Ubu & the Procession: Occasional and Residual Hope

William Kentridge

 

 

Shadow Procession was made in two sections, each one for a specific event. The first part to be made (the last section of the film) was conceived to be projected onto the front wall of a museum on the opening evening of an exhibition in Barcelona. Because I anticipated it being shown only once, it was made at speed and with openness to what it would become. (It would only be seen once, it didn’t matter if it was very thin). All three of my children joined in making some of the puppets – the action man and other toys of my son were purloined, fish paste was spread on the table to entice the new family cat to parade.

 

The second part of the film was made several months later for the Istanbul Biennale, where it was designed to be shown in the Yerebatan Sarnici, a 6th century underground water cistern. It was not made in the two-day rush of the first part, (the Biennale would be on for three months not one evening) but it was still made with the sense that it was a fragment (the procession reaches no destination). The technique of working with jointed paper figures came from shadow puppets I had been introduced to in theatre work with Handspring Puppet Company. Whereas they had been figures at the margins, glimpsed between scenes of the theatre piece, here they had to hold their own.

 

This transition from what is marginal, or at best occasional, to being the heart of the matter was the surprise and the pleasure of making the film.  There was meant to be a third section to the film (the intermezzo of the Ubu shadow is just that a connection, not a resolution). But I could not find it, not formally but intentionally. I could not find a destination, neither a utopia nor a killing field. The fact of transition of movement was essential. Any definite destination felt tendentious. The music for the film was going to have been a song sung at funerals, but in the end the up-tempo What a Friend we have in Jesus was the music that worked.  That made a space for agency or hope in the march.

 

The figures in the procession and in Ubu have a deliberate crudeness (given by tearing rather than cutting). The figures need an active recognition by the viewer (and when making them I am a viewer). The viewer has to take very crude figures and imbue them with specificity. This is both active and involuntary. You know you are looking at crude torn shapes but you cannot help seeing into them, into seeing a particular limp, a load on a head rather than a misshapen blob.

 

The Ubu film is a residue of the theatre piece Ubu & the Truth Commision. All the material used in the film was used as back-projection in the play, and many of the images were there to clarify or amplify specific moments of the play. The edited film came at the end or almost the end of the process of making and performing the piece. The Ubu project as a whole started with a series of etchings. These etchings were the basis for the visual language of the play (simple blackboard drawings over the thumbprint soft ground fleshiness of Ubu in the prints becomes the projected whites lines behind the flesh of the actor in the play) The demands of the play, for the combination of Jarry’s grotesquery against the sober archival text of witnesses at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (in the mid- 1990’s) had to find a visual equivalent.  This became a mix of simple animation and archival film footage. This jump, demanded by the needs of the play, was a formal move I doubt I would have made if I had been simply making a film.

 

In terms of images the Shadow Procession and Ubu Tells the Truth move out of the studio into a raucous public space. In both cases it required something outside of the films, an occasion, the exhibition opening, the theatre piece, for the films to find their language.

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.

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