William Kentridge

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Article

Inconstant memory

Born in Johannesburg in 1955, William Kentridge has become well known all over the world since the 80s for his animated films, which are hand-drawn and feature South African landscape ruined by mining. This serves to symbolise the processes of forgetting and remembering in the wake of apartheid. Since 1992 he has also worked with the Handspring Puppet Company, which uses plays like Woyzeck, Faust and King Ubu for reflecting on colonialism.
Charcoal and a rubber are essential to William Kentridge, born in Johannesburg in 1955 and now a draughtsman and film director. His work consists in drawing and erasing: in drawing and erasing contours, and in deepening black and rubbing highlights in. On his papers, there are continual changes recorded by a camera. Some phases remain as drawings, but most of them vanish again before the completion of his films, which are 4 or 8 minutes long.

A man shaving looks at himself in the mirror and sees his face slip away. A cat changes into a telephone, a head into a rock, a brain into a cave. A weeping man drowns a house and sweeps a landscape away with his tears. X-rays reveal vague structures within the darkness of the body, out of which emerges a road on which an accident happens and the dead are borne away. Hills rise out of the landscape, dead bodies melt into the earth, and craters burst open. No images can be relied on to show lasting truths, yet the changes seem to express a search for them. The fleeting is an uncertain foundation, but there seems to be none better.

With lines in black charcoal William Kentridge ploughs through South Africa’s past. The picture-stories are set in the landscape round Johannesburg, South Africa’s first industrial centre, which is marked by exploitation of the earth, mines, undulating hills and sudden disused and waste areas. ‘Drawing is not unlike the structure and evolution of the South African landscape,’ said Kentridge in a talk with Okwui Enzewor (cited by Enwezor, Okwui in Truth and Responsibility. A Talk with William Kentridge, in Parquet 54, 1998/99).

The process of landscape-erosion, in which traces of exploitation are continually shifted and wiped away, has been transformed by Kentridge in his 9 films made since 1989 into impressive images for wavering between forgetting and remembering. They accompany the end of the apartheid system, the first elections and the work of Truth and Reconciliation Commission in trying to show the complex tensions in a postcolonial memory.

Already in the first of his films: ‘Johannesburg, 2nd great City after Paris’ (1989) Kentridge developed his two figures Felix Teitlebaum and Soho Eckstein, whose fortunes he has now been chartiing for years. Soho Eckstein is always in a pinstriped suit and is a mine owner and building boss, an exploiter who poses as a philanthropist and is concerned in ‘Monument’ (1990) to have a monument raised to himself. He seems to be heading for no good end, as his technology, for instance, turns against him. In ‘Mine’ (1991), ticker-tape bearing messages from the stock-exchange winds round him like a python. He becomes a sick unconscious man, out of whose body in ‘History of the Main Complaint’ (1996) rise images of fear and guilt. In Stereoscope (1998/99) he is taken captive by blue lines, which come out of telephones, tape-recorders, telegraph wires and loudspeakers, pierce walls and finally penetrate the whole city.

Felix Teitlebaum, though, is naked, sympathetic, empathetic, romantic and consults the planets rather than stock-exchange reports (‘Felix in Exile’, 1994). He stands alone in seeing demonstrations of the exploited, the landscape strewn with corpses, protesters beaten and others killed. William Kentridge comments: ‘In starting on films, I viewed them (Felix and Soho) as opponents. One of them looked rather like me, and the other like a typical industrialist from German expressionism of the 20s. But then I realised that he looked even more like my grandfather.’ Their antagonism is based on their conflicting aims. Soho’s motto is ‘Grab hold of the rudder!’, and Felix’s is ‘Empathise with the suffering and pain around you!’ These two aims, says William Kentridge, may be taken to be ‘two elements of South African white or Jewish life. But I am more inclined to believe that they are two ways in which I perceive them.’ (ibid)

Early paintings by William Kentridge show the influence of the German expressionist painter Max Beckmann, as do the ambience and style of his drawings. In the 20s, expressionism came to the fore in both painting and filming, especially in Germany. Many of the film-drawings – like those of human features looming out of the depths of images, of crowds crushed in a street-gully, and especially those of the greedy capitalist Soho Eckstein – borrow the imagery of the class struggle, but this imagery’s billboard quality and pathos, used formerly for supporting a certain class, become in Kentridge’s hands more ambivalent. While his character wavers between Soho and Felix, his images waver between accusation and sympathy.

Before making animated films William Kentridge worked as an art director and prop-man for films and studied drama in Paris. Since 1992 he has used his experiences with various media in working with the Handpuppet Spring Company, which he directs and for which he develops film images for multimedia settings. He has introduced his own style of puppets, which are large, carved from wood, angular and rough and stand next to the puppeteers on stage. With all his productions – ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’ (1992), ‘Faustus in Africa!’ (1995), ‘Ubu and the Truth Commission’ (1997), ‘Ritorno d`Ulisse’ (1998) and ‘zeno at 4am’ (2001) – he has travelled to Europe and the USA.

Materials from the history of European literature and music are thus put explicitly into a post-colonial context. William Kentridge not only changes the setting into a South African landscape, in which poor Woyzeck is misused for inhuman experiments, or Faust makes a pact with the devil; he also explores to what extent these works reflected, veiled or furthered the colonial relationships of their time. Hence Alfred Jarry’s theatre of the absurd with King Ubu can be a means to keep at a tolerable distance the real horror which the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has to face.

Kentridge’s projects, not only his theatrical ones, link various historical periods and levels. Even the medium of hand-drawn films, in which a week of work leads to 20 seconds of film, is due to the uneven growth of modernism. Kentridge’s emphatic ‘handwriting’ is unusual in animated films and would be unusual even in the field of graphic design. The music accompanying the films, as in the days silent films, increases the feeling of looking over one’s shoulder for a lost Eden. Kentridge’s films, made with 16 and 35 mm cameras, have also been issued by him as videos and laser-discs. They show him to be an artist seeking a place of his own among the eras and genres.
Author: Katrin Bettina Müller

Bio

William Kentridge was born in 1955 in Johannesburg. Since his parents were lawyers who defended black demonstrators, he learned as a child to question distinctions made in the apartheid system and saw himself as belonging to a left-wing fringe group. In 1976 he finished courses in politics and African studies, then he studied art and soon taught design-printing. At this time he also began working as a set designer for film productions. In 1981-2 he studied drama at the École Jacques LeCoq in Paris, then at the end of the 70s he began exhibiting in Johannesburg. His animated films combine storytelling and draughtsmanship and have been shown since the start of the 90s at many exhibitions and festivals. He has also been travelling since 1992 as a director of the Handpuppet Spring Company.

Works

Tide Table (2003) and Learning the Flute (2003)

Exhibition / Installation,
2004
Solo exhibition, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, USA

Ubu and the Truth Commission

Production / Performance,
2003
WITH THE HANDPUPPET SPRING COMPANY

Zeno at 4am

Production / Performance,
2003
WITH THE HANDPUPPET SPRING COMPANY

Medicine Chest

Film / TV,
2001

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Exhibition / Installation,
2001
Solo Exhibit, Washington DC, USA

New Museum of Contemporary Art

Exhibition / Installation,
2001
Solo Exhibit, New York, USA

William Kentridge, Recent Editions

Exhibition / Installation,
2001
Solo Exhibit, Robert Brown Gallery, Washington DC, USA

The Short Century

Exhibition / Installation,
2001
Group Exhibition, Museum Villa Stuck, München + House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany + Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, USA

The Self Is Something Else

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Group Exhibit, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany

A Double View

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Group Exhibit, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel

Kwangju Biennial

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Group Exhibit, Korea

3 rd Shanghai Biennial

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Group Exhibit, China

7th Havanna Biennial

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Group Exhibit, Cuba

Das Lied von der Erde

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Group Exhibit, Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany

Anndale Galleries

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Solo Exhibit, Sydney, Australia

Stephen Friedman Gallery

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Solo Exhibit, London, Great Britain

Marian Goodman Gallery

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Solo Exhibit, New York, USA

Vertical Paintings

Exhibition / Installation,
2000
Solo Exhibit, P.S.1, New York, USA

48th Biennale Venice

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Group Exhibit, D’Apertutto, Italy

6th Biennial Istanbul

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Group Exhibit, Turkey

Life Cycles

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Group Exhibit, Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig, Germany

Kunstwelten im Dialog

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Group Exhibition, Museum Ludwig, Köln, Germany

Tachikawa Arts Festival

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Group Exhibition, Japan

Projects 68: William Kentridge

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Solo Exhibit, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

Museu d’Arte Contemporani de Barcelona

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Solo Exhibition, Spain

Serpentine Gallery

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Solo Exhibit, London, Great Britain

La Vielle Charité

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Solo Exhibit, Marseille, France

Neue Galerie Graz

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Solo Exhibit, Graz, Austria

Marian Goodman Gallery

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Solo Exhibit, Paris, France

Goodman Gallery

Exhibition / Installation,
1999
Solo Exhibit, Johannesburg, South Africa

Weighing and Wanting

Film / TV,
1998

Ritorno d’Ulisse

Production / Performance,
1998
WITH THE HANDPUPPET SPRING COMPANY

Nominee for Hugo Boss Prize

Exhibition / Installation,
1998
Group Exhibit, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

XXIV Bienal de Sao Paulo

Exhibition / Installation,
1998
Group Exhibit, Brasilia

The Drawing Centre

Exhibition / Installation,
1998
Solo Exhibit, New York, USA

Museum of Contemporary Art

Exhibition / Installation,
1998
Solo Exhibit, San Diego, USA

Stephen Friedman Gallery

Exhibition / Installation,
1998
Solo Exhibit, London, Great Britain

Palais des Beaux Arts

Exhibition / Installation,
1998
Solo Exhibit, Brussel, Belgium

Kunstverein München

Exhibition / Installation,
1998
Solo Exhibit, Germany

Stereoscope

Film / TV,
1998
1998-9

Ubu tells the Truth

Film / TV,
1997

Sexta Bienal de La Habana

Exhibition / Installation,
1997
Group Exhibit, Cuba

2nd Johannesburg Biennial

Exhibition / Installation,
1997
Group Exhibit, South Africa

Applied Drawings

Exhibition / Installation,
1997
Solo Exhibit, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa

History of the Main Complaint

Film / TV,
1996

10th Sydney Biennial

Exhibition / Installation,
1996
Group Exhibit, Australia

Colours: Art from South Africa

Exhibition / Installation,
1996
Group Exhibit, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany

Eidophusikon

Exhibition / Installation,
1996
Solo Exhibit, Annandale Galleries, Sydney, Australia

Faustus in Africa!

Production / Performance,
1995
WITH THE HANDPUPPET SPRING COMPANY

Africus 1st Johannesburg Biennial: Memory and Geography

Exhibition / Installation,
1995
Group Exhibit, South Africa

4th Biennial

Exhibition / Installation,
1995
Group Exhibit, Istanbul, Turkey

Felix in Exile

Film / TV,
1994

Felix in Exile

Exhibition / Installation,
1994
Solo Exhibit, Goodman Gallery,Johannesburg, South Africa

45th Biennale Venice

Exhibition / Installation,
1993
Group Exhibit, Italy

Ruth Bloom Gallery

Exhibition / Installation,
1993
Solo Exhibit, Los Angeles, USA

Woyzeck on the Highveld

Production / Performance,
1992
WITH THE HANDPUPPET SPRING COMPANY

Drawings for Projection

Exhibition / Installation,
1992
Solo Exhibit, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa + Vanessa Devereux Gallery, London, Great Britain

Mine

Film / TV,
1991

Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old

Film / TV,
1991

Five Gouache Collage

Exhibition / Installation,
1991
Solo Exhibit, Heads Newtown Galleries, Johannesburg, South Africa

Monument

Film / TV,
1990

Art from South Africa

Exhibition / Installation,
1990
Group Exhibit, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, Great Britain

William Kentridge: Drawings and Graphics

Exhibition / Installation,
1990
Solo Exhibit, Cassirer Fine Art, Johannesburg, South Africa

Johannesburg, 2nd Great City After Paris

Film / TV,
1989

Responsible Hedonism

Exhibition / Installation,
1989
Solo Exhibit, Vanessa Devereux Gallery, London, Great Britain

Cassirer Fine Art

Exhibition / Installation,
1988
Solo Exhibit, Johannesburg, South Africa

Hogarth in Johannesburg

Exhibition / Installation,
1987
Group Exhibit, touring nationally, South Africa

In the Heart of the Beast

Exhibition / Installation,
1987
Solo Exhibit, Vanessa Devereux Gallery, London, Great Britain

Cassirer Fine Art

Exhibition / Installation,
1986
Solo Exhibit, Johannesburg, South Africa

South African Arts Association

Exhibition / Installation,
1986
Solo Exhibition, Pretoria, South Africa

Cassirer Fine Art

Exhibition / Installation,
1985
Solo Exhibit, Johannesburg, South Africa

Domestic Scenes

Exhibition / Installation,
1981
Solo Exhibit, The Market Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)

Colours

Contemporary Art from South Africa

(24 May 96 - 18 August 96)

Www

Marian Goodman Gallery

William Kentridge´s gallery in New York
images
William Kentridge
Ubu and the Truth Commission
William Kentridge
Weighing and Wanting
William Kentridge
Felix in Exile