Performing the Archive of History in Shorthand

Sabine Breitwieser

Published in William Kentridge: Thick Time. Iwona Blazwick and Sabine Breitwieser, Whitechapel Gallery: London, pp. 225-231.

At the 14 th Istanbul Biennial in 2015, entitled saltwater: Theory of Thought Forms, William Kentridge surprised audiences with a new cinematographic installation at one of the exhibition venues, the holiday island of Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands. Unlike the animated films for which he is famous, this installation made no direct use of drawings. O Sentimental Machine (2015) was conceived as a commission by the biennale and, in the time available, Kentridge was unable to make a film based on his Drawings for Projection, the method he developed in the late 1980s. However, given his earlier projects, like his stage sets for The  Nose (2010), an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich based on Nikolai Gogol’s story of the same name, and Notes Towards a Model Opera (2015), a video installation about the cultural revolution in China, and in connection with his own Lithuanian-Jewish origins, he was attracted to the theme that had been proposed to him – Léon Trotsky, who had lived in a villa on Büyükada Island in the Sea of Marmara while in exile in Istanbul from 1929 to 1933. Today, that building is a ruin situated in a romantically overgrown garden. In his contribution, Kentridge intentionally chose an artistic form in which his working method is made transparent in relation to the concrete subject matter. However, the place at his disposal for his artistic reflection was not the Trotsky villa, but the Hotel Splendid Palace, which dates from 1908, its silver domes welcoming those arriving on the island from Istanbul. There, Kentridge chose a theatre-like space, the landing on the first floor, that he first transferred to his studio in the form of an architectural model, from which he then developed his new work.

The studio, for Kentridge, is a place that provides scope for free associations, experiments and utopias. Here, he engages with issues and topics by staging them, as it were, frequently in the form of a drawing process. For his animated films, he captures this process in its individual stages: he takes a photo of a drawing and then partly or completely erases it, then reworks and photographs it again, and so on, before compiling the resulting images into a film. He also experiments with kinetic objects, developing them in his studio together with his team and later using them in his films and operas, or improvises short scenes that include himself and others as actors, and which find their way into his various works. Yet the studio is more than just a place of free thought and art production. Kentridge uses it as a kind of archive, having repeated recourse to its reservoir of ideas and the traces of earlier artistic involvements, which he then re-processes. Generally, his handmade drawings, printed graphics and the improvised scenes in his films are rebelliously directed against the ‘fate of the arts under the pressure of advanced technologies’[1] and even against the ‘homogeneity of “contemporary” languages of representation as well as the non-representational visual art developed during the Modern Age’[2]. His methods may entail a considerable amount of time, but they provide great artistic freedom, and the work has a lightness that belies the process of their making.

Reviewing Kentridge’s original artistic practice, it is clear that despite his concentration on the technically reproducible medi-um of film, this recent work is not devoid of the time consuming method of drawing he often employs. Instead, it represents a revit-alisation and, to a certain degree, a clarification of his method of using drawing as a medium generating a process. In it, he employs film like a sketch that freely produces associations and movement, similar to the flow of his drawings. According to Kentridge, O Sentimental Machine is a form of ‘shorthand for drawing’[3] in which the slow process of drawing and erasure is replaced by the modern medium of film. Just as the hand moves the pencil over and back across the sheet of paper, then extinguishes the drawing by erasing it, thereby creating space for further images, in this film Kentridge generates ever new ideas in the form of found footage from film archives and specially shot scenes, as well as film mate-rial from earlier projects. These combine to produce a multi-part and multi-layered scenic ensemble that can be regarded as a kind of performance of an archive and thus a re-enactment of history.

In its original form in Istanbul, O Sentimental Machine was staged as a site-specific five-channel video installation on the spacious landing of the first floor of Hotel Splendid Palace and included back projections onto the glass windows of the four doors to the adjacent hotel rooms.[4] The work could be viewed comfortably from two chairs at a small table on the landing and from the staircase. The arrangement of the five films in that stage-like space was such that the frontal main projection and the four smaller back-projections created the impression of a multi-part scenario. All five films had soundtracks that blended to produce a sound collage on the landing. For the specific exhibition for which this text was written, Kentridge, together with the architect Sabine Theunissen, has produced an architectural mis-en-scène in which the group of films will henceforth be shown and will itself point to the original place, the history of the work and the resulting installation.

The individual videos are a mixture of montages from film archives and scenes shot at the artist’s studio. The installation’s main frontal projection (in Istanbul it faced the sea) begins with a scene in which a woman presents historical film footage of Istanbul, the Bosphorus with ships, Princes’ Islands with the lovely villas on the Sea of Marmara projected on a screen. Soon the accompanying music is interrupted by a text spoken in French in one of the other projections, but which on the main screen accompanies film documentation of a speech by Trotsky. Different video scenes recorded in Kentridge’s studio are faded into this se-quence, giving a theatrical and surreal aspect to Trotsky’s speech. On an apparently endless roll of paper a woman is typing a text that is being dictated to her by a mechanical megaphone. On a poster behind her back we read bizarre alternating inscriptions like ‘Power to the serviettes’ or ‘The wind to rescue speech’. Later, her shadow appears wielding a huge pair of scissors. Kentridge himself, disguised as Trotsky, makes a speech accompanied by sweeping gestures. The same woman in different clothing poses in front of a large mirror, throwing typescripts into the air. In other scenes she does gymnastic exercises in front of what look like technical wall drawings, collecting her tears in a strange vessel, which she holds under her eyes. The mechanical megaphone leads a life of its own, much like a human figure, and some of the other protagonists also mutate into machine-like creatures as their heads and legs are replaced by megaphones and wooden tripods. The brief storylines strung together here escalate when the machine-like creatures start to shoot all around them with guns. The full-screen sized numbers that appear next suggest an emphasis on money. Towards the end of the video, the self-made slapstick scenes are increasingly overwhelmed by footage originating from the Soviet Union: triumphant military parades at the end of the civil war, dancing bears, pre-revolutionary scenes of people swimming, among them Tsar Nicholas ii, interspersed by a speech given by Lenin. Because of the flickering effect typical of old film stock and the quality of the sound, all the video projections have a historic feel. This aspect of the installation in the old hotel building is underscored by the soundtrack, in which a Turkish love song Mazi (Past) from the 1920s, the Trotsky speech and The Internationale alternate or are acoustically superimposed (the composition and arrangement are by composer Philip Miller, a long-term collaborator with Kentridge).

Opposite this film collage of found and specially filmed scenes and to the left and right of the central projection are the four other videos, back-projected onto the windows of the hotel-room doors. In these, Kentridge takes up the theme of water, a defining image of the locality, and uses it in the same way as his method of erasing and overworking drawings so as to transfigure a scene. Some of the protagonists from the central projection appear again in two of these videos: Trotsky, making the same speech, and the mechanical megaphone, which also enunciates Trotsky’s speech but, towards the end, increasingly sings passages from the song Mazi (Past). In a staccato voice it appeals for democracy and against centralism, making statements like ‘This machine is the textbook we need, a source of knowledge and affection’, or ‘The question of socialism can only be answered if we find out how the spiritual and physical components of man can be construed, regulated and improved.’ When declaiming Trotsky’s speech about the nature of ‘the new man’ in the Soviet Union, the megaphone increasingly comes into conflict with its (human) feelings. It starts to sing verses from Mazi about love and grief in the voice of the female Turkish singer Seyan Hannim, and at the sound of ‘since then her heart is a ruin’, one cannot but think of the ruin of the Trotsky villa and the failure of the social utopias of that time. The scenes with Trotsky and the talking megaphone have been inserted into a scenario featuring wa-ter rising and falling: the up and down movement gives the whole scene the sense of a litany – the never-ending story of failed utopias.

On another of the windows, archive films from Russia are shown, including shots of people at stations taken from moving trains. We recognise Stalin being welcomed by masses of people, and in later scenes Trotsky also appears, delivering a speech out of a train window. This is followed by excerpts from a home movie by Trotsky with his wife on Princes’ Islands. Kentridge as Trotsky uses the large paper scissors to open his letters. Finally, images of the revolutionary’s murder in Mexico City are faded in. All of these scenes are transfigured by means of underwater effects. The fourth film was shot completely under water and features floating requisites from a past era: a typewriter and advertising material from Turkey.

This referencing of history, of failed utopias, and Kentridge’s commitment to the use of analogue media and a subjective method and language, cannot just be regarded as a rejection of the technical media of modern or contemporary society. Indeed, in O Sentimental Machine Kentridge investigates the utopias concealed and possibly not yet fully exploited in the combination of man and machine. He tests a model in which the subject does not just simply take over (or lose) control and gain creative scope, but seeks performative dialogue through interaction. His point of departure for this is the theremin, an instrument with which he has been experimenting in his studio for some time. Its Russian inventor Leon Theremin (1896–1993) developed this first electronic musical instrument in 1920.[5] It is played without being touched directly, the sound being produced and controlled by the changing position of both hands and the human body’s electrical field via two antenna-shaped electrodes and the electromagnetic field generated. There is something strange about a performance with the theremin, as if a magician were at work. In one of the film scenes made for the installation in Istanbul, Kentridge himself plays a theremin using theatrical gestures – again in a guise remi-niscent of Trotsky. The sound is broadcast through a megaphone attached to a sewing machine that causes the former to make ecstatic movements. The gestures required for the performance with the theremin are similar to Kentridge’s own gestures when drawing. Technical drawings on blackboards in the background of the performance underscore the significance of the experiment being presented here and something yet to be realised, or in other words to be performed.

For Kentridge, the drawing – particularly when technically transformed into a print – has always had an emphasis on its ex-perimental potential in conjunction with political connotations, especially in connection with South Africa. In the 1970s he made silkscreen posters for the Black Trade Unions, for student protests and for experimental theatre performances in which he himself also acted. Printing techniques were simple means of capturing history, especially during the opposition to apartheid. Kentridge has never regarded the print as a mere technical reproduction; his prints are ‘much more than a manifestation of his astonishing drawing’.[6] Kentridge usually sets out to test the limits of the technical reproduction process, and even when the technical scope was limited, he found ways to achieve the maximum variations possible through improvisation. In the early 1980s, his beginnings as an actor in experimental theatre, and perhaps also his unusual performative handling of printing techniques, motivated him to study acting at the Ecole Internationale de Theatre in Paris under Jacques Lecoq. Similar to Lecoq, whose work retrieves through movement the memories stored in our body, Kentridge also uses different forms of archives in his most recent work. He avails himself of various sources – from real documents of historical events to the private or unconscious corporeal archive – which he ‘presents’ as a kind of prop for his theatre. Film and all its possibilities, from historical footage to specially filmed and manipulated scenes, are to be found as history lived anew, both on the stage at Hotel Splendid Palace and now in the exhibition hall.

As for the Trotsky speech documented in the film, it is actually the recording of a presentation that never took place live because of a missing travel visa for France and so was only broadcast. In this particular speech, which Kentridge pres-ents as a film document and re-enacts himself, complete with exaggerated gestures, Trotsky emphasises that ‘[t]he education of the revolutionary demands an internalised democracy … and that the disciplined revolutionary has nothing to do with blind obedience.’[7] Unlike Stalin’s centralism, against which Trotsky’s speech rails, his expectations of the ‘new man’ meant that the latter ‘has to constantly reinvent himself and even make his own errors’.[8] In his text The Author as Producer of 1934,[9] Walter Benjamin recalls Plato’s model of the state, in which poets

are regarded as dangerous and superfluous. Benjamin calls on artists to influence the conditions of production ‘operatively’. That particular text is based on a speech intended for the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris that Benjamin – like Trotsky – never gave, but instead wrote as a historical docu-ment. In O Sentimental Machine Kentridge revisited what was already part of history but hadn’t yet been performed. Thus this work constitutes a report on his artistic work, a kind of ‘making of’, as he himself says.[10] In it he attests to the studio as a utopian place, and to both his unconscious and real archives, which are waiting to be retrieved and re-enacted.

[1] Hal Foster/Rosalind Krauss/ Yve-Alain Bois/Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (eds.), Art since 1900, (London:  Thames & Hudson, 2004) p.653.

[2] Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, William Kentridge, exh. cat., (Brussels: Palais de Beaux Arts, 1998) p.11.

[3] Transcription of video recording of ‘Belknap visitor lecture in the humanities in Princeton’, 14 October, 2015, Kentridge Archive, Johannesburg.

[4] During the installation and the preview of the biennale, Kentridge even stayed in one of the hotel rooms off the landing.

[5] Robert Moog later developed the Moog synthesiser based on his expe-riences with copies of the Theremin instruments.

[6] Judith B. Hecker, William Kentridge. Trace, exh. cat., (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010) p.10. This catalogue also contains an excellent chronology.

[7] Transcript of the speech by  Leon Trotsky taken from the subtitles  of the Kentridge video

[8] Ibid.

[9] Walter Benjamin, ‘Der Autor als Produzent’, address to the Institute of the Study of Fascism, Paris, 27 April 1934, in Walter Benjamin, Aufsätze, Essays, Vortrage. Gesammelte Schriften Band ii-2, ‘Der Autor als Produzent’(Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991) pp.683–701.

[10] ‘Belknap visitor lecture’, op. cit.