William Kentridge

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through January 20

The vitality of his drawing was what first attracted me to the work of South African artist William Kentridge, whose short animated films, installations, and drawings are on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. In his films Kentridge makes large drawings, then changes them by adding charcoal or by erasing: dark smudges evolve into people, places, and things. Kentridge’s style is very physical–his marks are bold, his erasures broad–so as one watches the films one can feel the movement of his hand, the rhythm of his gestures. Yet the basis in drawing gives his inquiry a thoughtful provisionality. It seems that the mystery of how one searches for and captures the world out there with a pencil, a piece of charcoal, or an eraser unfolds on the screen, creating a kind of performative magic akin to music or poetry.

The delirious sensuality and immediacy of Kentridge’s moving drawings lure the viewer into something very serious: contemporary South African politics. Disappearing and reappearing are images of a corpulent, aging mine owner and of devastated landscapes with immense groups of people on the march. “Drawings for Projection,” produced between 1990 and 1994, consists of a set of very short films: Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris; Monument; Mine; Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old; and Felix in Exile. All connect a businessman, the mine owner; his wife; the artist’s double, Felix; and the literal and economic landscape of South Africa. Kentridge’s early work recalls the humanistic expressionist political language we associate with George Grosz, KŠthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, and–since Kentridge has done extensive work in the theater–Brecht. This exhibit charts his emergence from a figurative language linked to the old formulas for political organizing to a very complex postmodern statement about our experience of politics and economics.

In Mine a portly businessman looks out variously on a landscape of oil and diamond mines, a table filled with too much food, a desk, his bed. It seems Africa is invading his space–or that he’s consuming Africa. The ribbon on his adding machine takes on a life of its own and pours from its holder, looping in disorder over his desk among other office machines, ashtrays, and busts of Africans. It’s not clear whether they’re objets d’art or decapitated heads. In one sequence, a head that workers bring out of a mine explodes and reassembles itself on the desk. Kentridge makes mercilessly clear the connection between the site of the production of wealth, its management, and the human costs. A mine shaft cuts into the earth from the mine owner’s comfortable bed while the miners sleep in cramped dormitories.

I was captivated but mystified by the films when I saw them a few years ago: Kentridge’s agitprop images never create a simple distinction between oppressors and oppressed. The scope of the MCA’s retrospective, which begins with work from 1986, makes Kentridge’s unending transformations more comprehensible–and powerful. We’re never asked to side against the businessman, Soho Eckstein. Instead we’re privy to his internal disturbances, the aching loss of his wife, and later presumably of his health. Eckstein and his doubles are often naked, awkward and vulnerable, dancing or eating or supine. The erasures and layers of lines crease and shadow their flesh. Marks build up on bodies like scars or signs of age, and Kentridge’s worked and reworked portraits track his characters’ excesses and memories. When Eckstein loses his wife, the whole city of Johannesburg crumbles building by building; an intertitle reads: “Her absence filled the world.”

Vulnerable and unspeakably sad, his protagonist represents a coherent self in the midst of a chaotic world: a fish swims across the screen, a stapler turns into a cat, mine scaffolding falls like a toothpick tower, rooms fill with water, and the landscape he wants to survey changes continually. It is uncontrollable. The dusty, coal-like medium of the drawings is endlessly protean and unpredictable; the rich, Kentridge seems to imply, are in control of a phantasmagoria, created by colonialism. But permutations of these images can also be sensual and life giving: flowing water, the cat, music pouring out of gramophone horns. Since there are no beginnings and endings, just movement and metamorphoses, it seems that the literary and ideological master narratives of humanism and modernism have been swept away. Justice, authority, even history are completely unstable; in Kentridge’s world we have trouble taking a position because the ground shifts constantly.

Kentridge’s facility with many visual codes and genres and with allusions and quotations had me scrambling after coherence: the work’s simultaneous delirium and seriousness forces the viewer to participate. I thought of syncretism, the anthropological concept that implies that codes or sets of rules can be imported from one culture to another, though they’re often taken apart and adapted to the needs of the culture that receives them. Similarly, Kentridge brings together African and Western art, two antithetical aesthetic systems. Where the arts of traditional Africa are often performance based, improvisatory and participatory, the Western, centered humanist code focuses on the individual’s point of view. This conflict gives Kentridge’s work its remarkable dynamism. Watching the continual motion of drawing, erasing, and revision brings us closer to understanding a world of political, economic, and cultural transformation.

The 1999 Shadow Procession, a seven-minute film, features silhouetted images reminiscent of Bunraku, a Japanese form of puppet theater; the famous shadows in Plato’s cave; and the medieval dance of death. At the MCA, the projected image is very large–about eight by ten feet–so it has a lot of presence. Shadow figures created from torn black paper carry things, are carried, dance; they’re part human and part oil derrick, teapot, scissors, megaphone, tree. The scale of the figures changes so that they seem closer or farther away at different moments. Unlike the crowds in earlier films, they’re seen not from above, marchers in a landscape, but at ground level, as if we were within the procession. Alfred Makgalemele’s music, which begins with crowd noise and ululation, resembles the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” evoking the Christian concept of the transformation of suffering into a new social, political, and religious order. Sung in a mournful but lambent falsetto, the melody never resolves.

In this segregated city, in a state where two-thirds of the people on death row are people of color, art so clearly engaged in sorting out the aftermath of apartheid seems particularly urgent. Seeing Kentridge’s simple Shadow Procession, I no longer felt an outsider, no longer a passive observer. I was swept up in a long, mysterious march.