William Kentridge: Tapestries – A Collaboration with Stephens Tapestry Studio

Review by Joseph Leo Koerner

Wits Art Museum, 18 November 2015 – 14 December 2015

The tapestries woven after William Kentridge’s designs looked custom-made for the Wits Art Museum. The elegantly minimalist gallery preserved something of the objects’ place of birth, so that “what happened in the studio” (a favorite motto of Kentridge) happened in the museum. Displaying the weavings with preparatory and adjacent objects—mockups, cartoons, motifs cast in bronze—the curator Fiona Rankin-Smith took visitors inside the studio and inside the creative process that happens. And to anyone familiar with Kentridge art, that is a familiar place, because in drawings, films, flipbooks, lectures, performances, and installations, this artist has portrayed himself pacing his workspace in Johannesburg.

But it is also a wonderful property of tapestries to seem at home everywhere, no matter where they hang. Sigmund Freud cocooned his consulting chamber and analytic couch with carpets, creating a safe space for his talking cure. Tapestries connect us to our nomadic past. Weavings are among the earliest artifacts. The Bible has it that Adam and Eve knotted leaves together to cover their nakedness. Imagining Adam’s house in paradise, theorists of architecture proposed that human dwellings began as textiles placed between wall supports. Tapestries are movable property, and Kentridge makes mobility his tapestries’ fundamental theme. The dark figures that command them are in motion from here to there: mounted riders, marching compasses, porters carrying great loads (despite impediments like cages for feet). These monstrous and comical morphologies perform the human condition with reference to the law of physics that work equals force times distance. As the accompanying material in this exhibition show, these figures also travel backward through stations in the artist’s oeuvre, from Kentridge’s collaboration last year (2014) on performances of Schubert’s Die Winterreise, to his 2012 production of Shostakovich’s The Nose for the Metropolitan Opera and the absurdist equestrian monuments that work on The Nose inspired, back to Shadow Play of 1999. Schubert’s song cycle begins where Kentridge’s woven cycle does, in motion from the start. With the piano sounding the wanderer’s steps as he marches in winter away from his fickle love, and with the singer singing a duet with nature, these Viennese Lieder proved a fertile matrix for Kentridge’s art, sharpening its melancholy and embellishing the landscape it already inhabited, of single trees, uncanny crows, windmills and weathervanes. With each project, Kentridge creates new messages and visual forms, expanding his reach while remaining aesthetically and ethically consistent. Long before his tapestries, Kentridge had cast the figure of the porter as the anti-hero of his 1991 animated film Monument.

Designing for tapestries places special technical demands on an artist. Forms have to be clear enough to be enlarged and look good from far away. They must also be interesting enough to sustain attentive looking at that scale, and to justify the labor expended on weaving them. It’s not by accident that two of the greatest virtuosos of monumental European painting, Raphael and Rubens, also designed some of the greatest tapestry series in the tradition: Raphael for the Sistine Chapel in Rome and Rubens for a monastery in Madrid. Kentridge, through his civic sculpture (e.g., Fire Walker of 2009), opera set designs, and space-commanding exhibitions and installations, has mastered large-scale big formats. And the density achieved through drawing, erasing, and redrawing in his animated films, and elsewhere in his oeuvre through collaging and the use of printed pages as his support, he achieves a density analogous to weaving. In the tapestries, dark figures read like moving shadows projected on lighter variegated grounds. Those grounds reference travel, too. Consisting of old maps, they read like the world through which the shadow figures walk. It is as when, in films, figures passing through the landscape are suddenly projected—as vanishing vignettes—onto a map of their journey, with their itinerary traced and animated as a creeping line.

Kentridge differentiates his figures sharply from their ground, as dark against light, elevation against plan. The silhouettes are deliberately messy. The artist created them by tearing their forms from black construction paper. To recognize them as porters, horses, and noses takes a projective imagination that—in the artist’s words—“meets the image halfway.” The maps, by contrast, consist of exact contours that took centuries to achieve. The shapes of coastlines, rivers, mountains, and valleys were produced by an immense cumulative labor. Travelers in innumerable journeys brought home with them little bits of information. Accumulated at centers of calculation (Antwerp, Amsterdam, Paris, London), these bits formed part of an increasingly stable image that would guide the next journey. From piecemeal itineraries, a map emerges of the whole.

The world across which the enigmatic shadows move comes to seem like established fact: something found rather than made, the ground as terra firma. But it is precisely this contrast that Kentridge’s tapestries cleverly complicate. When woven, figure and ground become one complex continuum—materially, through the knotting that entwines the whole; thematically, through the artist’s cunning imagery. In one of the “Porters” series, a fabulous tree-man—one of Kentridge’s signature motifs—marches left-to-right against an old French school map of Asia Minor. The figure’s leafy branches meld with the rivers and valleys of the map, reminding us of the eons of human movement through the earth’s terrain (here, perhaps, the migration of peoples out of Africa via this bit of the world) that brought maps about. In another tapestry from the “Porters” series, the figure drags a compass—instrument of map-making—evoking not only the labor that brought the cartographic ground about but also, via the recalcitrant burden that this compass evidently is, the oppressive effect the mappers’ knowledge and conquest have on the mapped.

What is perhaps most aesthetically appealing about these tapestries, though, is how the thematic meshing of figure and ground is materially achieved. The tapestries’ conceptual epiphany that what seems “found” (the geography through which the figures trudge) is in fact humanly, culturally, and historically “made,” is deepened and elevated by the visual epiphany of the tapestries themselves. Anyone who spends a bit of time before these weavings cannot but stand in awe of the uncanny patterns the weavers at Marguerite Stevens’ studio have created. First, there are the remarkable translations of complex prototypes (maps with their inscriptions, legends, and elaborate cartouches; the pins and patches of the articulated shadow puppets; the pins that, in the cartoon, hold bits of paper place) into woven threads. Then there are the weavers’ trompe-l’oeil additions, for example, the semblance that Stephens and her team create, of shadows cast in the original working model by paper loosely pinned rather than carefully pasted onto the underlying ground. But these painterly effects (ironically not of Kentridge’s art, but in tune with its penchant for signs of facture, process, and the mess of making) are outdone by the primordial magic of weaving per se. Look at any bit of these tapestries closely, pick any figured surface and attend to the weaving of which it was made, and new, compelling patterns will come to light. What was, in the model, the red mark of Kentridge’s crimson pencil becomes, in the weaving, a mesmerizing coil of red more saturated in color, more palpable in texture, and therefore more enigmatic in effect than what pencil or brush could make. The blacker black of the black masking tape that Kentridge pastes on the black construction paper becomes, when woven, an all-absorbing figure in and of itself.

It is not for nothing that Freud lined his consulting room in tapestries and rugs. Whereas the antiquities he collected and displayed returned his patients to the archaic substratum of the human species, the “Persian” rugs that backed, covered, and underlay the patient’s couch encouraged the more abstract process of thought. For in Vienna at 1900 it was believed (and the belief makes sense) that the ornamental art of weaving, with its arabesques, its rhythms and repetitions, and its dizzying alteration of what is figure and what is ground, was a visual analogue to the “free association” that Freud demanded from his patients. Add to the power of tapestry’s patterns the mysteries of the weavers’ craft (the rapid twists, returns, and knots remain technically opaque even when watched close-up in the workshop by the untrained observer) and the result is a depth of imagery over and above—and under and in between—the enigmatic pictures and stories that these William Kentridge tapestries also encompass.

These are ancient metaphors. Thought is a thread; the storyteller spins yarn. Poets do something more complex. They weave. The great poem can be likened to a weaving or tapestry because it doesn’t simply set forth plot and characters, but also conjures up an entire world, a cosmos encompassing events, peoples, and places, and embracing, too, ourselves as, listening, we are psychically oven into that tapestry. Later, the scribes began to write down, first in scroll then in codex, these poetical weavings. And when they achieved in their work—the written page—a thing of a similar consistency and flexibility as the poem, they called what they made a text. The word “text” comes from the Latin textus (“thing woven”), from Latin textere (“to weave, braid, fabricate, build”), and before that, from Proto-Indo-European teks (“to weave, to make, to make wicker or wattle”). So originally text was a weaving. Only subsequently, by analogy and metaphor, did text become a writing or scripture.

Kentridge’s tapestries return texts to their original condition as weavings. The artist’s texts, the elaborate stories this poet-artist tells—in imagery and in the uniquely narrative “drawings for projection”—are all about the imponderables of history, memory, and the human condition. In the tapestries, these all become texts in that primordial sense of “weavings” through the weaver’s craft. Examined closely, in other words, as this exhibition allowed us effortlessly to do, these collaborative creations do all that great tapestries do plus reciting the poems that Kentridge, over the course of his career, has through images composed.

Recently, the artist gave a new twist to this story. Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time was installed in the Johannesburg Art Gallery while the tapestries were displayed at Wits. In it the artist’s story ends with the modern enigma of the black hole. This cosmic phenomenon divides scientists as to whether, beyond its so-called “event horizon,” the information of that which is sucked into the black hole somehow remains preserved or whether instead the information is permanently lost: a cosmic death subsuming all mortality. Near the end of The Refusal of Time’s performance, Kentridge’s voice is heard through loudspeakers to say, “As an object approaches the black hole, it lengthens, becomes redder;” information is stripped and twisted into “strings.” According to a version of “String Theory,” to which the artist alludes, information neither disappears into, nor is somehow preserved within, the black hole. Instead, information is somehow deposited on the surface of the hole in the form of multidimensional “strings.” The structure of this quasi-knotted surface remains unfathomable, but the tapestries made after Kentridge’s designs have a density akin, at least, to this contemporary myth.

Published in African Arts 49 (1), March 2016.