In Praise of Shadows

William Kentridge

Zeno and Plato

The theatre project Confessions of Zeno will be presented in Berlin shortly. To give you some orientation. At an angle across the stage will be a large screen – around 20 feet by 14 feet. On which will be projected images captured by a camera at the side of the stage here on my left. This camera is pointed at a blank wall in front of which objects made of paper, wood and other materials, people and things are moved by manipulators invisible to the camera. There are other elements to the production – a singer, a string quartet, an actor – but it is this theatre of shadows that I want to focus on.

The work is development of shadow projections which I have used in theatre productions with Handspring Puppet company over several years. Usually it has been just an adjunct to other forms of puppet performance. In Zeno, the shadow play occupies centre stage. This interest in shadow performance is neither unique nor new. Here is a hypothetical description of a similar event written some two and half thousand years ago. It is a description of somewhat authoritarian performance before what we would describe as a captive audience.

Imagine an underground chamber [similar to this theatre], with a long entrance open to the daylight. .... In this chamber are men who have been prisoners since they were children, their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them and cannot turn their heads. Some way off, behind and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them, runs a path in front of which there is a curtain wall, like the screen at puppet shows between the operators and audience, above which they see the puppets.

Imagine further that there are all sorts of men carrying gear along behind the wall, projecting above it, and including figures of men and animals made of wood and stone and all sorts of other materials, and that some of these men, as we would expect, are talking and some are not. An odd picture and an odd sort of prisoner. They are like us. For tell me, do you think our prisoner could see anything of themselves or their fellows except the shadows thrown by the fire on the wall of the cave opposite them? Would they not assume that the shadows that they saw were the real things? And if the wall of their prison opposite them reflected sound, don’t you think they would suppose, whenever one of the passers by on the road spoke, that the voice belonged to the shadow on the wall passing before them? They would be bound to think so.

This then is how Plato sets the scene for the journey towards knowledge, or away from ideology, or false consciousness, or from appearance to substance. What happens, he says, if the prisoners are released from their shackles? ‘Suppose one of them were let loose, and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head and look towards the fire.’ He would be dazzled at first, unable to believe that the object, held above the wall, silhouetted against the firelight, is primary and its shadow secondary. The shadow of the apple is an inadequate approximation or limitation of what an apple is. To see the apple by firelight in the cave is already to understand it better. And then, ‘if he were forcibly dragged up the steep and rugged ascent and not let go until he had been dragged out into the sunlight’ (coercion and control is an essential part of the Platonic system here), he would be dazzled further, understand the artificial nature of the world he had been in before. The apple seen by the sunlight yields a greater truth. ‘First he would find it easier to look at shadows, next at the reflections of other objects in water, and later at the objects themselves. After that he would find it easier to observe the heavenly bodies and the sky itself that night, and look at the light of the moon… The thing he would be able to do last, would be to look directly at the sun itself, and gaze at it without using reflection in water or any the medium, but as it is in itself’, and finally would come to the conclusion that the sun was responsible for everything – changing seasons, the fire, and is in a sense responsible for everything that he and he and his fellow prisoners used to see.  The apple as living object is best understood as being made by the sun. And of course it is not just objects we learn the truth of, but for Plato we learn the truth of justice and the good. He would also understand that the shadows themselves represented a deep ignorance and primitivism.

This blinded man is then to be sent back down into the cave to bring new knowledge to the prisoners below and eventually lead them out.

It is an astonishingly powerful image – one of the founding documents of the Western philosophical tradition. It sets the tone for questions of enlightenment, and moving towards light as being moving towards knowledge; echoes up all the way through the centuries through Beethoven’s prisoners in Fidelio making their way out of the dark dungeons. The question I would want to pose is that of the reverse journey.

Can it work in reverse – someone blinded or bewildered by the brightness of the sun, unable to look at it, familiar with the everyday world and the surface – choosing to descend, not just for relief, but also for elucidation, to the world of shadows? For Plato the journey was always one towards enlightenment. Each new layer would explain the previous darker less direct region. And although the philosopher king, who had seen the sun and understood the truth was duty bound to return to the underworld, this was as a missionary, bringing the truth and the knowledge of the light with him. There was never a question of anything being learned from the shadows, of the world above. He had the monopoly of truth.

My interest in Plato is twofold. For his prescient description of our world of cinema – his description of a world of people bound to reality as mediated through a screen feels very contemporary – but more particularly, in defence of shadows, and what they can teach us about enlightenment.


The Neutral Mask

When I was at theatre school in Paris twenty years ago, we did a number of exercises using what were termed neutral masks – a leather mask with a bland or non-expression. The effect of this mask was to remove facial expression as part of the performance. This was rather devastating for people like myself, whose poor performances had started from an emotion on the face. Happy, sad, smiling mouth, rolling eyes, furrowed brows – these stocks in trade all became useless. What was left was the expression of the body. It had the effect of removing psychology from the performance. It made very clear the difference between what one thought one was expressing, and what the body showed. How did one know what the body was expressing? It relied on recognition. An actor might say, ‘I am filled with anger in my performance’, but what we might recognise would be uncertainty, hesitancy and fear. What does it mean to recognise this? It means we saw something that we knew already (even though we might not have known what we knew.) If someone were to say, ‘Tell me how to show fear and hesitancy’, I would be hard pressed. Looking at shadows is always finding something we already know. A rational description would be imperfect and arrived at with difficulty. Recognition is immediate and effortless. It describes a different kind of knowledge. It is a truth behind the trite adage, ‘I know it when I see it’. It understands that the relationship between seeing and knowing is not simple. It proclaims that one does not have to translate what one has seen into a rationalist model before it becomes a usable piece of knowledge. (On analysis one found that most meaning originated in the pelvis, and that this rather than the face, was the primary organ of expressive performance.)

When operating a puppet, it does not help to have a Stanislavskian approach, conjuring up psychological memories, reliving them, as a way to operate a shadow-puppet. The considerations are different. A series of practical questions, angles to the camera and light, finding an imagined horizon, working through a series of what appear to be technical considerations to arrive at a meaning which is recognised.


An Insubstantial Essence

There is an uncertain relationship between moving away from psychology and simplification.  There is a greater and smaller point to be made here. The smaller point is that detail – texture, surface, facial expression – can get in the way of seeing. We are fooled by the surface of the apple, its waxed colour, enhanced for advertising photographs. The shadow only indicates ‘apple’, but we are in no doubt how little we know of its quality, its taste. We are alerted to the limitations of our knowledge. One is beguiled by the expression of the actor and ignores the bad faith at the heart of the performance. There is a paradox here. Shadow is all appearance, immateriality, without substance; but at the same time gives a way of avoiding the seduction of surface – often referred to as appearance as opposed to essence. What are we doing with these simplified figures with reduced or non-existent inner lives? It does not help to think, ‘this shadow figure was beaten when small.’ One has to find the movement the figure suggests, and from this find its gestures, its meaning – that in the end may provoke recognition of a world not so far from the psychological space we would use if working in a naturalist manner. But here one arrives at this world as a discovery, not an assumed knowledge at the beginning of the performance. The second, harder point, has to do with the critique of psychology as a way of understanding the world.

Understanding that the blankness of the shadow, the lack of psychological depth, may be an asset – that understanding the world not through individual psychology is often appropriate and stronger.

Traditional wisdom has it that the greater the psychological depth of the performance, the closer it gets to the truth of the world. The world of shadows suggests other routes than sincerity or the psychological elements of performance. I would suggest that this is an area in which the world has changed over the two and half thousand years since Plato. Understanding the world we are in is not necessarily helped by a psychological perspective. Films like Schindler’s List, Enemy at the Gates, are so unsuccessful because they try to make an understanding of huge events in the world through psychology. I make an argument here for something that is neither individual psychology nor a universality, but something I would call a recognised particularity.


Seeing In

To get more concrete here. I take a sheet of black paper, I tear it into three or four shapes and place them next to each other. Now as a purist I can defy nature, and say these are four abstract shapes of black paper on a white ground, perhaps overlapping. But removing monasticism and dogmatics, things start to emerge. In this combination they are a dog, in this combination man with a stick, I tilt this piece forward and he ages, I lean it back slightly he gains in arrogance. There is a process happening here of the eye leading – of the eye saying, ‘Let me show you what I know of the world.’ The eye says, ‘This awkwardness in the shape in front of you is someone leaning on an uncomfortable hip.’ If I had started the other way around, and said ‘Let me make a shadow figure f someone with a limp, I would be hard pressed to do it. The best I can do is to set in place strategies to allow this image of a limp to emerge. When Rembrandt draws his woman teaching a child to walk, or Picasso does the same, they are not saying, ‘I know what this looks like and will carry it out,’ they are saying, ’Let me work with a looseness or openness that will allow to emerge what I cannot describe or give instructions for, but I will recognise as it emerges.’ This process is not a preserve of artists, talented or gifted people, it is fundamental to what it is to be sighted in the world, an oscillation between openness and recognition. The exercise I have described with black paper works as well with an eight-year old, as with MA students. I did a workshop with 8-year old scholars at my children’s school. They cut or tore roughly the elements of a vertebrate – a head, limbs, torso, pelvis. And they made a dog doing a somersault, a dinosaur rearing on its hind legs, a monster hiding its head behind its arm. If we had started the other way, this would have been impossible of course. None of them could say or draw what a dog doing somersault looked like, but all could recognise it as it appeared before them, made by them. It is this seeing in – seeing the face in the cloud – that is the basis of the shadow work I have done over the last years.

To keep to this theme of childhood, as one way of tracking the meaning of words and things in the world. We know in fact that if one had been chained since childhood, unable to move one’s head, as described of the viewers in Plato’s cave, only a total autism would be possible. The very opening terms of Plato’s metaphor are impossibly stated. Seeing, as opposed to a pattern of light and shade on one’s retina, is always a mediation between this image and other knowledge. What shadows as objects, silhouettes or puppets do, is make the mediation conscious. The world of shadows tells us things about seeing invisible by the light of the sun.

An early memory of shadows – which I am sure is neither remarkable nor unique. On the beach, trying to stamp on a sibling’s shadow and avoid having one’s own trod on. And the extraordinary agility and speed that one had in one’s shadows. A much greater speed and agility than one could realistically lay claim to, but yet this was one’s own speed too. One’s relationship to one’s own shadow – which is not the same as oneself, which one does not own, but which is an inescapable attribute and accompaniment, was for me a memorable conundrum. A midpoint between a familiar self and the otherness of the rest of the world. The shadow immediately brings an other into the picture, the other being a source of light – here we are at the start of the shadow paradox. It is both of one and separate from one. One thinks of the simple games one does with shadows. One crosses one’s thumbs and wags one’s hands, and we have three things: a pair of hands crossed and wagging; and a shadow, which is two things – a shadow of two hands with the thumbs crossed wagging, and a shadow of a bird or butterfly flapping its wings. And what is fundamental, is that we understand it is both, and the pleasure we get from it has to do with this understanding. This ambiguity, this pleasure accompanying self-deception – seems to me to be fundamental in what it is to be a visual being. 

A simple reading of Plato resists this, saying ‘the butterfly you saw on the wall was simply Aristotle behind the curtain, crossing his thumbs and waving his hands. The truth is the crossed thumbs, ideology is the bird.’ Whereas in fact, in our deepest beings, we know that it is both.  We are far closer here to Zeno than Plato. Zeno’s paradox, as well as I remember it, is that an arrow aimed at a target first has to cover half the distance, and before that half of that distance, and half of that – each distance requiring some time to cross it – so that an infinite number of divisions will yield an infinite amount of time, and the arrow will in fact never leave the bow, never mind reach the target. This held in mind while at the same time understanding that of course the arrow does leave the bow and reach the target, and that St Sebastian did not just die of fright (pace Stoppard), is a kind of ongoing ambiguity that was a horror for Plato, and his belief that all such paradoxes would eventually be explained away – as they were, by Bertrand Russell some two thousand years later – in a way that makes perfect mathematical sense.   But this still does not stop the crossed thumbs being both hands and bird. And what we do when we see is both be connected to a measurable, objective world of optics, surface, light source and physics, and be aware of something utterly beyond that.

This is not a deep or novel insight – but it is remarkable how we take it for granted, and naturalise our seeing into something purely objective. And if there is one thing that art can make clear, it is to make us conscious of the precept ‘always be mediating’. All calls to certainty, whether of political jingoism or of objective knowledge, have an authoritarian origin relying on blindness and coercion – which are fundamentally inimical to what it is to be alive in the world with one’s eyes open.