Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 1, 2018
Tamar Garb and Fiona Bradley, eds. William Kentridge and Vivienne Koorland: Conversations in Letters and Lines Edinburgh: The Fruitmarket Gallery, 2017. 192 pp.; 120 color ills. Hardcover $45.00 (9781908612410 )
Rosalind E. Krauss, ed. William Kentridge Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017. 208 pp.; 53 b/w ills. Paperback $22.95 (9780262533454)

Last year saw the publication of two excellent books about William Kentridge, the first of which accompanied an exhibition of his work, paired with that of fellow South African artist Vivienne Koorland, curated by Tamar Garb at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. The three met in Cape Town the mid-1970s (Koorland painted Garb’s portrait in 1977), and it was Garb’s long relationship with Kentridge and Koorland that inspired her to curate the show.

In the catalogue’s introductory essay, Garb expertly weaves together the shared themes the two artists explore in their work. She begins with a comparison of Koorland’s PAYS INCONNU and Kentridge’s Notes Towards a Model Opera, both of which are composed on maps. Koorland’s reconstruction of François Levaillant’s eighteenth-century King’s Map exchanges silk for burlap and replaces Levaillant’s animals—set in majestic poses and rendered with the scientific accuracy one would expect of an Enlightenment project—with her own versions, presented as relaxed in their environments: grazing, dozing, and casting natural shadows. From PAYS INCONNU Garb moves to Kentridge’s film, Notes Toward a Model Opera. Here, too, maps are the backdrop for a rich narrative. Model operas had their naissance in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and Kentridge transports this practice to South Africa, paying homage to its roots by interspersing maps of China with maps of Johannesburg in the background. Layered on top, South African ballerina Dada Masilo alternately twirls en pointe and dances more traditionally, partnered with guns and flags. Later she is joined by slogan-bearing men who dance the toyi toyi before being violently dispatched with splashes of ink.

Next is a transcript of a conversation between Garb and the artists. The majority of the discussion concerns Kentridge’s and Koorland’s interpretations of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, and their responses to Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah and Marcel Ophül’s The Sorrow and the Pity. Their divergent responses to others’ work attests to the tensions faced by many artists who create politically charged art. Garb neatly sums up these “differ[ing] sensibilities” when she observes, “You are engaged with similar themes, but with a kind of wicked humour, burlesque, parody, satire, irony on your part, William, and on your part, Vivienne, with a sense of the terrible, the tragic weightiness of all these phenomena of life and death” (142).

The remainder of the book consists of four brief essays. First, Joseph Leo Koerner recounts the pivotal moment when Kentridge became aware of the dual nature of life in South Africa: as a child of six, Kentridge happened upon photographs taken of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. Kentridge’s father, Sir Sydney Kentridge, was the lead attorney representing the families of those slain, and the photographs had been used as evidence that the protesters were fleeing when the police opened fire. Koerner’s essay frames both artists’ work in terms of “evidence,” aligning with Kentridge’s and Koorland’s understanding of their roles as witnesses to the horrors of apartheid. Both artists, too, create complex, multilayered works, and Koerner presents a succinct analysis of the many strata present in a single frame of Kentridge’s Felix in Exile.

Koerner’s emphasis on Kentridge’s work is balanced by Briony Fer’s essay devoted to Koorland’s De Gedanken sind frei (Thoughts Are Free), named for the German protest song. Koorland leaves traces of her reworking of the letters, words, and phrases of the song, jammed onto the right half of the painting. On the left, there is only a scatter of stars, illustrating the freedom that the crowded words boast but can share only in spirit. Fer delves into this juxtaposition of cosmic space and contained thought, suggesting that Koorland is offering a contemplation of “how thinking works, or at least what it feels like” (161). Fer describes how her own thoughts bounced from the painting, to the history of the song, to the connection between Sophie Scholl (guillotined in 1943 after singing the song outside the prison where her father was detained) and the Ulm School of Design, to the rather tenuous connection between the philosophies of that school and the nature of Koorland’s work—a dizzying, resonant description of how thought moves.

Ed Krčma’s essay, “Drawing from Damaged Life,” examines the multiple interpretations made possible by Koorland’s and Kentridge’s complex arrangements of image and text on nontraditional backgrounds. Krčma scrutinizes several of their projects, demonstrating that such complexity is integral to their work, noting: “Koorland and Kentridge share a tense relationship with [abstraction as a formal mode of art making], aware of the crucial significance of abstract art to the history of modernism and the avant-garde but maintaining a commitment to the value of referential content in their work” (168). The referential content runs the gamut from quotation to their use of carefully chosen artworks, books, and maps—all forms of cognitive abstraction that deepen and enrich a multiplicity of meanings.

In the final essay, Griselda Pollock analyzes one of Kentridge’s drawings for his film, Winterreise, before launching into a discussion of Koorland’s map paintings in terms of the mother-and-child writings of Julia Kristeva; the effects of naming and renaming places; planes versus trains; and Jean-François Lyotard’s ideas regarding sensibilité and apparitional art (like that of Beckett, Kafka, Akerman, Ettinger, and Kentridge). Pollock’s many references had this reader racing through a warren of interconnected ideas, but the result was a richly rewarding analysis of Koorland’s work.

The second book, William Kentridge, edited by Rosalind Krauss, is a researcher’s dream in which primary source material alternates with densely written essays by some of the top art historians in the field.

The collection begins with a conversation between Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and William Kentridge, in which Kentridge gives insight into his process: “You have a simple, schematic drawing which has three distinct levels of comprehension. The first level is the sensual pleasure of the charcoal, the blackness of its gleam. The second level is the evocation of a landscape, and the third level is the charcoal mark that can be read ambiguously” (12). Christov-Bakargiev asks important questions, which are refined by Kentridge’s occasional course corrections. For example, when Christov-Bakargiev remarks that “In some ways ethics is the object of your art—or maybe its subject,” Kentridge responds, “I hate the idea that my work has a clear, moral high ground from which it judges and surveys. To put it blandly, my work is about a process of drawing that tries to find a way through the space between what we know and what we see” (20). That idea recurs in nearly every essay that follows.

Next is Kentridge’s 1993 lecture, “Fortuna: Neither Program nor Chance in the Making of Image,” in which he shares the various aspects of his animation process, using Mine as an example. Describing his films as chronicles of the drawing process, a practice he describes as “more of discovery than invention,” he notes that his first “big idea” impulses rarely make it into the final product, but that “things that start in the alleys and sluices of the mind hold their own in the end” (28). While many artists might naturally make the same claim, the difference with Kentridge is that he incorporates his changes of impulse (his erasures) into the work as traces of process. He attributes these impulses to so-called Fortuna: “something other than cold statistical chance, . . . outside the range of rational control,” and compares his process of thinking-while-making to the difference between prepared speech and conversation. In the latter, there is room for unexpected connections and spontaneity, a point explored further in the next essay.

The “rock” in Rosalind Krauss’s “‘The Rock’: William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection” refers to Kentridge’s characterization of apartheid in his film Monument. In her comparison of that film and Samuel Beckett’s play, Catastrophe, Krauss assesses the connection between the two works, in both the subject matter as it relates to forms of enslavement and control, and in the idea of process, expressed in the progressive changes in Beckett’s prisoner and on Kentridge’s filmed paper. Krauss goes deeper than these superficial observations, of course, offering intensive analyses of the postmodern understanding of “automatism,” animation versus cartoons, and the nature of palimpsests. Her discussion of form and/versus content in Kentridge’s palimpsestic practice is most insightful: Krauss exposes the gap between the two in his finished work, which she describes as “the thematics of outrage and the choreography of process, with neither given dominance” (40). The result is that one can “[see] how the formal might indeed be invested by the political and how this in turn might reorganize one’s sense of the political field itself” (54). In other words, she explains just how Kentridge navigates the perilous waters surrounding “The Rock” without being smashed upon it.

Kentridge’s lecture, “In Praise of Shadows,” follows. Recalling Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Kentridge questions Plato’s premise that the shadows cast in the cave are too far removed from truth, arguing that shadows (that is, shadow plays) can offer an approach to truth that does not rely on psychological affect from the “actors.” He recounts an exercise from his theater school days in which students wore “neutral masks” that hid all facial expression, forcing students to rely on body movement to portray mood. He applies that sensibility to the challenges puppeteers face in conveying mood, when they trade the psychology of facial expression for expression through gesture. Kentridge refers to the viewer’s subsequent experience as “recognized particularity”—recognition on a visceral rather than psychological level, which he asserts is more suitable for “an understanding of huge events in the world” (73). Relatedly, Kentridge explains how the shadow cast by interlocked thumbs and fluttering fingers is two things: “a shadow of two hands with the thumbs crossed wagging, and a shadow of a bird or butterfly flapping its wings” (75). The implications of this idea are explored in considerable detail by Andreas Huyssen in the next essay.

Beginning with Shadow Procession, Huyssen discusses Kentridge’s use of shadow in terms of memory, and vice versa. Kentridge eschews the idea of memory in art appearing through direct representation either figuratively or narratively, aiming instead for a different kind of realism that consists of “indirection both in form and in content. It is a realism of recognition, of suggestive gesture, not of resemblance” (87; emphasis mine), a distinction in keeping with Kentridge’s preference for an oblique approach to the topic of apartheid. Huyssen continues his discussion of shadow and memory with concise analyses of Refusal of Time and 9 Drawings for Projection (the latter in now-familiar terms of palimpsest). He concludes by defining Kentridge’s own kind of avant-gardism, that of “the periphery,” “as a challenge to think politically through spectacularly sensuous installations that create affect both on the local and global stage,” and that “transforms the critique of modernity, which was always already part of European avant-gardism itself, for a postcolonial globalizing world” (97).

Rosalind Krauss’s second essay, “The Other Side of the Press,” discusses Kentridge’s sugar-lift prints for the opera The Nose in terms of castration, drawing parallels between the excision of the protagonist’s nose/phallus and the sugar-lift printmaking technique, with its bite of stylus and acid, and its unpredictable outcomes. Krauss also explores some of Kentridge’s other print experiments, including his work with vinyl records and graffiti and his papermaking. She concludes with her own take on the interplay of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” with Kentridge’s Shadow Procession and Portage. Portage, whose shadowy images are projected against a support of encyclopedia pages, shifts those shadows from the falsity of Plato’s cave to the rational truth of the Larousse Illustrated Encyclopedia, resulting in “the irony . . . that it was the enlightenment’s very certainty in the powers of reason that justified its colonial projection of light into the darkness of Africa” (104).

Kentridge’s essay “Landscape in a State of Siege” gives an impressionistic view of his turn to landscape drawing in the late 1980s and how his drawings differ from more romantic, picturesque renderings by others. The essay, divided into several short sections and written in Kentridge’s deceptively simple style, contains a richness of thought. He makes comparisons to landscapes from other places, from Hobbema’s Avenue of Poplars to a documentary film showing the lush forests of Poland “where some one hundred thousand people were gassed in the backs of trucks during the 1940s” (111). Kentridge’s own drawings are not deliberately meant to depict sites of human tragedy, but he acknowledges that they “are of spaces that are not natural or neutral. . . . The drawings are empirical, naturalistic. But they are approached with same sense that the landscape . . . holds within it things other than pure nature” (111, 112).

Rosalind C. Morris’s essay, “Drawing the Line at a Tree-Search: The New Landscapes of William Kentridge,” is a contemplation of Kentridge’s drawings in their joint project, Accounts and Drawings from Underground: East Rand Proprietary Mines Cash Book, 1906 (2015). Kentridge had acquired the old ledger intending to use the rich paper as support for his drawings, but Morris, an anthropologist, saw the value of its contents and insisted that the pages be photographed before Kentridge made any changes. The drawings, most based on photographs Kentridge had taken almost randomly, capture a sense of catastrophe and impending absence. Morris provides a close reading of one of them, noting that a small building and nearby slag heap are no longer extant; the building collapsed and its materials were repurposed not long after Kentridge had snapped the picture. The remainder of this sensitive essay considers the familiar themes of memory and forgetting, fragmentation and reunion, and form and content. 

In “Kentridge’s Nose,” Maria Gough offers an incisive analysis of Kentridge’s work on Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose. Kentridge directed the show and created all the visual elements. It was a massive undertaking and, as is his wont, Kentridge worked on a number of “smaller” projects at the same time. Gough discusses some of these, including I am not me, the horse is not mine, Kentridge’s own take on Nikolai Gogol’s story (which was the basis for Shostakovich’s opera), and the elegiac A Lifetime of Enthusiasms. Other highlights of her essay address Kentridge’s admiration for the Russian avant-garde, and his “invention” of a lifetime of experiences for the character of The Nose, none of which were part of the original story or any interpretation of it prior to Kentridge’s.

In the final essay, Joseph Leo Koerner and Margaret Koster Koerner refer to 2013 as “a season of Kentridge” (177). That year, it seemed one could not turn a corner in New York City without encountering something of Kentridge. The Nose was at the Metropolitan Opera, Refusal of Time filled a “roughed-up” space at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Second-hand Reading was installed at the Marian Goodman Gallery. Originally published as a review in Artforum, this short essay ends with a perceptive discussion of Kentridge’s construction of trees in the latter exhibition, a lovely grace note to close this discerning collection of writings by and about William Kentridge.

Wendy Ann Parker
PhD candidate, School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa