The Nose: Learning from the Absurd

William Kentridge


A man wakes one morning and finds his nose gone. He attempts to track it down through the streets of his city, going to the police, placing newspaper advertisements for its return, seeking medical advice. When he does meet his nose (in a cathedral) he realises to his dismay that his nose is of a higher rank than he is. His own nose will not speak to him.  When his nose is arrested (trying to leave the city in disguise), it still will not rejoin his face. But one morning he wakes and the nose is in place.

This is the substance of the short story   The Nose written by Nikolai Gogol in 1837. His story had as one of its roots a section of the novel Tristram Shandy written by Laurence Sterne in 1759, which includes an episode of a man who loses his nose.  Stern in his turn has his antecedence in Don Quixote of Miguel Cervantes (published in 1601). There is a strand in all three authors of a sober absurdism, the impossible and fantastic used as a central narrative device. It is a strand which comes from the edges to the centre of the stage in 20th century modernism.

Gogol’s short story is turned into an opera by Dimitri Shostakovich in 1930, the trajectory of the absurd exploding into 20th century Russian modernism.  (The opera was a popular success but suppressed shortly after its opening.) 

I am not me, the horse is not mine, takes the short story, its earlier history and its possible future histories as the basis for looking at the formal inventiveness of the different strains of Russian modernism, and at the calamitous end of the Russian avante garde.

The work for the eight projections was done as preparation for the production of Shostakovich’s opera. Initially a nose on the loose, or a nose with locomotion (in most cases a paper nose superimposed on top of a filmed body), but then also looking at old film material from the 1920’s and ‘30’s from the Soviet Union. A workshop done with student actors in Johannesburg furnished many of the silhouettes used. On top of projections of these human figures, paper cut outs were added and interposed, trying to find a link between the constructivist language of El Lizitsky and the earthy language of Gorky and the Russian Filmmakers. Languages which were very different at the time and even antithetical, but which in hindsight are joined by a sense of openness, of possibility, or forming something new – of agency. As if the upheavals of the 1917 revolution could provide an energy for new images, words, a new language. At the time it seemed the paths could run parallel, but now we know that even in 1918 Lenin was looking for “reliable anti-futurists”, and that the red wedge that would defeat the white circle, would soon be swept away too.

I am not me, the horse is not mine is an elegy (perhaps loud for an elegy), but an elegy both for the formal artistic language that was crushed in the 1930’s, and for the possibilities of human transformation that so many hoped for and believed in, in the revolution.

There is a transcript of some meetings of the plenum, of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in which Nikolai Bukharin, close lieutenant of Lenin, is fighting for his political and physical life. The title of the projections I am not me, the horse is not mine, comes from these transcripts. It is a Russian peasant saying used to deny all guilt. It is not even what the owner of the nose would say of his nose but it is what his nose says of him.

There is a dark comedy in the failure of his language to work any more – and in the laughter provoked by his most passionate pleas. The most grotesque absurdism only approaches this theatre. Only the absurd, the rupturing of expected causes and results, the rupturing of expected order in the world, seems able to depict this reality.

Published in edited form in Rosenthal, Mark (ed), William Kentridge: Five Themes, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Norton Museum of Art, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2009.