On Defectibility as a Resource: William Kentridge’s Art of Imperfection, Lack, and Falling Short

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Introductory essay toWilliam Kentridge, book prepared on the occasion of the exhibition William Kentridge at the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin, 10 January to 29 February 2004; K20 K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 27 March to 31 May 2004; Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, 1 September to 28 November 2004; Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, Montreal, 10 February to 23 April 2005; Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, 1 July to 31 October 2005. Published here with minor revisions.

­In 1997 I asked William Kentridge to comment Theodor Adorno’s assertion of 1949 that, after Auschwitz, it would be barbaric to write poetry.[1] He replied: “Alas there is lyric poetry. ‘Alas’, because of the dulling of sensibilities we must have in order to make that writing or reading possible. But of course, also, thank goodness that such poetry can still be read. The dulling of memory is both a failure and a blessing.”

Kentridge often uses the word “dulling” to indicate a state of insensibility towards what should be, or could be, intensely and “authentically” experienced. His creative impulse stems from exploring the effects of that “dulling”.

Just as Kentridge sees “dulling” as a two-sided coin – the “alas” but “thank goodness” for poetry – the world of drawing itself is for Kentridge also a double-sided practice. For Kentridge it comprises both of intentionality and chance, making marks and erasing them, revealing how vision is constructed while encouraging the loss of oneself in the fiction he stages.

There is an atmosphere of deep sadness, a sense of loss, and an acute sensibility to pain in much of his art, and yet there is also humour, an appreciation of pleasure, weakness and whim. His work also expresses a healthy sense of self-doubt, of constantly falling short of an ideal.[2]

From a feminist perspective, the self he projects is that of an almost perfect man of the future: shying away from any form of grand scheme, he keeps masculine power and the patriarchal gaze in constant check. He welcomes imperfection, failures, shadows, oblique glances rather than direct views, provisional moments of beauty rather than attempts at grand accomplishments. This attitude runs parallel to his artistic practice itself: he is a truly experimental artist, but prefers not to be an innovator. His interests are broad, and the techniques he employs to make his works vary from charcoal on paper to chalk drawings onto the landscape, from shadow puppetry to etchings, from 16 or 35 millimeter film to digital video, from torn paper figures directly applied to walls to traditional tapestries and  bronze sculptures (based on his son’s broken Rambo-esque plastic dolls), from live-action film to reversed film based on drawings made by ants crawling over sugar poured onto paper in his studio.  Yet, for all this variety and openness to experiment, he does not value innovative practice, per se, nor art-historical breakthroughs in style or technique, preferring the realm of obsolescence[3]. In sum, he defects from rather than enlists in the vanguard.

When Adorno made his famous statement, it seemed impossible to render the horrors of the Holocaust through the mediation of language, as well as ethically unjust to create an aesthetic experience out of such brutal real-life events.  In the face of the nightmare, witnessed directly or indirectly, through personal testimonies, documentary footage and photo­graphs, silence and mute stupor seemed the only viable and appropriate responses. This ushered in the philosophy of Existentialism and a generation of abstract artists associated with European Art Informel, or American Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting. The artist’s gesture became synonymous with gaining a sense of absolute presence, of identifi­cation between self and world as the only tenable mode of existence. Franz Kline’s large-scale black and white gestures, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut, Wols’ tentative and inti­mate marks and graffiti, or Alberto Burri’s torn and sutured sacking, were examples of this response to the overwhelming nature of historical events.

In Western art, this attitude marked the decline of figuration and Expressionism, as well as of the satirical and oppositional art of the pre-war years, such as that of Max Beckmann, Hannah Höch, or George Grosz. Advanced artists felt that a direct repre­sentation of concentration camp scenes – barbed wire, striped camp uniforms, brutal guards, watchtowers, etc.- ran the risk of banalising the horror into into predictable and over-explicit images and spectacle. By abstracting that representation, art, it seemed, became more universal, and there­fore more true. Furthermore, figurative art was identified with pre-war ‘arts of power’, such as Italian Novecento, or post-war Social Realism.

 A notion of authenticity, already present in post­-war abstraction, continued to be cen­tral to art throughout the 1960s in Europe and America. And even Pop art, which questioned the notion of avant-garde ‘originality’, could not adopt traditional, mimetic representation. Figu­ration could be used only in so far as the image was already a ‘sign’ in and of itself prior to the artist’s appropriation of it, in the form of billboards, posters and magazine advertisements. In Mini­malism, Land Art and Arte Povera, representa­tion was also rejected as inauthentic: in many cases, the site itself determined the artwork. In other cases, the artist’s body or raw and found organic and inorganic materials were used by artists in lieu of representation. As the title of a well-known exhibition in Bern in 1969 suggested, “attitudes became form.”[4]

Conceptual art emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s out of dissatisfaction with the ability of Pop and Minimalism to radically disrupt society, and posited critical thought itself as artwork. Based on the politicised cultural critique associated with the New Left and the School of Frankfurt, it rejected the isolated, ‘auratic’ art object and treated critical language in terms of its physicality, its modes of production and communication and engagement with the urban environment. However, even though much Conceptual practice was based on active political engagement, it remained the aloof product of intellectual and artistic circles on the one hand, and was co-opted by advertising and media on the other. In some ways it failed to reach its objectives. As Jeff Wall has remarked: ‘Conceptual art’s feeble response to the clash of its political fantasies with the real economic conditions of the art world marks out its historical limit as critique. Its political fanta­sy curbs itself at the boundary of market econo­my.’[5]  This created a context for the questioning of the radical nature of Conceptual art by artists work­ing on the periphery of the international art world in places where the effects of lack of planning, uncontrolled free market theories and racism on daily life were all too real.

In Europe, by the late 1970s, Conceptualism had also reached a form of solipsistic isolation from the audience, and a sense of the collapse of its utopian avant-­gardism ushered in a return to tradi­tion and romantic forms of  atelier painting with New Painting, the Transavangard and Neo-Expres­sionism in the early 1980s. Advanced and polit­ically committed artists both in the West and in postcolonial contexts, although sharing dissatisfaction over Conceptual art’s aloofness, could not engage in this practice, however, since it was felt that it reinstated Romantic notions of authorship and heroism, far from any sense of art’s direct role in society. New painting was also associated by the more radical with the commercialisation and institutionalisation of contemporary art during the 1980s.

In South Africa, Kentridge perceived Conceptual art as too cryptic, over-intellectualised and removed from the reality of human suffering. His simple, immediate drawings are a rebellion against the anonymity and homogeneity of ‘contemporary’ languages of representation, as well as the non-representational abstract art developed during modernism. Yet his refusal to engage in illusion, his need to acknowledge the medium, method and process by which the representation is achieved owes something to a modernist notion of authenticity.

At that time, Kentridge was a young artist who had studied Politics and African Studies at college, taken art classes, admired the radical ink drawings by South African artist and activist Dumile, and was actively engaged in anti-Apartheid activities. He was interested in Hogarth’s satires, Goya’s Disasters of War (1810-1820, first edition 1863) and Beckmann’s satires of Weimar society in the early twentieth century.  Neo-Expressionist, heroic and bohemian atelier painting was certainly not an option for him to pursue.  It is perhaps precisely because Kentridge’s art developed at a distance from Europe and America, and from these debates during the late 1970s and 1980s that he was able to take a fresh look at the progressive and socially critical tradition of pre-war Expressionism and figura­tion without resorting to nostalgia. He could therefore question both the anti-­iconic nature of modernist, avant-garde abstract art, as well as the Conceptual legacy, while avoiding Neo-Expressionism. Humour, a sense of process, poor materials such as charcoal and paper, as well as the provisional nature of each image kept those neo-Expressionist elements at bay.

  Born in Johannesburg in 1955, at an early age Kentridge became aware of the brutality of South African society and of the possibility one had to actively oppose it. His maternal great-grandfather emigrated to South Africa just before the Boer war in the late 1800s, driven out of Eastern Europe by the Pogroms. He grew up in a liberal South African household. Kentridge’s father, Sydney, is among the most renowned lawyers in the country, particularly engaged in defending victims of abuse during Apartheid and involved in key political cases of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, including the inquest into Steve Biko’s death in 1977, the Treason trials and the Mandela trials. [6] Kentridge’s mother, also an advocate, has been influential in the birth of the Legal Resources Centre. This organisation, which survives on grants and donations, provides legal assistance for people with no money to pay for it. Kentridge took part early on in drama workshops and art classes, which he had begun even as a teenager at the Johannesburg Art Foundation. Established in 1972, during apartheid, the JAF was founded on non-racial principles, offering art training and opportunities to different groups, with bursary funding for students unable to support their studies.  For several years, Kentridge taught etching there, and although he made a number of early paintings, it was on the ‘poorer’ media of drawing and printmaking that he soon focused his attention. His first exhibition in 1979 included a number of monoprints and some drawings. These dark grey, claustrophobic works show figures in pits being watched from above by faceless individuals, a vision of people living in a closed society from which there is no escape. They prefigure later images of enclosure, such as the curtains around the hospital bed in History of the Main Complaint (1996), or Felix’s hotel room in Felix in Exile (1994), or Soho’s double and enclosed space in Stereoscope (1999). Experiencing feelings of inadequacy as a visual artist, however, Kentridge stopped making art for some years, and pursued film and theatre – with which he had already been actively involved since the mid-1970s as a member of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, Johannesburg (he will continue to be majorly involved in theatre up to today, and has created numerous performances with the Handspring Puppet Company.) In 1981-82, he went to Paris with his wife Anne Stanwix, an Australian medical doctor, where he studied mime and theatre. It was not until 1984 that he returned to drawing, engaging in a series of large works on paper, sometimes narratively grouped in triptychs such as Dreams of Europe (1984-85). These sketchy drawings present charged, haunted settings. Multi-layered and dynamic, they combine deep, abysmal spaces with compressed perspectives. From these drawings of the 1980s up to his animated films of the mid-1990s, Kentridge’s works were marked by the urgency of taking part in truly momentous historical events – the civil rights movements in South Africa, and the urge to make sense of the violence that characterised the last period of Apartheid in the country.

Kentridge’s Lithuanian and German-Jewish origins had always meant navigating an uncomfortable position in South Africa, of associating with the oppressed yet also finding oneself in a privileged, white community:

        In South Africa, which has always been defined by its rulers as a very Christian country, to be Jewish was to be other. There were always prominent Jewish people in the anti-apartheid movement, in the Communist Party or the ANC or the liberal party. But a central irony exists for South African Jews. Our Passover ceremony every year commemorates the Jews as slaves in Egypt. And there was always an understanding that here we are in South Africa talking about having been slaves in Egypt, yet in the present we are certainly not slaves. This contradiction did not change the fact that Jews had a historical context to understand the desire to be free of fetters. But in the present, we are absolutely not part of those most oppressed. We are part of the privileged whose lives are made comfortable by an immediate sense of the society we are living in. That remains an uncomfortable irony to live with.[7]

Kentridge’s dilemma from the outset was that he did not want to pursue the fiction of making South Africa look like a ‘white’ Arcadia, in the manner of the colonial painters of South Africa such as Jacobus Pierneef – yet he could not easily speak for the ‘black’ either, nor provide a platform or voice for the ‘other’. He could only explore a zone of uncertainty and shifting meanings through the portrayal of a ‘double-bind’ where guilt and expiation express the condition of the privileged.

The denunciatory works belonging to this ‘revolutionary’ period in South Africa include the short animated films Kentridge called ‘drawings for projection,’ begun in 1989, and for which he has become most known: Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1989), Monument (1990), Mine (1991), Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991) and Felix in Exile (1994).[8] These films present the evils of avidity and power and the struggle for emancipation against the background of the pain and suffering of exploited miners in a ravaged landscape. They employ stock characters and miraculous transformations typical of cartoons, thus communicating on various levels and avoiding the heroics of ‘high art’. The films chronicle the rise and fall of a white Johannesburg magnate, Soho Eckstein. Always seen wearing a pin-striped suit, Soho buys land, builds mines and develops his ‘empire’, which finally crumbles.  He is counterpoised with Kentridge’s alter ego, the naked, sensual artist, lover and dreamer Felix Teitlebaum.

The technique used for what the artist has called ‘stone-age filmmaking’ of these works, is based on creating a series of drawings in charcoal and pastel on paper; each is successively altered through erasure and re-drawing and photographed at the many stages of its evolution. Thus, rather than being constructed from thousands of drawings, as in traditional Cel animation, Kentridge’s films are made up of hundreds of moments in the ongoing progress of a small number of drawings, from about twenty for shorter films to about sixty for longer ones, so that each left over drawing corresponds to the final stage of  a scene in the film. Narrative emerges through a sequence of broadly related scenes and recurring ‘personae’ reflecting different perspectives on the world and various parts of the artist’s own self.

Numerous essays on Kentridge’s work, as well as his own lectures and interviews, have over the years pointed out how this technique  engenders a time-based, open form of ‘process’ drawing, a form of drawing that can never be ‘definitive’. This openness to change, and un-finiteness of language is an aesthetic position that is based on a political perspective- a refusal of all authoritarian and authoritative forms of communication embedded in most usages, from advertising to politics.  The process of facture remains visible, establishing a jerky effect (tempered by music) that causes the viewer to perceive the spatial and temporal disjunctures of the drawing, rather than creating an illusion of fluid movement. And, because erasure is necessarily imperfect, traces of the preceding stages of each drawing can still be seen. These smudges and shadows reflect the way in which events are layered in life, how the past lingers in the mind and affects the present through memory.

The technique of filming consecutive moments of erasure and drawing was not a novelty in the field of animation and had been variously used in the age of early film and the history of animation. But the way in which Kentridge would use it as a metaphor for a new, flexible model of parallel thinking, a model of radical thought made up of indirect gazes, shadows, and of continuously ‘falling short’, is grounded in a basic duality and ambivalence that is particularly topical today. ‘Erasure’ in his art is used as a metaphor for the loss of historical memory – the amnesia to which injustice, racism and brutality are subject to in society. (Often Kentridge depicts scenes of bodies lying on the ground, becoming erased and ‘absorbed’ into the landscape through transformation into mere rocks or bumps in the barren environment punctuated by the detritus of civil engineering.)

Yet ‘erasure’- as opposed to pristine, exact line drawing- is also a metaphor for the healthy questionning of the certainties and preconceptions lying behind human relations and society, in what might only apparently be a more interactive and democratic world of the digital age. It questions the notion that any definitive statement is ever possible; it denies the value of complete or binary theories of politics or social relations (or of any  finished artwork, for that matter). Kentridge’s device of erasure allows the emergence of a palimpsest – a synchronic image which contains its own diachronic denial through a layering of traces of different, preceding drawings that have been erased.

This ambivalence, joined with an astounding draftsmanship, is what brought Kentridge to the fore as one of today’s most significant artists. His work is uniquely personal and yet also expresses the field of contradictions of culture today, at a delicate moment in which modernity, the West and post-colonial realities must evolve dynamically in order for globalisation not to become a degenerative moment in world history.

Kentridge’s choice of using figuration as an avant-garde and radical practice ties into this acknowledgement of cultural amnesia. Rather than representation – which actually distances the viewer from experience by focusing on content and information, as it had been in pre-modernist practice and in much conservative art of the twentieth century – figuration and narrative became a way of relating the inner landscape (personal memory) with the outer landscape of social and political events at large. Even when politically radical, as in much neo-conceptual documentary work of today, documentary footage allows for a detached gaze (the viewer identifying with and protected by the camera’s eye, as in news broadcasts).  Kentridge’s hand-drawn scenes of individuals and their daily, mundane activities – petting a cat, sitting at a desk at work, walking along a path and picking up a stone, having coffee, shaving in front of a mirror – portrayed against a background of extreme and outrageous events – a dog’s head with earphones exploding into bits, bodies being beaten and shot, terminal illness in a hospital ward, cows starving and dying along the beach – connect the specificity of daily life that every viewer can identify with to the broader moral and ethical issues of active citizenship. This recalls the way writer James Joyce managed to ground his writing so specifically in Dublin that it paradoxically became universal. It is the local nature of so much of what Kentridge draws that allows the work to engage so intimately with viewers everywhere. It is the specifics of pain and the minutiae of the intimate lives depicted against the backdrop of events in South Africa that transforms them into scenes that could be happening almost anywhere.  We recognize our own weaknesses, our dreams, desires, and fears.

In many ways, Kentridge’s themes recall the preoccupations of Holocaust survivors, just as his drawings sometimes echo those of labour camp prisoners. The hard physical toil and the notori­ous ‘boxes’ – bunk-beds stacked one above the other – depicted in one of his earliest animated films, Mine (1991), which follows a day in the life of the mines, bring to mind drawings by artist prisoners in labour camps. Further associations arise through the imagery of gassing or burning: the crematorium chimney, smoke, the sombre, charcoal atmosphere. And his pro­cession of the dispossessed suggests not individuals, but the de-humanised masses incarcerat­ed in the camps. Yet the Holocaust – and Apartheid – tran­scend their original meaning and become a sym­bol of the tragedy of modernity as a whole.

As a consequence, guilt, complicity and indirect responsibility are key themes in his art. In connection with this he also por­trays the intolerable position of being a survivor and a witness. In Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991), Felix is a witness of protest marches; in Felix in Exile (1994), he watches abuses and the shooting of the female character Nandi from his hotel room. And in History of the Main Complaint (1996) Soho observes violent brutality through the windshield of his car. In Stereoscope (1999), he is overwhelmed by the echoes of troubles going on outside his enclosed space to the point of splitting his ‘self’ into two separate but adjacent rooms, representing the collapse of stereoscopic vision, and therefore of consciousness. In a series of unique prints on book pages titled Sleeping on Glass (1999), the artist drew trees splitting down their trunks accompanied by words such as, “This is how the tree breaks” and “Terminal hurt / terminal longing”.

The 1994 elections in South Africa brought an end to Apartheid and introduced a period of inquiry and national reconciliation represented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this process, amnesty was given by the new government for crimes committed in the service of the Apartheid government, in return for full disclosure of those crimes by their perpetrators. Not by chance, in the years following Apartheid, Kentridge’s drawings and films began to express the weight of having been one of the privileged and the implications and notion of indirect responsibility. During the period of the Commission where horrendous atrocities were recounted and legally forgiven, Kentridge made Ubu Tells the Truth (1996). This film, and the related theatre production Ubu & the Truth Commission (1997), depart from the Soho films and mark the height of his explicit engagement in South African affairs. They do this through the use of documentary footage that alternates with rough chalk drawings in an outrageous work of human outcry. In this period his work became acutely self-critical, with a series of large self-portrait drawings (including for instance a work titled The Flagellant), inspired by Alfred Jarry’s tyrant Ubu roi (1888).

In 1998, just four years after the African National Congress (ANC) was elected into power in South Africa and Nelson Mandela became the first President of a post-Apartheid nation, Kentridge stated, “There is a sort of wilful amnesia, a refusal to accept accountability, that comes from the naturalization of outrageous systems in the world. But I’m more interested in the question of historical memory – of what happens when people forget so quickly.[9]” In more recent years, Kentridge’s art has focused on the attempt, on both the levels of form and content, to reach through this form of post-revolutionary ‘dullness’ towards some ‘core’ experience. In the late 1990s, when Felix and Soho fuse into two sides of the same persona, Kentridge’s characters and suggested narratives take on a more introspective gaze.  In this post-revolutionary period things seem to happen primarily in the brain of his characters, as the artist begins to analyse the dulling of memory, guilt and how we negotiate our past. History of the Main Complaint (1996), WEIGHING…and WANTING (1998) and Stereoscope (1999) portray intimate, psychological and personal scenarios about consciousness and how to deal with memory and guilt in a post-apartheid era. Images of medical pathology recur in the works, functioning as metaphors for the diseased body politic.

Early in 1999, Kentridge began to create a new series of works that combined projected images with three-dimensional objects. While his character Soho was retreating into his inner universe of remembering and forgetting, the artist Kentridge himself was grappling in the real world with how to give more substance to the immaterial world of what goes on in the mind. For an exhibition on the theme of memory in Rome in 1999, he created the animated film transferred to video Sleeping on Glass, which was rear projected onto the mirror of an old wooden chest of drawers. This new interest for shadows and for projections onto objects was followed by other works such as Medicine Chest (2000), projected onto the mirror of a cabinet, and Learning the Flute (2003) projected onto a blackboard. The world of shadows, shadow puppetry and shadow projections began to capture his interests, both in theatre and in his art projects. Shadows imply an indirect gaze and suggest that it is better, at times, to look aslant, and to remain off centre. Kentridge has cast shadows of objects in animations such as Shadow Procession (1999), in the small bronze sculptures titled Procession (2000), and in his torn black paper Stair Procession (2000). (See Jane Taylor’s essay in this catalogue, pp. 50-57).

Kentridge’s exploration of different forms of non-linear techniques and processes has included an investigation into the effects of reversal. In Day for Night (2003), for example, he used the negative film as opposed to the positive, while in his video-reversal drawings (2002) he projecting recordings backwards rather than forwards.

In his new live action film and video experiments titled Fragments for Georges Méliès (2003) he performed actions backwards and then reversed the direction of the projected film so that apparently normal actions appear oddly out of synch. In other recent series of work like Studio Portrait No.1 (2003) and Large Bird Drawing (2003), which he significantly calls ‘projections for drawings’, Kentridge reverses his habitual technique of making drawings for large projections, instead projecting images of mundane objects onto his studio wall, and making drawings from these projections.

Tide Table (2003), Kentridge’s most recent animated film, pulls his audience again through the veil of dullness, which now becomes one of its themes. At the seaside, Soho muses from the balcony of his hotel, or sits on a deck chair at the beach. Around him events do take place: a choir and a group of people performing a baptism; cows thin and die nearby; a child plays with stones in the shallow water; a man holds a sick body that is literally washed away and turns into stones, as water is no longer the passionate blue of Felix’s world, but only the colourless agent of erasure; some beach huts become a hospital ward filled with patients; the skull of an animal and an old wheelbarrow are washed up to shore.

Yet there is a sense of being removed from events, experiencing events only indirectly, as Soho sits alone in his chair and reads the tide tables in the newspaper. He is detached from all that surrounds him, no one notices him, and he dozes through most of these happenings. He is in a public space, and there is a community of people nearby, but he might as well be in his enclosed office or in his home – no sense of collective endeavour emerges. He is not as productive as he was in his office in the early films, nor even as connected with the outside world as he was when he lay terminally ill in a hospital ward in History of the Main Complaint. He is a guest at a hotel, an outsider, a temporary resident.

From the hotel balcony three generals (who also resemble Soho) watch the landscape below through binoculars. They patrol the scene with their surveillance apparatus, yet there are no demonstrators below, no terrorists, no enemy or armies for them to combat. There is only the daily drama of illness, starvation, and dying. We think of the horror of AIDS claiming millions of lives in Africa,yet marginalised by Western media. Tide Table suggests a sense of solitude even in the public sphere, of not knowing what to do, of an enforced holiday. Retrospection and memory are ineffective; they bring only alienation even from one’s own past. Soho is unable to recognize his own childhood self, portrayed in the film as a boy skipping stones. In a moment of brief respite from solitude, a woman in a headscarf, portrayed from behind, holds his hand for a moment while he sleeps. 

It is interesting to note that this melancholy film was made in the fall of 2003, after a period of intense and energetic experimentation with various techniques of drawing and recording in film and video that coincided with a residency at Columbia University in New York in 2001-2002. These experiments in the mechanics of making art and constructing vision were a continuation of a persistent investigation, evidenced in optical devices with drawings such as his Phenakistoscope (2000); and resulted in displaced anamorphic drawings which are experienced only by looking in a mirror cylinder at their centre and in a return of interest for live action filming, combined with drawing[10].

These recent playful and dramatic works express a dynamic expansion of filming and editing techniques that move the art forward experimentally, yet with no notion of linear progression. The result is the evocation of the implausible and mad, and a reflection on the subject of studio practice itself that is reminiscent of, yet distinct from the work of Western artists of the 1970s such as Bruce Nauman, who was exhibiting at the time in New York.[11] Kentridge understood the radical impulses behind those video and performance works, yet did not share the existentialist impulse towards phenomenological reduction. “It did not seem enough,” Kentridge has commented, “for the body to be the gesture; the activity itself was not enough to justify the artist’s incessant ‘look at me, look at me’… So when I look at Bruce Nauman’s works, part of my astonishment is at his audacity to do so little and claim it is enough. A wonder and jealousy at his confidence in his place in the world, a kind of certainty that feels impossible to me.”[12]

This “madness” is achieved, even within the universe of live action film, by returning to some of the earliest techniques of cinema in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the extravaganzas of Georges Méliès, who made a film, for example, where an entire apartment is pulled out of a suitcase.[13]

However in a strikingly illuminating analysis focusing on Kentridge’s short film Monument,  in October magazine of Fall 2000, Rosalind Krauss has suggested that Kentridge deliberately pulls the work backwards to a pre-filmic moment.[14] She comments on how, when talking or writing about his art, Kentridge avoids directly addressing outrage over Apartheid (“the rock” as Kentridge described it in an essay of 1990[15]), shifting attention away from content towards a discussion of his drawing and creative process. He avoids denouncing injustices head on, as if suspicious of the ways in which historical memory is transformed into spectacle. He expands the field of improvisation by moving back and forth from the drawing to the camera as he records the evolving drawing one frame at a time. During the time and space of this “dance”, free associations occur – neither chance operations nor controlled actions – which ultimately determine the open narrative and the meaning of the artwork. His work emerges not out of a wish to achieve motion, to ‘animate’, comments Krauss, but rather by the impulse to interrupt the flow of film, to reach back from filmic animation to a form of palimpsest, “dragging against the flow of film”[16]. Thus he evolves a new medium of automatism where the foregrounding of procedure induces meaning. The deliberate jerkiness resists cinematic illusion, and, adds Krauss, “Kentridge’s technical alternative, his eschewal of the flip book, sets his medium – his ‘drawings for projection’- at an angle to animation, one that seems below it, which is to say even less technologically invested than the flicker book itself”[17].  

The technological universe has by now so infected our bodily and graphic experiences, our subjectivity, that Kentridge’s recourse to the palimpsest – even though the palimpsest has itself been infected by the technological – becomes a way of avoiding the spectacularization of memory. The group exhibition “Animations”[18], which included Kentridge’s work, focused among other things on the recrudescence of the hand-drawn by artists in our age when popular culture is profoundly engaged with the digital. It is a form of “poor” animation, like Arte Povera’s slowing down and reduction of experience in the 1960s which emerged in antithesis to the speed and mediatization of culture in that post-war period.

However, in Kentridge’s most recent art, the hand-drawn itself becomes ambivalent. In his works up to Stereoscope, which ends with alternating images of the words “GIVE” and “FORGIVE”, text was usually present only as block letter intertitles that recalled early silent movies. In recent years the distinction between drawing and writing has blurred in the artist’s works through the growing presence of sinuous handwriting. Writing by hand is an intimate activity, and emerges in an area of the mind and body that is neither fully rational nor fully unintentional – it occurs rarely in the computer and digital age, and is an almost obsolete bodily activity of the brain moving with the arm and hand almost as an automaton. It is not usually valued as a form of draughtsmanship, belonging more to a universe of regressive doodling. Again, Kentridge defects from the grand drawings that are expected of him. 

In parallel fashion, machines and mechanical devices are no longer depicted as inherently violent in Kentridge’s work. In early films such as Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, Soho’s business concerns were represented as calculators, typewriters and papers filled with calculations and minute notations. Cameras on tripods became machine guns that could only be deflected from their violent nature through art (Monteverdi madrigals, rather than orders and speeches, were broadcast from public address trumpet speakers, for example). Now Kentridge has embarked on a journey to disenfranchise mechanics, no longer presenting them as dehumanising instruments of control but rather challenging devices to expand vision and open up complex visual thoughts though playful experimentation.

At about this time, Kentridge also began a series of drawings and prints on pages of disembowelled books, physically overlaying the two universes of drawing and text.  By the time he began to create the body of works inspired by Italo Svevo’s La coscienza di Zeno (1923), in 2001, drawing and writing had merged fully in many images, and their connection continues to be foregrounded in even more recent works such as Automatic Writing (2003) and  Day for Night (2003).

Svevo’s original novel is introduced by a frame tale according to which the entire story of Zeno is a diary that  character has written on the suggestion of his psychoanalyst. Aware of his own weaknesses yet unable to influence in any way the course of his own life, let alone take responsibility for his actions, the inept, guilt-ridden Zeno believes that life is a manifestation of illness, with its better and worse moments.  He is weak willed, continuously resolving and failing to give up smoking, a trivial aim against the background of external events and the incipient First World War.

 Kentridge’s avoidance of intentionality also recalls Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1853). Bartleby is an office clerk who prefers not to participate in the productive endeavours of the burgeoning 19th century modern world. He simply refuses to write in his office, yet he does not leave it, maintaining himself in what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has recently termed a state of “absolute potentiality”, adopting the term from Medieval theologians. Agamben comments,

 Bartleby calls into question precisely this supremacy of the will over potentiality. If God (at least the potentia ordinata) is truly capable only of what he wants, Bartleby is capable only without wanting; he is capable only de potentia absoluta. But his potentiality is not, therefore, unrealized; it does not remain unactualized on account of a lack of will. On the contrary, it exceeds will (his own and that of others) at every point. Inverting Karl Valentin’s witticism “I wanted to want it, but I didn’t feel able to want it,” one could say of Bartleby that he succeeds in being able (and not being able) absolutely without wanting it. Hence the irreducibility of his “I would prefer not to.” It is not that he does not want to copy or that he does not want to leave the office; he simply would prefer not to. The formula that he so obstinately repeats destroys all possibilities of constructing a relation between being able and willing, between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata. It is the formula of potentiality.[19]

A similar negation of the relation between being able and willing allows Kentridge himself to produce art without being prescriptive, to be original without being innovative, to be expressive without being expressionistic. One could say he celebrates the erasure of his own drawing,and makes it a public and poetic act of defection, just as in more recent years he has celebrated not objects but their shadows, side-stepping the dilemma between making and not making. 


[1] “It is a barbaric act to think of writing a work of poetry after Auschwitz”, “E’ un atto di barbarie pensare di scrivere un’opera di poesia dopo Auschwitz”, T.W. Adorno, Critica della cultura e società, 1949, in: Prismen. Kulturpolitik und Gesellschaft, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, , 1955 [trad. It. Prismi. Saggi sulla critica della cultura, Einaudi, Torino, 1972, p.22]

[2] “The idea of animation constantly falling short I like a lot – like the description of walking as falling and stopping yourself from falling.” (W. Kentridge, unpublished quote, 2003)

[3] “Obsolescence operates on various levels in his work. Kentridge draws upon a European legacy of oppositional art from Goya to Hogarth to Beckmann, and his work is oddly out of sync with current trends. Though he uses the prevailing technology of video projection, for example, the drawings that form the basis of his animated films retain a more old-fashioned appearance, than a documentary-conceptual one. A sense of belonging to a cultural ‘periphery’ of Europe, and therefore of geographic distance from a ‘centre’, is translated into the visual imagery of objects that represent a historical distance from today’s accoutrements. The clothes, telephones, typewriters and other items in his animated drawings recall an early 20th-century colonial world as perceived by a child in the 1950s and 60s looking at illustrated books from the 1940s. The simultaneous presence in the work of CAT scan machines and other examples of modern equipment, however, indicates the way in which experience is layered: the computer exists side-by side with the old-fashioned telephone. Similarly, Kentridge’s portrayal of antiapartheid demonstrations in the 1980s and early 1990s recalls photographs showing crowds of striking miners in Johannesburg in the previous part of the century, such as the famous strike of March 1922. The drawing style adopted by Kentridge is also reminiscent of early 20th-century oppositional vanguard art like Berlin Dada and German Expressionism. These drawings are combined with the contemporary techniques of video-projection and installation on the one hand, and music and captions recalling the distant age of silent movies on the other.” (C. Christov-Bakargiev, William Kentridge, Palais des Beaux Arts, Bruxelles, p. 11)

[4] “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” Kunsthalle, Bern, 1969.

[5] Jeff Wall, “Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel,” Art Metropole, 1991, pp.16.

[6] Afrikaners were Dutch, German and French colonials who reached South Africa in the 1600s. Until 1759, before British sovereignty, the territory of the Cape had been governed by the Dutch East India Company of Holland, on whose initiative the first European settlers had landed. When British rule began, the Afrikaners moved into the interior of the country, where various Boer republics were established, such as the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek in the Transvaal. Afrikaners, who were farmers, wanted to preserve the autonomy of their community from the British Empire. Diamonds were discovered in 1867, gold in the late 1800s. Wages for the Africans who mined these resources were kept to a minimum through the use of immigrant labour. Afrikaner nationalism had grown during the 19th century in the Boer Republics and was further heightened as a consequence of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the brutal treatment of the Afrikaners by the British. The National Party of Afrikaners came to power with the 1948 elections. Segregation, the creation of townships and separate education programmes were officially set up to encourage a multinational state in which different ethnic groups could maintain and express their own culture autonomously. Sexual relations between racial groups were banned and whites developed a form of paternalistic racism, which was proposed as positive. African migration towards industrial areas was limited by passes and separate  transport. Laws were passed to classify the population into white, coloured and indigenous. The 1980s were marked by protests and States of Emergency. In 1994, the ANC was elected, marking the end of Apartheid.

[7] “Breaking Down the Wall,” William Kentridge interviewed by bell hooks, Interview, New York, September 1998, p.182 [quote revised by William Kentridge in 2003 for this essay]

[8]  Animated drawings are also used as backdrops in the theatre productions that Kentridge has made in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company since 1992.

[9]  hooks, op. cit., p.167.

[10] Kentridge had already experimented in this vein with his early Memo, 1993.

[11] January 10 – July 27, 2002, Dia: Chelsea Dia Art Foundation, New York.

[12] Unpublished quote, 2003.

[13] Le locataire diabolique, 1909.

[14] In Monument Soho presents himself to a crowd as a civic benefactor, giving a public address followed by the unveiling of a monument – the sculpture of labourer carrying a heavy load. As in Samuel Beckett’s play Catastrophe (1982) which inspired Kentridge, in the last moments of Monument, one sees that the figure with the load is actually alive. He becomes the image of a defiant reality unwilling to become subjugated to Soho’s control.

[15] “These two elements – pure history and the moral imperative arising from that – are the factors for making that personal beacon rise into the immovable rock of Apartheid. To escape this rock is the job of the artist. These two constitute the tyranny of our history. And escape is necessary, for as I stated the rock is possessive and inimical to good work. I am not saying that Apartheid, or indeed, redemption are not worthy of representation, description or exploration, I am saying that the scale and weight with which this rock presents itself is inimical to that task.” W. Kentridge, “Dear Diary: Suburban Allegories and Other Infections,” 1990, published in C. Christov-Bakargiev, op. cit. pp 7-77.

[16] R. Krauss, “ ‘The Rock’: William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection”, October, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, Spring, 2000, p.10.

[17] ibid., pp. 19-20.

[18]  See Animations, the catalogue of an exhibition focusing on this issue, held at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center  / a MoMA Affiliate, in Fall 2000 and toured to Kunstwerke, Berlin in 2002.

[19] G. Agamben, Potentialities. Collected Essays in Philosophy, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1999, pp. 254-255 [1st edition 1993, G. Deleuze, G. Agamben, Bartleby. La formula della creazione, Edizioni Quod Libet, Macerata, 1993, pp.61-62].

Published in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, William Kentridge, Castello di Rivoli Museo Contemporanea and Skira Editore: Milan, 2004, pp. 29-38. Minor revisions were made to the text published here.