that which moves and shakes

while trained as a photographer, and while i largely use this space as place to meditate on Things Photographic, truth be told i do partake of other genres, other modes of representation and visual thinking. in fact, there are many times when the spate of photography i take in, grouse and ruminate over will be like so much inelegant sputtering, a hacking cough of hackneyed notions and cobbled or predictable presentation, when compared to the quality of making, question-having and solution-seeking that i am blessed enough to stumble upon from time to time, often in genres that i have less of a frame of reference. is it ridiculous to feel like i’m cheating on photography when i find myself swooning over something that is decidedly not? does photography care that i’m ignoring it for a time, because it hasn’t done anything for me lately, and meanwhile i’m having drinks and long, meaningful looks in a corner with this something else over here?

one of the most influential mentors i have ever had was a drawing instructor . well, to be precise, he taught and knew how to do all manner of media and things–so much so that it scared the shit out of his peer faculty members during the faculty biennials, when he would exhibit finished, accomplished works in no fewer than five media while the rest struggled to pull something together in a month or so because they had failed to make much over the previous two years (that in itself was a kind of important lesson). but what he really excelled at in teaching was getting to mold minds at the “fundamentals” stage. help you unlearn preconceptions that you brought with you into the classroom haughtily, in ways that only eighteen and nineteen year old aspiring art students can. i remember that he had a universal ban on pencils of any kind, and taught us to use the magnificently messy vine charcoal and pastels instead; that we were never allowed to turn anything in that was drawn on less than 16×20″ size sheets (and that he encouraged us to buy big rolls of drawing paper); that he was a master at teaching our eye how to see and prioritize; that in drawing it became important to realize that the center is not everything and consequently everything outside of it of less importance–that instead intention and deliberate consideration should be given to every mark, to the weight of each line. through hours and hours of my drawing badly, i learned that drawing is done with the entire body, standing up: that you draw with yourself in a sometimes-dance, sometimes stand-off to your canvas, or torn off sheet of oversized paper. that there is relation and negotiated space between body, arm, instrument and media.

i am reminded of this formative, humbling experience, and its twin memory of being in proxy to a charismatic maker-of-things who cannot stop making, stop drawing, as i have been trying (for months now) to find the words to best describe the astounding work of artist william kentridge.

i wish that i could show you, in a
cupped hand, the single most moving piece of art i saw in the last
year. in a dark, hushed room in a cramped banking space; i wish i
could take you to the slack-jawed wonder that is kentridge’s black box .

I am interested in a
political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction,
uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending – an art (and a politics) in
which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.


The drawings don’t start
with ‘a beautiful mark’. It has to be a mark of something out there in
the world. It doesn’t have to be an accurate drawing, but it has to
stand for an observation, not something that is abstract, like an
–william kentridge, quotations from william kentridge by carolyn christov-bakargiev (1998), societ√© des expositions du palais de beaux-arts de bruxelles (with thanks to art throb) .

and one more:

I once did take some advice. I was told by many intelligent people who
only had my best interests at heart: “Do one thing only. If you do
everything you will always be a dilettante, unable to master any field.
Either be a filmmaker, or an actor or an artist, and you will do it
better.” For many years I tried to keep to this good advice. I sold my
etching press when I went to acting school. I stopped doing theatre
when I started working in film. It was through hard work and good
fortune that I escaped that advice.

kentridge is an artist who has found work-around solutions for many things that defy the logic of how things progress. what i mean by that is this notion that there is some prefabricated map or plan of way of getting to somewhere or something, of getting to become something, and that kentridge’s m.o. in life has been to do ten or ten million other things than those prescribed tasks, and arrive at That Place, whatever and wherever it is, with more authority and finality than most. his primary working media is drawing, specifically charcoal drawing, considered a “minor art” of the traditional variety. these drawings, while sometimes fodder for other things, do not exist solely as preparatory work for something Else, often they are the finished product. His drawings are huge, messy things with histories. his mark-making describes his subjects as having made choices, as things which move within the white space of the paper, and settle back down again. i don’t know that i have ever seen a drawing of his that did not show a characteristic pentimenti, traces of movement or suggestions of a previous movement that has been overlaid with another choice, another more final line.

drawing from Felix in Exile, 1994.

the son of lawyers, a student of politics and african history, and an artist who does not believe in sole, dedicated practice to one media or medium only (he has training in puppetry, theatre and film), kentridge is the living embodiment of getting to one’s destiny despite the good intentions and advice of everyone around you. kentridge actually gave some words of advice on the act of getting and giving advice. he said:

We do not hear advice. We do not want advice. We particularly do not want advice we haven’t asked for. The only advice we register is when something is said that we already know but need someone else to confirm…I am wary of advice. But more than that I am wary of the certainty that lies behind most advice. I am mistrustful of certainty.

which is not to say that kentridge puts stock into uncertainty either. his process, both in his writing and his visual work, is one that resists binarization. he prefers open-endedness, and his position, as has been ventured forth by some, is rather a non-position, a “negative critique of a lived and unresolved contradiction.” (ashraf jamal, co-author of art in south africa: the future present)

black box/chambre noire is a work commissioned by the deutsche-guggenheim and exhibited in 2005. the space in berlin is a smallish-gallery room housed in a larger building which is a bank. i was chagrined by my own expectations being subverted, realizing that i had come with a preconception of what a “guggenheim” space was supposed to be like. on the walls hung drawings that were used in the production of the finished piece, which was set in the center of the room, with a few small rows of chairs in front of it. the “black box” was a mini-theatre, like a puppet show box except that it had several (six, to be exact) receding tracks. and each layer was heavily worked, with drawings and media affixed and waiting for you to begin to unpack and absorb. when the lights dimmed and the “show” started, a projection began to play onto the theatre, and hand-made “puppets” began to move across the tracks through a rigging in the black box. music that at turns were 19th century recordings of mozart’s the magic flute were interspersed and overlaid with traditional namibian songs, and the “play” itself was at turns part history lesson, part cultural critique, part freudian psychoanalysis.

kentridge at work on black box/chambre noire in his studio in johannesburg

there are characters in kentridge’s piece, and their manifestation turns the viewer, no matter what the age, into a child learning how to make associations and meaning from the abstractions they see in front of them. kentridge has said of his cast :

The six characters are a Megaphone man
who’s the narrator; a transparent Herero woman defined by the
head-dress: she’s actually a spring with a piece of transparent gauze
on her head. A mechanical running man: a cut-out piece of paper that
runs; a pair of dividers, that’s the measuring arm, measuring skulls
and geography; an exploding skull that makes a brief appearance; and a
second Herero woman based on a German postal scale from 1905, a scale
for weighing letters.

and what of the content?

that is a little more of an involved answer, and one i will have to rely heavily on the artist to explicate. put simply, kentridge was commissioned by the deutsche guggenheim to produce a work of art which dealt with germany’s colonial history in africa. kentridge was given this commission as he was entrenched in a project about mozart’s the magic flute. part of the work he was doing involved a 1:10 scale of the stage setting for the opera, which he transformed and incorporated for the purposes of black box. the specific history that kentridge chose to deal with was the german massacre of the herero tribe in southwest africa, which is now namibia. the massacre, conducted by general lothar van trotha, was a retaliation for the tribe’s uprising against the increasing encroachment on their land, seizing of cattle and livestock, and the continual breaking of treaties. the herero had carried out a directed attack on the ruling germans, killing about 150 farmers and reclaiming their cattle. the german solution was to enact what some historians conclude was the first genocide of the twentieth century, nearly annihilating the tribe by killing over 75% of its population.

of the intersection of his magic flute project (which was recently on view at the marian goodman gallery) and black box/chambre noire, kentridge writes:

Transforming shadows, the early cinema, the vaudeville of the time, which was practiced throughout Europe and even in the United States–these are some of the forms I’m going to examine in Black Box. But I will consider these early forms with hindsight, looking back on them as if they were an Enlightenment project. I will ask: What knowledge do we have today, and what lessons have we learned–now that it is no longer 1791, when Mozart wrote his opera, but 2005? (from Kentridge’s forward to the exhibition text)

and of his specific sets of references and associations for the commissioned piece in berlin:

…I’m playing with three sets of associations in Black Box. The first is the black box of the theatre. The installation consists of a model of a theatre, which houses projections and characters. The characters are small automatons–mechanized (and not necessarily anthropomorphic) objects that perform, together with the projections, within the theatre space. So the first reference is to the “black box” of the performance realm.

The second association of the black box is the chambre noire–the central chamber of a camera between the lens and the eyepiece, into which light enters and where a kind of meaning is created. Here, the infinite possibilities of the outside world come in, but a single image is chosen, fixed upon the plane.

The third reference is the flight-data recorder that is used to trace the last moments before an airline disaster. And the disaster I will be referring to–although I will not necessarily describe it nor didactically enumerate its stages–is the German massacre of the Herero people in Southwest Africa.

…If The Magic Flute suggests the utopian moment of the Enlightenment, Black Box represents the other end of the spectrum.

the entire production was 20 minutes long. in one visit, i sat through it twice before the museum closed. and when i returned to berlin a week later, i attempted to see it again, banging on the closed bank doors like a… well, like someone who knew that the most extraordinary thing she’d ever seen was on the other side of that door and she was going to be fleeing 7,000 miles away from it without getting to see it again. that’s what it was like.

what was so extraordinary about black box was that it managed so many things that art usually so stupendously fails at dealing with: things that have to do with politics both past and present; cultural guilt and grief; memory and forgetting; the evocation of universal themes and then the subsequent questioning of what those themes are, what their validity is in the face of changed contexts, agency or audience; and it did all of these things while still managing to be startlingly, breath-gasping-and-all beautiful. it doesn’t try to do or invoke any of the above tropes or themes, but it fully realizes them all. seeing this piece set me about a mad rush to find, see and ingest as much of kentridge’s words and works as i could find.

what i found was a dearth of production that continually builds on its questions; a rare clarity of purpose and intent which belies an artist who is fully aware of his artistic project (and i don’t mean that in the same way that m.f.a. programs plague students with the assignation of a “project” that is to be their life-long noose) and his own existential boundary conditions. kentridge is wildly smart: well-read and with a wide berth of interests across the field of the humanities.

in a rather fabulous interview with bell hooks kentridge and she discuss race, history and particularity, with hooks asking poignant questions which elicit thoughtful responses from kentridge. an excerpt:

bh: I grew up in a small Southern town where there were certain places black folks couldn’t go. in fact, one of the lingering memories of my childhood is of this place that made wonderful hamburgers, but we knew black people would not be served there. and when we walked by as children, those burgers smelled so delicious, and the smell awakened longing, but as a black person you could not satisfy this desire. what’s interesting about the u.s. is, people have so quickly forgotten the intensity of that legislated apartheid here.
wk: that forgetting is already happening in South Africa, too. the system in South Africa is only four or five years old, and memory is gone. In many cases, it’s already difficult to hang on to what we were. there is sort of a willful amnesia, a refusal to accept accountability, that comes from the naturalization of outrageous systems in the world. but i’m more interested in the question of historical memory–of what happens when people forget so quickly.
bh: an intriguing aspect of your work is its immediacy: you use popular forms–cartoons or poster graphics–and defamiliarize them. at the same time the pain is more accessible. it becomes an intimate trauma. in the installation ubu tells the truth, a narrative of daily life unfolds that is ordinary and mundane, and then suddenly traumatic events happen, transforming the experience.
wk: a question i eventually ask is, how does one relate a private experience of a public trauma? for example, when we see images on television now, of people killed or starving, it’s not that they aren’t shocking, but that they fit into a sort of bank of images and are dulled. the hard part is to try to get back to the first sense of shock one had…the hard part is to try to hold onto that sense of outrage because that is the truest response. all the other ways of living with it dilute and normalize.
bh: a willingness to receive the truth of images has to be there as well. when i read about your childhood it was evident that actually witnessing cruel acts gave you a heightened sense of awareness. lots of other little white boys saw these things. what enables one person to resist while many other people collude?
wk: a whole constellation of facts. for me it actually has to do with the house i grew up in. i was raised to be aware of the nature of the society we were living in. kids i went to school with grew up in a world where hatred and terror were normalized. what are the things with which people blinded themselves to find all that acceptable?
bh: they have to construct a wall inside. your work exposes the layers of these walls. for example, there is a recurring image of someone turning their back. whether you are white or black, the demand of white supremacy and apartheid is always that one split oneself–to normalize. a white person like you, who resisted normalization, stands out.
wk: i always assumed that splitting was just the way one exists in the world.

something bell hooks says about kentridge in the preface to her interview sticks. she says that kentridge is always “…acknowledging that we are always more than our pain.” a major–and moving–theme of black box has to do with what one does with such pain. the narrator megaphone man rolls out into the stage area, with a torn-sheet placard affixed to it reading trauerarbeit.

the word refers to freud’s conception of grief work, conceived of as a necessary labor, a mourning one undergoes which has a finite endpoint (mourning and melancholia, 1917). with the introduction of this word and, indirectly, this historical peer working on these themes at the time of the massacre, kentridge opens up a dialog about what it is to be guilty, to be complicit, to be the inheritors of psychic pain. maria-christina villase√±or, the curator of black box, wrote that among kentridge’s questions are:

…does trauma ever really recede? can it be contained?…the history that looms largest in kentridge’s work is the complex, deeply intertwined relationship of between Europe and Africa, the rhino in the room, so to speak, a presence that can never be ignored…there is no standing outside in kentridge’s work. black box implicates us in our belief and disbelief, in our wonder and cool knowingness, in darkness and in light.

notably, after wwi, freud radically revised his work about grief in ego and the id, asserting that grief is continual and ongoing, a sisyphean labor without end.

with all the issues kentridge skillfully touches upon in his work black box/chambre noire, with his address and redress of western white history at the bequest of the penitent authors of such histories, kentridge has given us a work that is implication, absolution and everything in between. black box is full of pointed, unanswered questions; the practical realization that nothing can be done to recover or correct the excessiveness of a punishing past; that we are always more than our pain but never without it; and that, like the multi-part media chosen to depict it, history and its retelling is messy, overlapping, conflicted and consisting of multiple voices.

though his animated films are rare and hard to come by (shown mostly at festivals and rare museum screenings), a short 6-minute excerpt of the documentary art from the ashes can be seen here. black box/chambre noire is currently being shown at the johannesburg art gallery through july 9th. hopefully then it will tour to at least one of the guggenheims in the u.s. a production of kentridge’s full-length stage opera of the magic flute will run at the brooklyn academy of music in the spring of 2007.