Black Box: Between the Lens and the Eyepiece

William Kentridge


Much of what I will be discussing here has to do with the nature of shadows, which I see as an important preliminary consideration for Black Box / Chambre Noire. Approximately two years ago a solar eclipse could be seen in Southern Africa in which the moon obscured eighty percent of the sun. Now, when there’s an eclipse, you are advised to look at it through the foil that tea bags come in so as not to be blinded by staring directly at the sun. Another way of looking at an eclipse is by making a pinhole in a sheet of paper—and when you look at that tiny, bright spot, you will see in it a small rind of the moon, cutting into the circle of light.


Outside the front window of my house a creeper grows. It partially covers the window, and when the sun shines onto the floorboards of the house you can see the shadow of the creeper and all the gaps between its leaves. After looking at the eclipse through tinfoil and through the pinholes on a sheet of paper, I went inside the house. It was dusk, and there is a rather strange dusk light that you get at the time of an eclipse. The shadow of the creeper was fainter than usual, though still very much visible, on the floorboards of the hallway. But I found myself stopping in my tracks when I suddenly realized that between the shadows of the leaves,  within each of the hundreds of spaces where sunlight penetrated through the leaves – a miniature moon was eating into the light.


I had failed to anticipate that, in each of those gaps, there would be a separate moon. This sudden realization changed my understanding of what one sees when looking at light. Normally, one thinks of light as a diffused volume of illumination that comes toward us from a light source, whether it’s the sun or a lamp. And when one sees the shadows of leaves on the ground, it is because something is blocking the mass of light to create the shape of the leaves. One assumes that the gaps between the leaves are simply the empty spaces around them. But this phalanx of moons moving in unison across the floor made me understand each of those spots of light as more than just an area of neutral light; rather, each spot is an attempt by the sun to project its image onto the floor.


The experience of the eclipse made me understand light not as a diffuse thing, but as an infinite series of projections aimed toward us. The sun is an infinitely promiscuous source; it throws itself everywhere. And every surface is primed to receive not just light, but a specific projection of the sun.


Now the broad argument I will be making at this point is that two different things are in operation here. While looking at the eclipse, I became very aware of the process of looking—of being made conscious of the nature of light. And, I also thought about the way that light diffuses mystery, naturalizes the world, and makes everything immediately comprehensible.  Something about shadows makes us very conscious of the activity of seeing.


The second thing the eclipse made me consider was the question: What is the nature of the meeting point between the individual receiver of images and the broad projector of them? If the world consists of infinite projections (in this particular instance, they came from the sun) and infinite receptors—be they floorboards, a sheet of paper, or the retina of the eye—then what is the nature of the meeting point between projection and reception? I ask this question not only in terms of looking, but also in terms of our direct experience in the world. What parts of the world do we have some control over? What parts are utterly beyond us?


Now we come back to the issue of the brightness of the sun—and what it means to look at the bright sun and confront its blinding qualities. I want to discuss a production I’ve recently done of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The opera tells the story of Tamino, a young prince who is told by the Queen of the Night that an evil magician, Sarastro, has abducted her daughter, Pamina. Thus Tamino goes off to rescue Pamina from the wicked Sarastro. As he endures various trials, Tamino discovers that Sarastro, who is the high priest of light, is not, in fact, an evildoer. On the contrary: Sarastro has abducted Pamina in order to save her from her mother, the Queen of Darkness, and to lead her into enlightenment as an initiate of his priesthood.


In numerous scenes Tamino stands in darkness, waiting for light to emerge. There is an obvious analogy between this darkness and the character’s initial superstition and ignorance, and the clarity of light at the end—in the final scene, the theater practically becomes the sun—when Tamino is deemed worthy to be initiated into the priesthood of Sarastro. Indeed, the whole opera is full of the metaphor of moving out of darkness into light. What Mozart is doing, of course, is recreating, in operatic form, the parable that Plato tells in The Republic—the allegory of the cave.  


Now, there are a number of similarities between these two works. The first, obviously, is the common central metaphor of moving from darkness toward light, or from ignorance toward knowledge and justice. Plato’s writes: Imagine that there is a dark cave. At the back of the cave, high up, there’s a bit of light, an entrance to the real world—but in the cave itself, it is pitch-dark. And imagine a group of prisoners chained to their seats such that they can look only straight ahead. Behind these prisoners a fire burns, and in front of the fire there’s a wall. Now, imagine that behind the wall but in front of the fire, people walk past—and the fire casts a shadow of these people on the wall in front of the prisoners, who are chained so that they can look only straight ahead.


On the one hand, Plato’s text is an extraordinarily prescient description of what it is like to sit in a cinema—of what it means to have images on a screen ahead of you, a projector behind, and light streaming forward. But Plato goes on to say: Well, now, wouldn’t the prisoners understand, or assume, that the shadows they saw before them were not merely shadows of people walking by, but the people themselves? The answer, of course, is: Yes.


At this point things become more complex. Plato goes on to explain: Well, now imagine that we unshackle a prisoner and force him out toward the light. What interests me is the introduction of coercion here. It is the same sense of coercion that is present in The Magic Flute. Sarastro never denies that he has kidnapped Pamina against her will. But he believes that he had to rescue her from her mother, and he is determined to bring her into enlightenment, even by force.  Plato is saying something very similar: that, by force, people, against their will, can be dragged out of the cave, up toward the blinding light. They can be made to understand that they saw not real people, but only shadows of people. As they approach the light, and their eyes get accustomed to it, they understand more and more of the world. Plato wants to teach them to look directly at the sun and see the truth.


Yet that is only half of his objective. According to Plato, once you’ve looked at the sun and understood the good and the true, then it is your duty to go back down into the cave to find the other people who are still in darkness and lead them—forcibly if necessary—into the light. 


The allegory of the cave is one of the central foundations of Western philosophy. It is a parable that, in textual form, is very powerful. But if one thinks of it differently—in cinematic terms—what does it mean when you see plain, bright light? It means, of course, that you’ve come to the end of the film: that there’s no more film running through the projector—all you have left is the empty light. In cinema or photography, you hope to avoid this uninterrupted light, to remain within the balance and play of shadow and light.


This returns us to the question: What is it that one learns from the shadows, from being down in the cave? It’s a provocative question, especially if one thinks of the many dark, disastrous consequences that have followed from Plato’s allegory and the character of Sarastro. 


The Magic Flute was written in 1791, at the height of the utopian moment in the Enlightenment. In the opera, Sarastro is depicted as a benevolent authoritarian ruler. Two years later, Robespierre comes to power, and he, like Sarastro, is a Platonic figure, a philosopher king. Robespierre believed that, in order to bring people to knowledge, out into the light, one had to begin by chopping off heads. Almost every tyrant since then—from the late-eighteenth century to Pol Pot, who was a student at the Sorbonne and studied the history of the Enlightenment and French Marxism—would describe himself as an enlightened despot. 


With hindsight, however, one has a very different view of what it means to have the clarity and authority of that clear light of the sun. To even aim for it seems dangerous and raises the question of whether it is possible to bring about enlightenment through force. Is the very ideal one aims to instill destroyed if it has to be brought about by coercion?


Now, think of children playing games with shadows. They make a shape with their hands, and the shadow—say, the shape of a bird—is projected on the wall. Within the Platonic scheme of things, as you move out of the cave, you come to understand that you’re not seeing a bird, but an optical effect of someone obscuring the light with his hands. Three things happen when you see that shadow. First, you understand the shadow as an optical effect of hands interrupting the projection of light to create a dark patch on the wall. Second, even if you specifically try not to, you cannot help but recognize the shadow as the form of a bird. Third—and for me, this is the most vital—you recognize the pleasure that you derive from this self-deception. This pleasure arises from the fact that, though you know that two hands are making the shape, you cannot stop seeing it as a bird. Your astonishment is at your inability to stop the suspension of disbelief. The child who plays with shadows delights not just from seeing the image of a creature on the wall, but also in watching and grasping the illusion, in learning how shadows of hands can be transformed into animals.


This awareness of how we construct meaning, and this inescapable need to make sense of shapes, seems to me very central, indeed essential, to what it means to be alive—to live in the world with open eyes. One very often talks about the “willing suspension of disbelief” that one has when encountering any work of art—whether it is a film, a theater piece, or a drawing.  One willingly decides: “Well, I know this is an actor, not actually Julius Caesar.  But through my generosity, I will pretend that he is Julius Caesar for the duration of the play.” What interests me is not simply this phenomenon, but also the fact that, even if we don’t wish to suspend our disbelief—even if we say to ourselves, “I’m going to look at this simply as an abstract shape”—we cannot stop ourselves from also seeing a figure, from forcing ourselves to make sense of the shape.


One could write a history of the early cinema based entirely on the realm of shadows that transform themselves. In the late 1890s, at the time of the first projected moving images, when the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès were getting started, there was a realm of performance that dealt with the art of transformation—its practitioners were popularly known as “quick-change artists.” As part of a vaudeville act, someone would run behind a screen, change clothes, and reappear as a different character, and then repeat the same process. The pleasure in the performance lay in knowing that each character was played by the same person. The audience marveled at the fact that the performer could change costumes, or become a different character, so convincingly, so quickly. 


Related to this popular art of transformation is another form, “shadowgraphy,” which is the art of making shadows, and transforming them—from a dog to an Indian, to a bird, to a swan. Again, the pleasure for the spectators had to do with their ability to witness such an astonishing transformation while simultaneously recognizing its artificiality. One could think of early cinema as another way of showing this metamorphosis—of experiencing the world not as fact, but as process, with transformation as its essence—of seeing the world not as static, but in motion, at a rate of twenty-four frames a second.


The shadow’s ability to transform itself is one of the key qualities for understanding it. When one sees a shadow, one ascribes to it the characteristics of a kind of solid object. One imagines it has dimensionality, when, in fact, the essence of shadows is their lack of dimension. 


This leads to the project that I will be doing in Berlin. Transforming shadows, the early cinema, the vaudeville of the time, which was practiced throughout Europe and even in the United States—these are some of the forms I’m going to examine in Black Box. But I will consider this early cinema with hindsight, looking back at it as if it were an Enlightenment project. I will ask: What knowledge do we now have, and what lessons have we learned—now that it is no longer 1791, when Mozart wrote his opera, but 2005? 


Berlin is particularly interesting to me. One thinks of the Treaty of Berlin in 1884, in which, among other things, Europe cut up Africa, dividing it among the various European powers. I’m particularly interested in the Germans in southern Africa, what was then known as German Southwest Africa, now Namibia. German missionaries and traders came to colonize Southwest Africa in the later part of the nineteenth century and asked Bismarck for support. Reluctantly at first, Germany sent in troops to support them, and, eventually, Southwest Africa was declared a German colony. The idea of colonialism, and Europe’s justification of its actions, have much to do with both The Magic Flute and Plato—of bringing light to what was called the “Dark Continent,” whether it had to be done by force or not. And, of course, what one takes from the history of Southwest Africa, indeed from the history of all colonialism, is extraordinary violence and the destruction of the original ideals, which followed necessarily in the wake of attempts to enact them through force. 


Between 1903 and 1907 there was an enormous massacre, primarily of the Herero tribe, in Southwest Africa. Although it is now mostly forgotten, overshadowed by other German massacres and genocides later in the century, there are many ways in which the mechanisms of those later European massacres were already underway in Southwest Africa at the turn of the century. The victims’ skulls were washed and cleaned, and sent back to Germany to be measured, to prove the superiority of the “Aryan” skull. The institutes for physical anthropology were established in Berlin long before the Nazis came to power. There are a number of questions relating both to specifically southern African history and to the end of the Enlightenment—or the end, the costs, of the Enlightenment—which will become raw material for Black Box. In part this has to do with the nature of the move away from the certainty of sunlight, which we encounter as we move out of the cave, into the realm that can be illuminated by shadows. One wonders what can be clarified through the obscurity of shadows. One of the metaphors I’m playing with is the illuminating shadow. If you have an image, and a shadow across it, you invert what is light and what is dark, and the shadow itself functions as a kind of spotlight. 


And I’m playing with three sets of associations in Black Box. The first is the black box of the theater. The installation consists of a model of a theater, which houses projections and characters. The characters are small automatons—mechanized (and not necessarily anthropomorphic) objects that perform, together with the projections, within the theater space. So the first reference is to the “black box” of the performance realm. 


The second association of the black box is the chambre noir—the central chamber of a camera between the lens and the eyepiece, into which light enters and where a kind of meaning is created. Here, the infinite possibilities of the outside world come in, but a single image is chosen, fixed upon the plane. 


The third reference is the voice data recorder that is used to trace the last moments before an airline disaster. And the disaster I will be referring to—although I will not necessarily describe it nor didactically enumerate its stages—is the German massacre of the Herero people in Southwest Africa from 1903 to 1907.


What I’ve done up to this point has been to seek out and find the form—the shape—of the theater; the nature of the theater; and the kind of objects that will operate within it. Black Box also comes out of The Magic Flute, as I have described. But if The Magic Flute suggests the utopian moment of the Enlightenment, Black Box represents the other end of the spectrum. 

Edited transcript of a lecture given at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, May 2005.