South African playwright Athol Fugard once wrote, 'We compound our suffering by victimizing each other.' The legacy of such an idea can be found in William Kentridge's world of animated drawing. In his first American survey show, guilt, memory, tyranny and dispossession were set against the dishevelled landscapes of South Africa's abandoned factories and empty streets.
The show opened with Shadow Procession (1999), a slow parade of animated refugees with children in tow, bearing the weight of their belongings, set to music. Big music for big ideas: robust classical scores, operatic arias and choral music are a common feature in all of Kentridge's films, immediately heightening the drama of the images. Kentridge's tours de force are eight films made between 1989 and 1999 that feature a cast of reoccurring characters: Soho Eckstein, the capitalist mine owner and real estate mogul, Mrs Eckstein, his wife, and Felix Teitlebaum, her pensive, nude lover. Kentridge is essentially a writer disguised as an outstanding draughtsman, and, like his compatriot Nadine Gordimer, he re-envisions oppression as an existential dilemma, focusing his attentions on the white petit bourgeoisie trapped in circumstances beyond their control, living in a time of social upheaval and misery during the dark years of apartheid.
The films are all beautiful, infused with ironic handwritten asides that are reflected in titles such as Johannesburg, Second Greatest City after Paris (1989). By and large, however, the more recent the film the better it is. Stereoscope (1998-99), for example, the last in the series, is one of the strongest. Nearly nine minutes in length, the title alludes to an early film tool in which doubling occurs when two images are layered to create a 3D image.
Poetic and non-linear, Kentridge's narratives of unhappiness and betrayal are deeply infused with violence: a black cat becomes a bomb, rocks become fists and in the shadows, a beaten man doubles up. A continuous blue line, one of the only colours in the films, bisects the screen, travelling through the drawings, mapping fear and sorrow. Crowd scenes come and go throughout the films, but the crowd is faceless: a black mob that surfaces at the margins of Teitlebaum's dreams. The character of Eckstein is implicated by virtue of his profession, a mine owner oblivious to the suffering and conditions of his workers. This is demonstrated not by didacticism, but rather by complex sequencing. While breakfasting in bed, Eckstein pushes a plunger and slowly travels down to the depths of a packed mine.
Hypnotic and moving, Kentridge's films are not so much political as humanitarian, a striking repository of images that tap into the notion of a collective unconscious. Seen altogether, they leave you with the residue of something unbearably sad, something that goes beyond the provincial city of Johannesburg, the struggling black underclass and the petty difficulties of the middle class. If there is such a thing as great art, this is it. However Kentridge, who is white, is the only South African artist with international visibility and so, like it or not, reinforces the aesthetic code of an élite art establishment.
Like Bill Viola's video works, Kentridge's narratives are quiet but sweeping meditations on life and death. In his most recent installations Medicine Chest (2000) and Sleeping on Glass (2001), he is even starting to look a bit like Viola. Both use sculptural imagery projected onto mirrors that exist within the structures of domestic fixtures such as a bathroom medicine cabinet or a bedroom bureau. While formally beautiful, these pieces lack the haunting, lingering quality that is so inherent in his films. Ultimately, though, Kentridge has created a potent brew of introspection and beauty tainted by the problems of injustice and oppression.
First published in Issue 63