The Body Drawn and Quartered

William Kentridge


For some time now I have been drawing and using in my films, pictures based on different body imaging techniques. These range from X-rays to CAT- and sonar scans, and magnetic resonance images. While these images themselves have not been the subject of the films or pieces of theatre they have appeared in, they have been central to them.

The origin of the images is twofold and I think twofold banal. The images were around the house, present in the textbooks and medical periodicals of my wife. They were not hunted out, rather stumbled over as found objects.

But secondly, equally dumbly, was their appeal to be drawn. They met the drawing process halfway. These images are already half-drawings, the reduction to black and white, and tones of grey. The smoky transitions in X-rays, the discrete marks of a sonar scan, the diagrammatic clarity of an MRI all translate if not effortlessly, then certainly naturally into charcoal and paper equivalents. The blunt stubby marks of a stick of charcoal makes of itself the marks, codes dots and dashes of a sonar, a brush of charcoal dust is an immediate transliteration of an X-ray. To do the same in oil paint, or pen and ink, would be an act of dissimulation.

So first the pleasure of drawing these images, and only after that a hunt for a purpose. The reversal of priorities, meaning following in the wake of more immediate practical pleasures, is not unique nor an oddity. Many other images which may retain a weight or meaning along the way, start from one of a number of inauthentic, contingent, or fortuitous origins.

Having started on the drawings I found that quite soon afterwards a series of meanings and associations flowed in their wake. And it is these consequences that are at the core of the Ulisse: ECHO triptych.


Mars – been there, done that

These images , sonar, X-ray, MRI, CAT-scan, are different from either external images of the body or even anatomical paintings or photographs of dissections revealing a body. They are by their very nature, internal images. Dissect as deep as you like and you will never find the mimetic reference of the sonar. They are already a metaphor. They are messages from an inside we may apprehend but can never grasp. In their separation from the apparent they come as reports from a distant and unknown place.

By contrast, for example, the photographs sent back to earth from Mars a year ago are quite remarkable for their familiarity. I know Mars, it is outside Colesburg in the Karoo, midway between Johannesburg and Cape Town. I’ve drawn that landscape. The astonishing thing about Mars was how local it was. But our insides on the other hand are a planet far further off. Far less familiar to our gaze. We can’t use a familiar photographic translation of image to the world, but have to work through a further code. And it is this further distancing (which may be the result of the technology of the imaging devices – that is not the point here) which seems to me to be an accurate and appropriate way of elucidating our relationships to our bodies.


Herding a reluctant ox

We have an uneasy relationship to our bodies. John Updike refers to us as ‘the herders of our bodies, which are beasts as dumb and bald and repugnant as cattle.’ We prod them along, hoping they will not suddenly go off on their own, leap a fence, wander onto the highway.

They are ours, but also other. Machado de Assis in his wonderful book, Epitaph of a Small Winner, describes it somewhat differently. The ageing hero is at a party.

I returned to the salon, danced a polka, intoxicated myself with the lights, the flowers, the beautiful eyes, and the light hum of conversation. And I became young again. But half an hour later when I left the ball at four o’clock in the morning, what do you think was waiting for me in my carriage? My fifty years. There they were, uninvited – not benumbed with cold nor rheumatic, but dozing off their weariness, eager for home and bed.



Ulisse: a short digression

Ulisse: ECHO follows from a project on Monteverdi’s 1641 opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. It came after the opera production (Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, a 1998 collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company) and used some of the animated material from the opera as well as new material. The opera in its turn had used fragments from History of the Main Complaint – which came before the opera and served as a sketch not for the plot or character of the opera, but a sketch to see if the drawings I did and the music of Monteverdi were compatible.

The opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse follows Homer and recounts Ulisse’s return after the Trojan war, his routing of the suitors who have besieged Penelope in the palace on Ithaca, and his reuniting with Penelope. What Monteverdi and his librettist Badoaro added was a prologue in which the attributes of Human Frailty, Time, Fortune and Love dispute over what will happen to Ulisse. It was this prologue with its central theme and image of the human as vulnerable rather than heroic that brought me to do the opera. Throughout the opera there is constant shifting both in the words and in the music between Ulisse’s optimism that he will prevail and a fatalism that everything will be too hard. The prologue set a tone and established a central set of images of the body which found their way through the opera.


The Internal Lightning Bolt

The process of making the opera took approximately a year – eight months of making drawings and editing animation film, and designing and carving puppets (done by Adrian Kohler of the Handspring Puppet Company), and four months of rehearsing.

Part of this preparation involved looking through a series of medical videos. These were of operations, barium meals, gastroscopies, angiograms, arthroscopy, and so on. One of the most remarkable for me was an angiogram – an X-ray image of dye being pumped into arteries around the heart. As the dye is released in one heart beat, in one pulse, it suffuses and turns black a jagged tracery of the arteries. I had always assumed these to be gently curving aerodynamically, or at least ergonomically designed. But the vessels are stepped, jaggedly forked. This piece of film was put aside and sat as it were on the editing room shelf waiting to find its place. It was used early on in the opera. The god Giove comes to take a hand in the affairs and fortunes of Ulisse and as the singer sang the lines “I release thunderbolts” we projected an image of what appears a lighting strike, but in fact is this angiogram, a lightning strike inside the body.


A Libation to the Gods

Which is where we are today. Not directly in awe of the Greek gods but still at the mercy of forces about us. The world which is beyond our control, and to protect which sacrifices and libations must be made, is now internal. The fear of Giove’s lightning bolt is lessened by the invention of the lightning conductor, but we still live in fear of the internal lightning bolt, the heart attack or other calamitous internal failure which we can at best, try to avoid. We can try to placate our insides – but ultimately of course we are at their mercy and will be destroyed by them.

So instead of burning oil in the temple we make daily devotions to the treadmill or stair machine at the gym (or don’t, and invite the wrath of the gods). We ingest our offerings, our calcium, anti-oxidants, we give up for lent, for good, butter, red meat, cigarettes (or don’t, and invite both the risk of doom and the opprobrium due the blasphemer).


The Thin Line

We are at risk internally and externally. Both are other. What then is the extremely thin line between the external and internal lightning bolts which we feel to be our own?

Neither the animation nor the opera claims to map out the route of this thin line. Rather they show the sets of associations that provoked the specific work we did on Ulisse, and more importantly the associations that arose during the process of the work. (And of course I am only too aware of how much this may be an over-reading of what emerged, as the work on the animated film and opera proceeded).


Hold onto the surface

This thin line is perhaps more accurately described as a thin area, the surface we hang onto, the interestingly punctuated surface of our bodies. The familiar world of paintings, photographs and films of the body are reassuring reiterations of the part of us that seems familiar and our own. The scans, X-rays, sonar are notices from a distant and more dangerous other region. The surface of the body is like the surface of the sea. We will swim at the top but have a fear of wet, slimy unpredictable things underneath.

But I think we can go one step further. The otherness of our insides and distance from our daily skin in some ways alludes to other parts of us which are in our control and parts we hope will remain, at best, on track.


What we Know and What we See

While working on Ulisse I had occasion to take my five year-old nephew for a chest X-ray. The child was stood at the machine and positioned using a video screen next to the X-ray machine. On the video screen you could see the moving skeleton of the child, the incredibly fine and fragile collarbones, the thin pylon of the spine and in the jaw not just the child’s teeth, but also the adult teeth still on the bone, waiting to erupt.

The vulnerability, and the process of growth as the continuous act of transition. These are all things we know. What this video screen did was make apparent these things we know. What the video showed was not just an inside of a body but also a series of generally invisible processes and associations. (This moving between what we see and what we know seems to me the area in which visual artists, filmmakers, operate.)

So that when an X-ray is drawn it can not only allude to the otherness of our bodies but also to other less tangible parts of us, elements generally held together under the rubric of mind, or consciousness or unconsciousness. Without wanting to do a Freudian mapping of elements of our unconscious to elements of our insides – a psychic reflexology – I would make a claim for an interconnectedness in the thin area of our mind we are in charge of and the large areas we have to take on trust, and the thin surface of our bodies we embrace and the other universe inside us, that we hope is following along.


Digest. Chew. Talk.

There are certain processes we leave up to the body. We hope our digestive system knows what it is doing, we do not send it conscious messages or instructions. We intervene when it fails us but generally leave well alone. The same when we eat. We trust our tongue to keep out of the way of colliding teeth. That is, to say to itself, left, curl away, now duck right, keep away from the cheeks. And when it doesn’t we feel deceived, betrayed and angry. But we can also control it, give it instructions to avoid parts of our mouth.

But when talking we act in an intermediate zone, not only in respect of us relying on our tongue, lips, larynx to keep at it to produce the right sounds, but also in the forming of words and sentences. There is an uneasy area in which we have an intention, some meaning we wish to convey – and then we rely on a barely conscious process of language construction to carry this out.

But it is clear that these half-expressed intentions – which we trust a half-conscious part of ourselves to divine and execute – are only a part of what constitute our mind. Rumours of other parts of us emerge in dreams, in rages. Our mind too relies on a surface of conviviality, hoping wetter and more dangerous impulses will keep themselves in check.

With Gilles de la Tourette syndrome you have a case of that process going awry, utterances, curses emerge uncontrollably. Intimations of another world churning inside.

The way we live in the world, the thin surface presented, and the embodied, encased other rages that follow, more or less reluctantly – is exemplified in how we relate to our bodies, skin to interior, surface to deepest mine. The images which recur in Ulisse: ECHO become one possible way of drawing this out. Of trying to find a bridge between what we know and what we see.