Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 31, 2018
Jane Taylor William Kentridge: Being Led by the Nose Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 165 pp.; 71 color ills.; 6 b/w ills. Hardcover $35.00 (9780226791203)

Jane Taylor, friend and longtime collaborator of William Kentridge, examines the artistic process behind Kentridge’s 2010 production of the Russian opera The Nose, which was based on Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 short story of the same name and composed by Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich in 1928. As Taylor tells us, the book is less about the production of the opera and more about the making of it. In other words, she is interested in examining how the artist deals with making as a problem-solving operation as well as the operations that happen between head and hand in the course of Kentridge’s making. Using a tongue-in-cheek approach, Taylor divides the book into a prologue and five chapters, with titles thematically driven by the nose/The Nose.

Taylor grounds her study in the history of the opera’s composer and the Soviet cultural experiment of the early to mid-twentieth century. For her it is important to show the connections between Stalinist ideological underpinnings and the situation in South Africa from the 1960s to the present day. She argues that doing so historically and intellectually locates Kentridge’s engagement with Suprematism and Constructivism in the production of The Nose. Chapter 1, “Nasal Passages,” tells Shostakovich’s story as an artist under Stalin’s rule in painstaking detail. Shostakovich, a major composer and musician of the twentieth century, was a prolific artist despite the pressures of governmental imposition. He was under constant suspicion for being avant-garde and formalist, and his work was routinely censored. He was in constant fear of being arrested, so much so that he is said to have taken to sleeping in his stairwell at night to spare his family the trauma of seeing him arrested in the event that he was. As Taylor argues, “This texture of living with menace formed and deformed Shostakovich’s creative life” (23).

In addition to composing a number of symphonies and concerti, and, of course, The Nose, Shostakovich wrote over one hundred film scores. He used more of a dialectical approach to his compositional technique, pushing the boundaries of cinematic sound by disrupting “the naturalized relation between image and sound” (28). Taylor uses this aspect of the composer’s history to speculate on Kentridge’s own pushing of the boundaries between cinema and theater through his use of animations and projections in the production of The Nose. This is an issue that is raised again in chapter 5 in relation to Kentridge’s own dialectical approach to his practice, no doubt a result, in part, of cultural conditions in South Africa.

Much like in Shostakovich’s Soviet Union, Kentridge’s South Africa during apartheid saw artists denounced for formalism, not by the governing party but by the cultural activists of the antiapartheid movement spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC). Experimental work was deemed too bourgeois, too intellectually demanding, and culturally alienating. Hence, there was a push within certain quarters of the antiapartheid movement for what amounted to social realism, deemed more accessible to the people. By the end of apartheid, the politicization of culture continued; voices within the freedom movement sought to determine what was good art and encouraged artists to follow these diktats. Good art was, of course, politically aligned with the liberation struggle. Kentridge, it could be suggested, has had to deal with this expectation in his practice in recent decades. Taylor traces the ways that Kentridge explores what she calls the “dialogue between formal and political questions through his interpretation of the production” (35).

In chapter 2, “Nose Bleeds,” Taylor takes stock of the crucial works that came out of Kentridge’s pre-production on The Nose. She does this by listing the large-scale commissions he worked on during the time he was in preproduction. These are, as it were, the titular “nose bleeds.” Her intent in this chapter is not to merely list the works that the making of The Nose itself made or inspired, but rather to argue that Kentridge’s process is deeply involved in the act of making. The underlying argument here is that Kentridge works through creative problems by making things in number.

Chapter 3, “A Special Theory of Relativity,” is dedicated to a nuanced discussion about relationality as aesthetic and intellectual ground that Kentridge spends considerable time covering in his film Other Faces (2011). Taylor argues that the concept of relation structures the film through the artist’s “Drawings for Projection” made with charcoal that Kentridge erases and draws over in the course of filming. In her study of these scenes of confrontation between white and black South African men, families in the domestic sphere, and black nannies with their charges, Taylor argues that through his editing technique, Kentridge draws a comparison between the family romance drama and the colonial drama. “Each is political, each is psychological, in that both serve the solipsism of the self and its obligations to its others” (102).

In chapter 4, “Object Lessons,” Taylor takes the opportunity to expand more on the dialogic (though not in the Bakhtinian sense), an ongoing theme of her book. Acknowledging that the dialogic is also about the relationship between a subject and its objects, Taylor homes in on Kentridge’s relationship to his drawings as an artist and as a filmmaker. She examines what she considers to be Kentridge’s own dialogical creative process, which she argues involves Kentridge the artist and Kentridge the critical filmmaker. Her point of entry is Kentridge’s Stereoscope (1999), a film about a tycoon character named Soho Eckstein—one of Kentridge’s stock figures—that features doubled scenes, mimicking the effects of a Victorian stereoscope. The doubling of Eckstein, Taylor argues, relates to The Nose in that “the divided self is at the heart of The Nose” (127); this division continues to be central to Kentridge’s interpretation of Shostakovich’s opera and was a core aspect of his previous stereoscopic experiments. In the final chapter, “Collegiate Assessments,” Taylor invites us to consider Kentridge’s rendition of The Nose once it has been produced and performed. Once again, Taylor calls our attention to the dialectic at play in Kentridge’s work, both between his film and theater work as well as between his films and projections and the three-dimensional sets on stage. As Taylor argues, the dialectic is central to Kentridge’s creative practice.

William Kentridge: Being Led by the Nose is an ambitious attempt at conceptual writing. Taylor uses the dialogue as a motif to theoretically guide her study. She opens the first chapter with an excerpt from a dialogue between her and Kentridge and excerpts such as this appear throughout the book. Further, Taylor works hard to match her original arguments to her ambitions. While not every chapter features dialogue, per se, she manages to emphasize the dialogical aspects of the subject matter at hand. For example, in chapter 1, Taylor emphasizes the relationships between Shostakovich and Stalin as well as Shostakovich and his music. Taylor covers much territory in terms of Kentridge’s oeuvre, going into great detail about specific key works that she argues either directly or indirectly influenced the production of The Nose. Her close readings of these films and drawings provide us with a comprehensive understanding of the artist’s aesthetic and intellectual project. Taylor provides us with over seventy beautiful reproductions of Kentridge’s work, all of them serve to illustrate her key arguments.

The book’s limitations, such as they are, are in part linked to its highlights. As it is structured by the dialogue and opens with an excerpt from an exchange between the author and the artist/subject of the book, one would hope to find more of these excerpts throughout. While they do indeed dot the book, there are simply not enough of them. These gems are one of the primary examples of why only Taylor could have written this book. As a close friend and collaborator of Kentridge, she has access to him and therefore the distinct benefit of time and proximity to engage in any number of interviews with him for the book. The relatively frugal use of Taylor/Kentridge dialogue appears to be a missed opportunity. Additionally, there were copious footnotes in the book, some of which took up entire pages. While most of them were elucidating, many of them seemed unnecessary. Nevertheless, scholars and fans of Kentridge alike will find Taylor’s study of the artist’s creative process an important contribution to the ongoing discussions about this South African artist. Taylor’s book is a great addition to the recent literature that has come out on Kentridge, including: Tamar Garb, Briony Fer, Joseph Leo Koerner, Ed Krčma, and Griselda Pollock, William Kentridge, Vivenne Koorland: Conversations in Letters and Lines (Edinburgh: Fruitmarket Gallery, 2016); Rosalind Krauss, ed., William Kentridge (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017); and Leora Maltz-Leca, William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).

crystal am nelson
Postdoctoral Fellow, Penn State University