Closely Woven History

María de Corral

To contemplate the work of William Kentridge is to be captivated by its immediately obvious formal beauty, exquisite handling, pronounced attention to detail and the delicate rhythm with which the artist develops his ideas, which arise, evolve and establish themselves as both unique and characteristic of his distinctive and inimitable creative approach. The chance to admire Kentridge’s oeuvre is like sitting down at the finest table where the robust, convincing dishes, prepared by the hand of an outstanding chef, are presented to us one after another by kindly and professional waiters who receive us in a modest, unpretentious manner and where the wines perfectly match the food. Even the temperature, light and seating are comfortable and appropriate to the degustation. Nonetheless, despite the pleasure of the experience, digestion will be slow and heavy and may last months or even years as Kentridge’s recipes require solitary meditation.

If we define artistic thought as everything that structures the totality of ideas that artists puts into practice in each of their works throughout their careers, we could say that William Kentridge’s artistic thinking is among the most complex and solid of any artist of his generation. Based on a conception of artistic activity that associates trauma and therapy and which is markedly similar to that of Joseph Beuys, Kentridge’s art can be summarised as a profound and enlightening reflection on the wound.

Born in Johannesburg in 1955, Kentridge is descended from a family of German and Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to South Africa in the late 19th century. From the outset of his career the professional activities of his family members suggested a path to be pursued: Kentridge’s paternal grandfather was a lawyer and member of parliament for the Labour party; his maternal grandmother was the first female lawyer in South Africa; his mother was an active defender of human rights and his father, Sir Sydney Kentridge, was a celebrated anti-apartheid lawyer who played a part in important legal proceedings such as the investigation into the Sharpeville massacres, the murder of Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela’s trials. “My childhood was different to that of most white South Africans” Kentridge has said. “By the time I went to school I already knew that shameful things took place in that abnormal society, while for my classmates it was a seemingly normal world, I was more aware and to some extent, better informed.”

The indelible mark left by apartheid and everything that it implied had to be slowly purged in the manner of ridding oneself of a poison without the certainty of being able to eliminate it completely. For Kentridge there was no possibility of simply forgetting, something that seemed to him immoral, and for this reason he began to use his work to look for other mechanisms that would allow him to move forward while simultaneously acknowledging the situation. As Elena Vozmediano aptly reminded us in her text “William Kentridge. Drawing (the story) over the erased (the forgotten), Kentridge’s stance runs counter to the speculative viewpoint of Theodor Adorno who stated that after Auschwitz thought and poetry were not possible. On the contrary, Kentridge’s approach is rather that of bringing about catharsis, using his work in an effort to remember and acknowledge guilt through drawing, his most important tool.

The experience of drawing

Correctly understanding Kentridge’s work means locating drawing at the apex of his creative activities. He attended classes at the Johannesburg Art Foundation where he met the painter Dumile, the local artist who most influenced him. Dumile’s powerful charcoal drawings on political and social themes impressed Kentridge and revealed to him the profound impact that large-scale figurative images in charcoal could have.

From then on Kentridge has never abandoned the practice of drawing. Although he has worked in numerous different fields, including theatre, opera and video art, as well as tapestry and sculpture (both represented in the present exhibition and discussed later on in this text), Kentridge’s drawings constitute the essential basis of his vision of the world, the beginning from which all else arises. “Every one of my works starts with drawings. It is like an intimate diary in which the political events that have caused an impression on me come together” he notes.

At no point, however, does Kentridge understand line as something static. Movement has been an essential element in his work from the outset of his career to the present day. It could be said that his works involve a commitment to the ever-changing, shifting and uncertain structure of life as it develops, constantly mutating and developing. These are characteristics that can also be fully applied to another of his central preoccupations, namely History. The Judeo-Christian world view that arose after the Greek paradigm of the cyclical was abandoned resulted in a notion of historical development based on linearity and finality that persisted for centuries. The issue was, however, complicated with the arrival of Post-modernism and its proclamation of the End of History. The principal meta-accounts, which provided the bases of modern thinking and reached their high point with Hegelian philosophy, were evaluated and rejected by thinkers of the stature of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Gianna Vattimo and Jean F. Lyotard, whose opinions found support in the earlier ideas of Nietzsche and Heidegger.

As such, the idea of history conveyed to us in Kentridge’s works is no longer history written in capital letters but one that, functioning as a receptor of contemporary thought, has rid itself of all teleology and undertakes an ongoing examination of its own conscience and a profound and continuous act of self-criticism.

Despite the fact that we have often been told that history writes itself, movement (as I mentioned above) is essential for this South African artist, which means that history does not just write itself but also – and more importantly – it erases itself and re-writes itself. The result is that narrativity takes shapes in his work through a history that progresses in circles, advancing and receding in numerous different directions.

On the basis of these premises, Kentridge has developed one of the most unique modes of expression to be found in contemporary art today. The process of erasing is perfectly evident in his video works. From the classic twenty-four photograms per second, he has moved on to single photograms lasting several seconds. These photograms are in fact pieces of paper stuck to a wall on which he draws and then rubs out, filming each stage step by step with his camera. Although erased, the lines of what has previously been drawn are still visible, offering silent witness to the evolution of the work and giving the process particular importance.

This is a notably artisanal approach and one charged with numerous connotations. It is in fact the way that Kentridge has evolved his unique style, starting in 1989 when he created Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris. This was the first of his Drawings for Projection, the name that he gave to his animations based on charcoal drawings.

When he was six, Kentridge found by chance among his father’s things some photographs of the Sharpeville massacre, which Sydney Kentridge was investigating at that date. The shocking nature of these photographs and the naivety of the young William’s gaze made this a key episode in the artist’s life. “It was a complete revelation: the world was constructed in a way that I had no previous idea of”, he said in an interview with Bell Hooks in 1998 entitled “Breaking Down the Wall”. Years later Kentridge made drawings of those images as, for him, “the activity of drawing the photographs to some extent tamed them, made them manageable, turned the events that they described into something more accessible. Drawing something is a way of controlling it, not in real life but in our head.”

In Kentridge’s films each scene brings together hundreds of moments in the creation of a small number of drawings. With no pre-written script, these animations arise from the internal transformations undergone by his figures. The habitual lack of sound is only interrupted on occasions by the music of Mozart, Shostakovich and even Duke Ellington, which thus becomes extremely important in his works.

Kentridge’s preference for limiting the scenes to an austere black and white is particularly striking within this highly distinctive style that he has evolved for his animations. The general absence of colour (also evident in the rest of his work) is only contradicted by the occasional use of red and blue: two colours that clearly have aesthetic and allegorical significance. Kentridge has more than once noted that he did not feel comfortable with colour and has thus limited its use. What is certainly true is that its judicious and infrequent application has made it a device charged with a powerful symbolism.

The artist and his characters

Kentridge’s work reveals a particular interest in the human figure as the representation of individuality and the counterpoint to society en masse. His characters frequently have a solipsistic air: they are isolated figures that relate to their surroundings in an introspective and metaphorical way, functioning as representations of attitudes, ideas and emotions. Each one contains its raison d’être within itself: they are self-sufficient within Kentridge’s universe as they each have their own story.

Various characters have reappeared so frequently in his work between the late 1980s and the late 1990s that they have acquired the status of classics. They include Soho Eckstein, a businessman who symbolises the values of industry hand in hand with capitalism, and Felix Teitelbaum, the melancholy artist who is always shown with no clothes on. Together they form a dialectic, functioning as alter egos of Kentridge himself and standing out from the crowd, which is a recurring motif in his work.

Ubu, the protagonist of Ubu tells the Truth of 1996-97, is another key figure in Kentridge’s universe. The character of Ubu was invented by Alfred Jarry in his burlesque play Ubu Roi of 1896 in which he appears as the satirical symbol of certain aspects of power. Kentridge strips Ubu of his comic side but preserves his function as a critique of the contradictions of power. The two faces of Ubu, the divine and the human, coexist in this stupid, bloated despot who is presented as a monstrous being.

The last key figure for an understanding of Kentridge’s work is Zeno. This character, some of whose traits are based on the protagonist of Italo Svevo’s novel Zeno’s Conscience, is the anti-hero type that combines the instability and psychological tension found in Soho and Felix. Through Zeno, Kentridge offers a telling reflection of many of his particular ghosts and in 2001 made use of him in Zeno writing, one of his most pared down and refined works. On one occasion Kentridge remarked that he had always assumed that we exist in the world as split or divided individuals. In a country such as his own in which differences have been the cause of so much suffering and violence, otherness is not a good place in which to dwell.

It may be because of this feeling of schizophrenia, of living as if divided, that Kentridge’s characters seem to fracture and intermingle, making any interpretation of his work a complex undertaking. This complexity increases still further when we turn to Shadow Procession of 1999, which marks the first appearance of the characters that would later become the protagonists in his tapestries. An interesting new feature here is the fact that these are no longer individuals with names and surnames but rather a crowd that walks in single file so that each member of it is shown separately rather than as part of a group, with individual characteristics and differentiated from the mass that previously made them all the same. The figures are now bearers who have transformed their bodies to reflect the nature of their subjection, resulting in what we might term mutation. Kentridge thus introduces the element of the monstrous, like a punishment in a Greek tragedy or like Frankenstein, using the characters’ deformity to reveal the nature of whatever has subjected them. This procession of figures, simultaneously a condemnation and a vindication, demands its right to human dignity (a dignity that was not in fact recognised in terms of international law until the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and which continues to be violated every day). The march’s rhythmical step is the manifestation of a painful historical reality in which there is no room for our existential condition. It is the very proof of shame passing before our eyes.

By joining together these completely different realities in a single act of protest Kentridge’s work acquires powerful meaning as a universal vindication, drawing attention to the living reality of individuals who force us to examine our consciences, as we so often feel in the presence of many of this artist’s works.

The artist’s career

As discussed above, William Kentridge’s work is particularly rooted in South Africa, his place of birth and a nation marked by racial division and the apartheid laws that remained in force until the general election of 1994. Kentridge has acknowledged his degree of involvement with his native city of Johannesburg: “I have never been able to run away from Johannesburg. The four houses in which I have lived, my school and my studio are all no more than three kilometres apart. In the end all my work has its roots in that provincial and pretty desperate city. I have never tried to make illustrations of apartheid, but my drawings and films have certainly been bred and nourished by the brutalised society to which it gave rise. I am interested in political art, in other words, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, incomplete gestures and uncertain endings. An art and a type of politics in which optimism is under control and nihilism is kept at bay.”

In the mid-1970s Kentridge was an actor with the Junction Avenue Theatre Company. He then moved to Paris in 1981 where he lived for two years and studied mime and theatre. On his return to Johannesburg he focused entirely on directing films and on working as artistic director for television series before going back to drawing in 1984. It was in the 1990s that Kentridge produced his finest works to date. His animated film Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old was awarded a prize at the Cape Town Triennial in 1991. The Triennial marked a turning point in the introduction of new media other than painting, drawing and sculpture, including film and craft production such a beadwork and other types of decoration.

However, it would be at the 1995 Johannesburg Biennial, curated by Lorna Ferguson, that William Kentridge’s work first received significant attention, culminating in his participation in Documenta X in 1997. The following year the artist was the subject of his largest solo exhibition to date, held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and subsequently at the MACBA in Barcelona. From that point onwards William Kentridge has been recognised as a key artist both at home and abroad.

In 2001 another important exhibition of Kentridge’s work was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. It brought together a significant number of works by the artist and was only surpassed in size by the solo exhibition devoted to him at the MoMA in New York in 2010 entitled William Kentridge: Five Themes. That retrospective exhibition covered the years from 1980 to the present and was structured around five themes (Ubu and the Procession, Thick Time: Soho and Felix, Artist in the Studio, The Magic Flute and The Nose). It included works never previously exhibited in the United States and also coincided with the first performance of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera, the production and set design of which were by Kentridge.

The tapestry as “permanent projection”

It might seem surprising that a contemporary artist should deploy tapestry as the support for a large number of his works, making use of a craft technique that has often struggled on the borderline of traditional classifications – fine art or decorative art – despite the fact that it occupies a prominent place in the history of art, with examples such as Raphael’s tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, Rubens’s for the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid, Goya’s for the Royal Santa Bárbara Tapestry Manufactory, and in the modern period, tapestries designed by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Le Corbusier, Miró, Matta, Vasarely, Schlosser, Alighiero and Boetti, Chillida and Alechinsky.

The magic of tapestry has fascinated numerous people. The length of time required for its creation, the manner of composing the work, moving from the minute to the final, grandiose result, the aspect of arduous labour that it involves, with its painstaking, precise procedure, the metaphorical weft of the threads out of which it is made, the ancient nature of a technique that has survived over the centuries and the humble nature of the materials from which it is constructed are all near miraculous aspects. Tapestries involve starting from the tiniest unit in order to compose the whole while conceding a crucial importance to each instant.

If we bear in mind the enormous importance that William Kentridge places on drawing it is not surprising that tapestry is the outcome of a natural evolution within his work. Tapestries arise from a team effort in which the power of the artist becomes part of a collective decision in order to achieve the final result. The hegemonic paternity of the work passes into the hands of shared endeavour.

At one point Kentridge had ants in his kitchen and he observed with astonishment how they crowded around a few drops of honey, forming lines that the artist made use of in Ubu tells the Truth in which he replaced charcoal with sugar and water, allowing the ants to participate in his drawings by giving movement to the lines, as can be seen in the final filming in which the colours are inverted. The work liberates itself and acquires its own interior movement, just like the choreographic movement of weavers’ hands as they make tapestries.

Making a tapestry involves a large number of people who are part of the process, from the collection and preparation of the wool in Swaziland to its arrival at the artist’s studio in Johannesburg where it is handed over to Marguerite Stephens and her team of women weavers. There, Kentridge’s drawings are adapted to the tapestries’ monumental scale, a method that requires absolute precision and painstaking meticulousness in order to fix the image in a permanent manner.

Like an enormous container that is gradually filled, as it is made the tapestry takes on the form of the original drawing over the course of many days of work, all of them enlivened by the weavers’ songs.

In contrast to the process of erasing that Kentridge uses in his video works, the image establishes itself in a tapestry in a permanent manner and without the option of modification as changes are impossible, hence the term that Kentridge has given to his works in tapestry, which he calls “permanent projection” or “frozen projection”. Movement continues to be present but it is knotted together and subordinated to a single form. The beauty of this approach undoubtedly lies in the powerful sensation that the viewer experiences when contemplating it.

Numerous aspects of tapestries interest Kentridge, including, for example, the fact that they can be rolled up and transported. Despite its size a tapestry travels like a magician’s bag, ready to be opened and to dazzle the spectator. This is the illusion of a portable world that fascinated the writer Enrique Vila-Matas and which led him to write A Brief History of portable Literature in 1985, a book whose storyline would undoubtedly interest William Kentridge. Other indications of the artist’s enthusiasm for illusionism are to be found in his work What Will Come (has already come) of 2007, which is to be seen in the present exhibition and which I will discuss later in this text. It is a work characterised by its use of the pictorial device of anamorphosis.

Like old-fashioned school maps, tapestries unroll to show a cartographic vision of geography, the graphic representation of places, territories, frontiers and geographical features that we see as a faithful reflection of our Planet Earth. The maps used by Kentridge in his works, most of which date from the 19th century, produce in us a strange sense of alienation when we attempt to find in them some of the places that we know. Historical events have permanently transformed the regions in which we live with regard to the way that we know them. With the passing of time the boundary lines in maps change, as do the names and even the locations of places. Political and economic events contributed to the appearance of a new Africa during the Neo-imperialist period, altering its outlines, just as wars, disputes and migration continue to modify our political maps today.

In 1974 the presentation of the Gall-Peters projection caused astonishment due to the way in which it projected the world map solely in terms of the accurate size of all the countries in proportion to each other. They turned out to be significantly different with regard to their relative sizes than previous representations had shown, revealing the manipulation used in maps in order to show the supremacy of the North Korea over the South.

Kentridge’s new vision of cartography opens our eyes in a similar manner and one that is intimately related to his fascination with the fact that the current appearance of places where important historical events took place has nothing to do with what happened there. This “erasing” is characteristic of nature, which lacks historical memory, and has fascinated Kentridge, leading to the frequent inclusion in his videos of a silent dialogue between people and their surroundings.

It could be said that with his tapestries Kentridge has taken a further step in his mature understanding of landscape, this time represented in a topological manner, given that with tapestries he has found a perfect landscape and one capable of containing memory within it. They offer an unparalleled summary of the subjectivity of the terrain that contains time and history within itself and an explicit manifestation of how violence, subjugation, power relations, traumas (in the etymological sense of wounds) and inequalities emerge in modern maps, which are the graphic synthesis of events. This is the artist’s new remedy for defeating amnesia: the worst of enemies.

In 2005 Kentridge created Black Box/Chambre Noir in which he evoked different objects and places with a camera obscura in which the shadows were transformed into images. The viewer also heard the repetition of the word Trauerarbeit, a Freudian concept relating to mourning, which is the reaction to the loss or death of a loved person or an abstract concept that stands in for them such as homeland, liberty or an ideal.

Unlike mourning, melancholy is a pathological state which precedes mourning on some occasions and is characterised by loss of interest in the exterior world or loss of the ability to love. In order to emerge from this state Freud proposed “the work of mourning” (Trauerarbeit) in order to bring to an end all those memories and expectations that tie us to the absent person through our memory and desires.

Art is therapy for Kentridge and his tapestries are part of a new way of fighting on the side of memory rather than against it.

But beyond the depicted maps, what happens with the shadows superimposed on them?

In addition to Kentridge, the use of shadow has been crucial for many other leading contemporary artists. Olafur Eliasson has made use of its most optical facet in order to include it in his compositions; Hans-Peter Feldmann has used it to show invisible reality; Kara Walker comes very close to Kentridge’s ideas in making use of it to reveal oppression, racism and sexual violence; Eulàlia Valldosera has deployed it to offer an ironic comment on the condition of women; Tim Noble & Sue Webster have used it to conceal the real form, while Regina Silveira works with it to create her distorted geometries.

With regard to Kentridge, the figures that arose from Shadow Procession take on different meanings depending on how we conceptualise them. If we consider that they are shadows of the real we might recall Plato and his famous Myth of the Cave. However, aware of the lesser status conceded to shadows by Plato, who considered them filtered reflections of higher ideas to be found outside the cave, we might be more inclined to consider that Kentridge does not wish to show us the shadows, i.e. the projections of the individual, but rather the individuals themselves, those who remain in the darkness, those whom the light does not illuminate.

From their size and central location in his tapestries it is evident that the shadows represent human movement and global migration in the early examples and the convulsion of historical events in the later ones. The heavy weight of the bearers’ shadows is progressively lightened until it acquires a balanced and harmonious movement in the most recent tapestries. In these works we also encounter delicate red, yellow and blue marks that traverse the black silhouettes and define the outlines, showing directions, indicating turning points and points of rotation as if the works were unfinished.

¿No se unirá usted al baile? [Won’t you join the dance?]

For the first time in Spain we now have the opportunity to see this selection of works, which are fundamental ones within William Kentridge’s artistic evolution. ¿No se unirá usted al baile? brings together more than twenty tapestries and other pieces that together explain the scope, intention and working method that underlie the artist’s activities and which include sketches and drawings, mosaics, sculptures and videos.

The exhibition is no less ambitious than the one held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008 or the one held in 2010 at the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples entitled Streets of the City (and other tapestries)/Strade della città (e altri arazzi)

The primary material on which Kentridge’s remarkable imagination operates is the everyday: near-at-hand elements taken from his normal surroundings that he manipulates and interprets in a masterly fashion as a consequence of his special ability to represent images, emotions and thoughts on an extremely conceptualised level.

The present exhibition reveals a mature Kentridge who has pared his expressive method down to the maximum degree. While the background to his work continues to be situations of guilt and liberation, domination and emancipation, maltreatment and suffering, he now introduces a playful, almost humorous facet although the message remains as powerful as ever.

While drawing is the breach from which everything springs, Kentridge’s sculptures focus on maintaining their two-dimensionality with the result that their shape changes according to the viewpoint from which they are seen. Once again it is the capacity for transformation and movement that is important. The absolute primacy of drawing, which determines an entire way of thinking and codifying the world, is an essential part of this artist’s sculptural method.

The four mosaics in the exhibition exhibit a feature on which the artist has also focused in some of his tapestries, namely their pixelated form. The knot on the woven surface, the tessera in the mosaic and the pixel on the screen are the units that create the image when respectively combined together. As a result, two, centuries-old techniques are paralleled with the new technology used to create visual content in the computer age. The message, which is always codified, is subordinated to the union of the parts. In an inverted order of priorities, the whole is subject to the individual and not the other way round.

Nonetheless, in order to appreciate both mosaics and tapestries the viewer always has to stand back from the tiny units of which they are composed and focus on the whole. In the same way, in order to admire Kentridge’s work What Will Come (has already come) of 2007 we need a tool that transforms the seeming distortion of the image into legible forms. In this case it is the metal cylinder that contains the film projected onto the table, showing scenes based on the conflict that broke out in 1935-36 between Fascist Italy and Ethiopia (former Abyssinia). Kentridge deploys the technique of anamorphosis, which was first invented and used in the 16th century, to create this beautiful, lyrical work in which movement is once again a key element.

It is, however, the tapestries that are the true protagonists of this exhibition. Their monumental scale will surprise visitors to the exhibition who will be able to admire a sizeable selection from the Porter series as well as the unexpected and marvellous series Horse and Nose, alongside others made in conjunction with the project for the MoMA and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

For the exhibition held at the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Kentridge made use of maps of that city in the creation of his tapestries. Similarly, we now can see maps of Moscow in City of Moscow (2009) on display at the CAC Málaga. For the present exhibition the artist has created the tapestry ¿No se unirá usted al baile? of 2011, the title of which has given the exhibition its name and which includes fragments of 18th– and 19th-century maps of Málaga rescued from archives and antique shops. They include Carrión de la Mula’s map of 1791, the original of which is in the city’s Municipal Archive, a late 19th-century map by A. Colomer and one of 1880 by L. Thuiller.

All the works on display at the CAC Málaga are part of the extensive body of work by William Kentridge that focuses on testimony and reconciliation and which is founded on his commitment to art. Some artists undoubtedly make us fly higher than others and Kentridge has that rare ability to offer us a vision that is absolutely unique within contemporary art.

Published in edited form in William Kentridge: No se unirá usted al baile?, CAC Malaga, 2012.