William Kentridge and the Benefits of Doubt

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William Kentridge and the Benefits of Doubt
  3/2/14 9:16 AMDaniel Bosch: Wily Ants | berfroisPage 1 of 16http://www.berfrois.com/2012/05/daniel-bosch-wily-ants/ Economics Environment Politics Science World History Interviews Opinion Contributors  William Kentridge and The Benefits of Doubt May 24, 2012   Self-portrait,  William Kentridge, 1988  by Daniel Bosch He had started the series from inside Plato’s cave, so when William Kentridge launched his sixthand final Charles Eliot Norton Lecture with a retelling of the story of Perseus, he gave familiarthings back to his audience—the myth itself, and art’s gesture of circling toward srcin at closure.The return to ancient Greece, to foundational metaphors and myths, exemplified Kentridge’sinsistence on reconfiguration and reworking, on the recognition of objects we have finished with,and yet cannot help taking up again. But this particular do-over also expressed Kentridge’s   Robyn Ferrell:EvadedCommodificationis Passé    Art & Letter Daily    2  You may also like : (WORLD) >Some classics re-emerged.Baldessari re-interpreted his1977 video event of ‘SixColourful Inside Jobs’ that paidhomage to a legendary art srcinin Sol Le Witt’s work by payingpainters to repaint the roomcontinuously in a changingpalette of colours. In the Abramovic room, her 1997classic performance‘Luminosity’, of a nude womanpoised on a bicycle seat, wasrestaged using a roster of paidperformers.>> HOME ARCHIVE LITERATURE ARTS & CULTURE POETRY PHILOSOPHY GOODIES THEMES    3/2/14 9:16 AMDaniel Bosch: Wily Ants | berfroisPage 2 of 16http://www.berfrois.com/2012/05/daniel-bosch-wily-ants/ deeply-held resistance to Fate. Choosing a conclusion that was in part a starting over, Kentridgesuggested an antipathy to his own trajectory, an aversion to his fated return to the studio and the work that earned him the podium in Sanders Theatre.For Kentridge, the Perseus story is a crucial site of frustration, a fructifying crux in his yet-to-be written bildungsroman . He remembers hearing the myth read aloud by his father in a traincompartment. (See locomotive and linked car after linked car—like copies of each other—chuggingacross the South African landscape, a foundational text of European civilization not quite baggageand not quite freight.) What about the myth exasperated young William? The urgent playing outof a gazillion contingencies in the lives of King Acrisius and his grandson, such that when Perseuslaunches his discus it lands, as it must, on his grandfather, who is disguised in sack-cloth andashes and who has no idea where Perseus is at the moment he is killed by his grandson—after all.Such fate drives young William bonkers! In spite of human desire, thought, effort, and passion,the hero’s fate is—after all—sealed.Kentridge’s lectures, called  Six Drawing Lessons,  demonstrated how his practices and hisprinciples continue to draw on this resistance to fate. Is the Universe fated to move toward greaterand greater disorder? Then, says Kentridge, I can get up every day and make espresso and pushscraps of black paper (each was once a piece of a perfect rectangle) across a clean, white ground; Ican record on film images of a woman throwing an over-sized mocked-up book against a wall—and then play the record in reverse, to fix an axis of symmetry and appreciate her as a palindrome;I can mark white paper with charcoal, walk away, and come back to erase that mark and makeanother; I can enumerate once again the major indigenous uprisings against South Africa’scolonial power, as if they had been slated for a permanent forgetting; I can lecture on one sub-topic while film projected on a screen behind me depicts my own boredom with that discourse, orstares at a stubbornly blank pair of pages; I can orate on the common physical gestures associated with oratory while I perform those gestures; I can compare the ramification of electricity in a boltof lightning to the ramification of trees’ limbs and roots. I can get up every day and make espressoin my studio and under its influence I can put things in order, and undo them, and put them into aslightly different order. I can put on black pants and a white shirt and I can make my art and sodoing I can introduce into entropy bits of order. I can make my art that fails, most of the time, asall art must, because that is my fate and because my fate includes how I must resist it.It will be an art historian of the future who ponders whether or not such a profound resistance tofate is more or less interesting because it informs the work a young white South African who livedto see his country, which had been written on black in white, revolutionized, re-imagined, re-organized, re-started, its remarkable pieces revised, re-used, re-purposed. That art historian willhave in  Six Drawing Lessons  a place to begin to seek an answer to the question, a place to returnto when energies must be renewed. But  Six Drawing Lessons  won’t surrender answers willingly.They are more rebus than dissertation, their verbal and visual elements are ambiguous and poly- vocal. Fated to give six lectures, William Kentridge made six works of art, or one work of art in six  3/2/14 9:16 AMDaniel Bosch: Wily Ants | berfroisPage 3 of 16http://www.berfrois.com/2012/05/daniel-bosch-wily-ants/ movements. Art historians like Benjamin Buchloh maintain that Kentridge takes up obsolete means of artproduction, and they rather grudgingly acknowledge that when his work is good its achievementcomes at too high cost. Over 6 weeks in March and April Kentridge showed the form of the lectureitself to be obsolete. Yet over the course of his six trips to the podium, he showed us that thelecture’s fate is not so dire as he each week induced us—for seventy minutes at a stretch—to believe. Myths of slaying gorgons aside, there is only a very little heroism in smudging charcoal, in walking across a studio floor to snap the shutter twice; and returning to the paper mounted on the wall. But sometimes the man smudged with ashes is an animator, and sometimes the animator isa king. When e.e. cummings gave the Norton Lectures sixty years ago, he called them “non-lectures,” butthat did not mean that his presentations were continuous with his poetry—they srcinated fromthe prose world; they explicated, they argued, they expounded. Now William Kentridge has failedto lecture in a new way. I went to the first of the  Six Drawing Lessons  thinking, that in spite of athousand disappointments, I more or less like  lectures. Now I will never again sit through any such thing without recalling what happened six times in Sanders Theatre, when Kentridgeassembled so many fascinating, uneven, contingent, obvious, powerful, and sometimes logically flimsy but still convincing moments in works that constantly open up new topics, constantly return to and re-work topics animated moments or centuries before. He showed us how hisdoubtful practices work; I know he is only a series of still pictures in a zoetrope, but when hespinned it Kentridge sprinted, rolled, disappeared, and reappeared, always with his theme thrustan arm’s length above his head in victory or stuffed folded into his back pocket. Kentridge refusedto give the Norton Lectures as he has refused to accept fate: by cleaving to his limited but realstrengths, by not running away from what has been decreed. Kentridge tossed Plato’s cave into theair, and it fell to earth as Perseus’ discus, and he was there to catch it.• William Kentridge is justly famed for his charcoal drawing, print-making, animation, film-making, theatrical direction, production design, and kinetic sculpture. Born in 1955, the son of aprominent South African civil-rights lawyer, Kentridge’s work in such media has followed theprincipal arcs of history in his native country. His command of his tools has enabled him toconstruct objects that respond intimately to particular moments in the struggle to end apartheid, yet at the same time to express universal ideals of justice, grief, and hope. Some years in thefuture, a retrospective view of Kentridge’s work will show him to hold a place with regard to South African visual art similar to that held by W.B. Yeats with regard to 19 th  and 20 th  century poetry and Ireland. Both artists’ works span two centuries and two eras; both artist’s works embracehuman suffering, political turmoil, and great joy.His  Six Drawing Lessons  were read from a notebook that was also a score anchored to a  3/2/14 9:16 AMDaniel Bosch: Wily Ants | berfroisPage 4 of 16http://www.berfrois.com/2012/05/daniel-bosch-wily-ants/ particular work of his making. According to its choreography he moved from the podium to otherparts of the stage which represented different modes of thought; he gesticulated (while callingattention to and making fun of some of the communicative expectations created by his gestures);he referred to images projected on a large screen that both colluded with and contradicted him(many such images timed to arrive with particular motions he made); he had arguments with hiscritic-doppelganger—on film—over the qualities of his drawings and his verbal discourses; like aconsummate juggler, Kentridge kept adding ball after ball. The rapt audience wondered: can hehandle another? (Can we  handle another?) And where will he draw it from? From Kentridge’sdeep pockets he tossed philosophy, politics, physical comedy, social justice, physics and family reminiscences into orbit, without dropping a single element. Though there are a thousandmoments I could single out to try to give you a sense of how the Six Drawing Lessons proceeded,let me give you a single example of the deliberately oblique but amazingly strong connectivity thatcharacterized these works.In the closing moments of lesson one, Kentridge spoke as we watched the projected image of akinetic sculpture rotate on its vertical axis, from which sprouted a bouquet of dark matter,fragments of black paper or metal or plastic or charcoal. As these fragments moved in their orbits,fixed by armature wire about that axis, their silhouettes seemed, momentarily, to combine, tocome unglued, and then to recombine in greater forms, each haunting, suggestive, butinarticulate. Quite quickly we understood that the rotating axis of the sculpture, though it stayedin one place, was headed somewhere, fated for some destiny. And voila!  Precisely as Kentridge fellsilent, the black elements in motion on the screen slowly passed their mark, then gently rotated backward into place, the place, so that we could see, finally, how his carefully disposed fragmentscame together to make a whole—in this case a drawing of a manual typewriter. (Kentridge hadreminded us moments before that such machines, metonyms for the development of masscommunication in the late 19 th  century and its explosion in the 20 th , were built in the samefactories where the Remington corporation had made the rifles used in U.S. Civil war.) Theinitially incomprehensible—the in-motion, the fragmentary, the disjointed—had come, in its time,to rest, at representation and thus recognition. It was a bravura gesture, an admonition toremember the distorting and defining powers of perspective, anamorphosis, and point of view.That small sculpture’s storied movement from kinesis to stasis is a ready allegory for a score of human behaviors, not the least of which is the artistic process, which begins with the raw ore of individual experience and emotion and ends, under the auspices of form and technique, withconcentrated power and energy, with object fuel others can burn—a work. (Kentridge’s career-long fidelity to charcoal participates in this same allegory.) Yet earlier Kentridge had proposed afascinating and more tenuous parallel, the notion of a Universal Archive preserved—at the speedof light—by photons departing Earth. In his kinetic sculpture, a single axis is the rotating center of fragments at a fixed distance from that center. Likewise, Kentridge proposed, the rotating Earthmight also be the center from which a diaspora of fragmentary images has departed—the  3/2/14 9:16 AMDaniel Bosch: Wily Ants | berfroisPage 5 of 16http://www.berfrois.com/2012/05/daniel-bosch-wily-ants/ countless photons associated with each and every event in the history (and prehistory) of theplanet. Using literary events from the history of English poetry, just to narrow our scope, such anarchive might be figured in the following diagram, where it is understood that the greater thedistance from Earth, the further back in time is the srcin of the photonic “trace” of the historicalevent.Thus every  event not completely enveloped by darkness (is there any event so thoroughly shadowed?) is in some sense preserved, and in some imaginary sense, remains observable to aneye (or “I”) that could put itself in the right place. (A place, in the case of the light present at thedrawing of Beowulf, some 1200 light years from Earth, and still moving!) “Once launched,” saysKentridge, “an image cannot be called back.” From the perspective of the Sun, then, the Earth ispainted in the impossibly tiny shadows of every event which has occurred on it—our time is bathed in Borgesian light. With the closure of his first lesson, Kentridge suggested that from somefantastical and ideal viewing distances, perhaps, events in history and in our own lives make akind of sense as compelling and satisfying as that felt when the kinetic image of a typewriterclicked silently into place. A typewriter is, however, a beginning place, a tool, hardly the end-point of an artistic process. ForKentridge, art is the richer when it is suggestive rather than dictatorial, when the image and the word are always already “awaiting (their) deformation,” when the object is actively completed by the viewer/listener, rather than delivered as a hermetically sealed—fated—whole. He writes with both light and shadow, and insists on the moment of eclipse as the moment that makes certainkinds of sight possible.
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