution may or may not lie somewhere in the future. In their discontinuous, sotto voce manner, employing virtually no spoken dialogue, the films remain a means to probe failures of faith without turning them into a polemic, or playing to the gallery. In return for our attention we witness works in which process and product are so tremulously stitched together that often the films feel more like fragments than complete works  incomplete without the drawings (and vice versa). Ultimately it is our familiarity with the medium of drawing that make his films so strange and subversive. Their sureness of touch, rigour and precision belie the brooding, melancholic and lowly sketches from which they originate.

Issue 39

First published in Issue 39

Mar - Apr 1998

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