I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing, the contingent way that images arrive in the work, lies some kind of model of how we live our lives. The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are or how we operate in the world.
- William Kentridge
This quotation is posted at the entrance to the MoMA’s gigantic retrospective of the work of William Kentridge. And, like any good epigraph, it both sets the tone for the viewer’s experience of the exhibition, and later resonates with that experience as the viewer reflects from an angle of comfortable repose. In this case, I am struck by exactly that model of lived life and how its personality comes through in all its asymmetrical grandeur. But more on this below.
William Kentridge is from and of South Africa. His career can be seen as the struggle of a privileged white male, trying to find a language that lets him understand his place in a society riven by apartheid. A strong political pathos pervades his work, yet though Kentridge’s sympathy for the oppressed classes is strong and unwavering, it would be unfair to take the reductive step of labeling it simply ‘political art’. This difficult (and successful) brinksmanship is achieved by the intense ambivalence with which the artist places himself at the center of every piece, a sort of schizophrenic Janus that is, as an artist, sympathetic to the lower class’s plight, but also, as a white, middle-class man, an agent of its residual oppression.
But even talking about the art in these terms seems to impute an ideology to them that is refreshingly absent in the presence of the works themselves. While they, the works, are certainly aware of these generalities, it is detail and subtle movement that define both the still images on display and the huge, projected animations that fill at least five theater spaces constructed on the MoMA’s second floor.
The centerpiece, both of the show and probably of Mr. Kentridge’s career, is the collection of animated films entitled, Drawings for Projection. The two central characters in these films are the two aspects of the artist himself, as mentioned above: Felix, the lover, artist, and sympathetic everyman; and Soho, zillionaire business tycoon and oppressor of the masses. Their interactions with each other are not direct, but instead play out across the shifting landscapes of contemporary South Africa, both as land and as idea.
Mr. Kentridge’s distinctive style uses heavy, dusty charcoal to create sketches that are at once rough and accurate. The animation is achieved by rubbing away a portion of the drawing and redrawing it in the new position, like most ‘analog’ animation. But it differs in that Mr. Kentridge doesn’t fully erase the foregoing state, and thus leaves a ghostly trail of movement through each scene. The effect is dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish, but also seems to play with the way memory works by making it visibly evident across these created spans of time. This is especially moving in the more abstract flights, where the texture of the image’s history compliments, or even comprises, the full artwork as it develops before the viewer.
Throughout the films, the viewer is confronted with strange amalgamations of technological devices and organic objects, like sentient camera tripods and telephones that morph into cats. Mr. Kentridge seems to deploy artifacts of banal, bureaucratic existence as an army of karmic payback, as these phones and cameras, along with notary stamps and guns march against a civilization that is portrayed as perilously close to the abyss. In fact, that abyss itself seems to be animated as the anxiety (depicted as rising, blue water that is creeping up all around Soho in some scenes) that threatens to consume everything. The impression is that of a quotidian apocalypse, slow but intractable.
And again, what makes this particular apocalypse so powerful is that it is so personal. Felix and Soho, as parts of the artist himself, are trapped by the force of their circumstance. They are defined, for better and worse (though more often for worse) by their histories, which the viewer can actually see as the ghostly trails of the animator’s technique. They can move around, but they cannot cleanly rub out the past, only smudge it some and hope it fades with time. By exploring this inescapable contingency, Mr. Kentridge is searching for a better model for life, a better way to operate in the world.
William Kentridge: Five Themes runs at the MoMA until May 17.