William Kentridge, Generous Conscience and Empathetic Storyteller, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


The figure
of the storyteller is archaic, a notion made ridiculous by a modern-day skepticism
so generic and hard-hearted it imagines a present unlike any other in history.
Robbed of its function in the West and relegated to the margins of modernity,
the notion of the storyteller survives largely as a relic, a nostalgic archetype,
a dead skeleton uncovered explicitly for the purposes of anthropologists to
pick over. Or so it would seem.


In contemporary
art, stories and those who tell them have tended toward the American multiculturalist
variety: recovering select histories for the purposes of collective edification
or uplift. Harkening back to an uncomplicated, premodern period totally unlike
our own, these stories speak of men and giants, of a time made up almost exclusively
of victims and oppressors. These tales are recovered by marginalized groups
for the purposes of "reappropriating" their own histories, and revisit
a largely idealized, essentialist past, a time segregated from modern, messy
reality by wishful thinking and blissful (and often willful) ignorance.


Largely
unclaimed, mature themes like contingency, guilt and doubt–the stuff of
the disappointed, robust humanism of Francisco Goya and Leon Golub, among others–remain
mostly unexamined by the artists of our time. This raises certain important
questions, among them: Is it possible today to make art that speaks deeply to
individual and collective experience? How can one tell a singular story in an
age of large-scale human disasters like Rwanda and Kosovo? Which story among
the million, billion histories should storytellers privilege and why?


Our age
boasts few narrators of wide-ranging ambition, artists who make individual art
works while keeping one eye peeled on history’s ever-changing human context.
Among this reduced company is William Kentridge, South Africa’s best known
artist, a draftsman who is also a filmmaker, writer, theater director and something
of a throwback to the age of Sartre, Giacometti and Andre Malraux. Fashioner
of a unique and generously empathetic brand of drawn and moving images, Kentridge
has spent the last decade making artworks that folks around the world immediately
recognize as profound meditations on la condition humaine.


Kentridge’s
first U.S. retrospective, on view currently at Soho’s New Museum of Contemporary
Art, presents powerfully poetic works and elegiac sights and sounds, all animated
by a humanist spirit many have short-sightedly relegated to the historical dustbin.
Drawn largely from the artist’s unapologetic engagement with certain canonical
works of Western culture (among them the art of Euripides, Goethe, Hogarth,
Max Beckmann and Beckett) and confrontation with the nightmare of his own time,
Kentridge imbues his vision with the force of an assertive if peculiarly elliptical
activism. Consisting of 11 of his animated films, more than 60 drawings, two
new sculptural installations, plus videos of theater and opera productions he
has designed and scripted, the current exhibition goes a long way toward presenting
the work of this accomplished artist to an American audience largely unfamiliar
with it or him.


His first
crude animated films, which he called "Drawings for Projections,"
were begun in 1989 and inaugurated a simple but laborious process. Proceeding
by repeatedly altering single, large-scale charcoal drawings on paper and filming
each stage of alteration, Kentridge arrived at something he still refers to
today as "stone-age filmmaking." He learned how to make complex films
by recording marks, erasures and redrawings, virtually reinventing the medium
of the moving image from the bottom up, and eventually producing challenging,
accessible works that are, as he puts it, "informed by self-evident principles
of construction."


Rather than
the thousands of cels used in traditional animation, Kentridge has settled on
using between 20 and 60 works on paper that he exhibits along with his films.
By themselves, the drawings prove little more than the collectible residue of
the artist’s filmic metamorphoses, though a few charcoals on view at the
New Museum (some of them outlined in red and blue pastels) manage to stake out
an independent, graphically powerful presence. Kentridge’s films, on the
other hand–which he scores with poignant contemporary and classical music–are
nothing less than a tour de force of striking black-and-white imagery.
Short, silent ditties laden with ambiguous significance, they surrealistically
layer personal, esthetic and political memory over one another, arriving at
something that is part creepy Terry Gilliam animation, part dramatic Sergei
Eisenstein epic.


The South
African’s best-known low-tech movies, lasting between 3 and 8 minutes,
tell the story of two largely invented, glancingly autobiographical antiheroes:
Soho Eckstein, a jowly real-estate and mining mogul in a pinstripe suit (a character
drawn from a family photograph of his grandfather), and Felix Teitlebaum, a
dreamy, ruminative poet who seduces Eckstein’s wife and is emblematically
pictured naked whether in or out of doors. Pitted against each other like cartoon
alter egos in a constantly morphing landscape (behind all of Kentridge’s
landscapes is the idea of nature as a "place of social contestation"),
Kentridge’s main characters develop beyond the flaccid stereotypes of comic
strip sagas like Maus to acquire, like real human beings, evolving and
often conflicting traits.


Beginning
with Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris and progressing through
Felix In Exile to History of the Main Complaint and Stereoscope,
Kentridge’s cycle of eight films featuring Eckstein and Teitlebaum moves
through the characters’ amorous conflict, alienation and general heartbreak
amidst a devastated background of rocky scrub brush, enigmatic billboards, food
queues, crowded mine shafts, power lines and ominous office buildings. The landscape
itself throws up other figures: crowds erupt literally out of nowhere, megaphones
blast mute propaganda, lovers meet and cuddle amidst the groundswell of placards
and demonstrations. As the series progresses, Eckstein’s and Teitlebaum’s
struggle recedes, giving way to an evocative wretchedness, poverty and violence
visualized most poignantly by the remorseful Eckstein, a sort of symbolic stand-in
for the self-satisfied, politically ambivalent bourgeoisie.


Kentridge’s
work illuminates our understanding of how apartheid and authoritarian systems
like it affect those who occupy positions of relative power, and provides a
roiling, profound, ultimately sympathetic commentary on how people go about
their everyday lives, oblivious to the worst possible fractures in society.
Avoiding, in the words of critic Lynne Cooke, "both the spectacularization
of memory endemic to much art that deals with political issues and, equally,
the sentimentality that bedevils most exercises in redemption," Kentridge
plows forward with a vision that permits his characters–and by extension
the real folks they symbolize–to change their minds, grow beyond their
former selves, suffer pangs of guilt caused by acts of omission or commission.
(No scene illustrates this better than the figure of Soho Eckstein beneath two
large banners of text that read: "GIVE" and "FORGIVE.")


"I
am interested in a political art," Kentridge has stated with a philosopher’s
aplomb, "that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted
gestures and uncertain endings. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is
kept in check and nihilism at bay." Emerging from what was arguably the
world’s emblematic political cause of the 1980s, his vision as an artist
matured just as South Africa headed toward civil strife, passed through conflict,
then sought to consolidate its own complex and troublesome democratic process.


Of present-day
South Africa, Kentridge has said: "One of the reasons it’s not of
great interest anymore is that the stories are much more complicated. The easy
heroes and villains have melted into each other." For that we need more
than the hubbub of the daily press. We need careful, contemplative artists like
Kentridge, generous consciences, empathetic storytellers–artists capable
of keeping in mind the sage advice of Philo of Alexandria: "Be kind, for
everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."



"William
Kentridge," through Sept. 16 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583
Broadway (betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), 219-1222.


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