William Kentridge

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Description

Artist: William Kentridge
Title: Four Soho Eckstein Films: Johannesburg – Second Greatest City after Paris; Monument; Mine; Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (4 works)                                                                   Year: 1989 – 1991
Medium: Laser disk, pal format

Biography

Kentridge makes short animation films from large-scale drawings in charcoal and pastel on paper. Each drawing, which contains a single scene, is successively altered through erasing and redrawing and photographed in 16 or 35mm film at each stage of its evolution. Remnants of successive stages remain on the paper, and provide a metaphor for the layering of memory which is one of Kentridge’s principal themes. The films in this series, titled Drawings for Projection(see Tate T07482T07484-5 and T07479-81), are set in the devastated landscape south of Johannesburg where derelict mines and factories, mine dumps and slime dams have created a terrain of nostalgia and loss. Kentridge’s repeated erasure and redrawing, which leave marks without completely transforming the image, together with the jerky movement of the animation, operate in parallel with his depiction of human processes, both physical and political, enacted on the landscape.

Monument is Kentridge’s second film in the series and explores his feelings of ambivalence about the privileges and comforts of the white South African society into which he was born. It was made from a basis of eleven drawings and is accompanied by music composed by Edward Jordan. Soho Eckstein, wealthy real estate developer, here assumes the guise of civic benefactor and erects a monument to the black South African work force, from whose labour his wealth is derived. The monument is a huge statue of an anonymous African workman. During the ceremony of unveiling the monument, in the first half of the film, the statue comes to life. Slowed by the enormous burden on his shoulders, he makes his way across the outskirts of the city, before disappearing into the distant landscape. As both product and embodiment of nature, he represents the moral dilemma at the core of Soho’s empire and, by analogy, that of the white South African élite. Soho may feel sufficient gratitude towards the anonymous multitudes labouring for his luxury to build a monument in tribute to their work, but if in this act of recognition they become human, he must acknowledge their suffering and his abuse of them. For Kentridge, abuse of the populace runs parallel to exploitation of the land, as the second half of the film makes clear by the proliferation of billboards, lamp posts, loud-speakers, microphones and other bleak geometric forms appearing throughout the gradually expanding urban landscape.

 

Kentridge’s drawings for his films are often regarded as palimpsests. A palimpset is the word for a manuscript where the original text has been erased and overwritten (a practice common before paper was available and when parchment was expensive). In Kentridge’s work, the sheet of paper becomes the locus for layer upon layer of images that evolve and shift, where the earlier states of the drawing exist only through traces intentionally left on the paper. In the film, these traces help intensify the movement of his figures, but also visually remark upon the process as a physical interaction of charcoal and eraser on paper.

The palimpsest quality to Kentridge’s approach is one that many critics and historians have associated with his reaction to growing up during a turbulent and shifting period in South African history. Apartheid, legalized racial discrimination, dominated South African governance and society from 1948 until 1994. One way Kentridge has made overt reference to the atrocities of apartheid in his “Drawings for Projection” series is through the one pre-determined facet of these narratives: an established “cast” featuring the wealthy white real-estate developer and industrialist Soho Eckstein. Eckstein represents the authoritative oppressors ruling over black South Africans.

 

In the 1990 film Monument, for example, Eckstein unveils a heroic monument showing a black worker struggling to carry a load of pristine marble objects. An ostensibly commemorative sculpture to the efforts of South Africans is revealed later to be an actual living person, not a sculpture. Racial discrimination is starkly reduced to the contrast between the “sculpted” worker’s body and the white classically-styled load he bears.

In the 1991 film, Mine, a similar contrast is presented between Eckstein’s white bed coverings and tray as he enjoys coffee, and the grueling, dank conditions of the mines that Eckstein owns. The two are linked visually by the downward action of the French-press coffee maker that becomes the elevator within the mines.  Such contrasts seem intentionally provocative, both formally and thematically. Yet Kentridge admits that the decision to have the coffee plunger become the elevator shaft was another example of fortuna, inspired simply from the fact he had that type of coffee maker in his studio that day.

 

A critical event linked to the legal dissolution of apartheid in the 1990s was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Commission was a five year investigation into the crimes and human rights abuses committed under apartheid from 1960 until May 10, 1994. The results of the investigation, broadcast on South African television, were intended to bring to light crimes committed and the breadth of the structure of racism and disenfranchisement.

Although Kentridge’s process was established several years before the Commission, scholars like Jessica Dubow and Ruth Rosengarten have linked the palimpsest quality of Kentridge’s “Drawings for Projection” with the contradictory nature of the Commission: although the broadcasts intended to reveal atrocities, they also established that the harrowing acts revealed were firmly “in the past” and therefore not reflective of the dawn of a post-apartheid South Africa. Dubow and Rosengarten suggest that Kentridge’s palimpsest technique is reminiscent of the Commission’s attempts to show—but also remove—traces of apartheid and that Kentridge’s “finished” drawings similarly do not fully reveal everything that went into making them. The documentation of every stage of the drawing is only seen in the animated film, hence the reason the drawings and the films are intrinsically related and should not be separated.

William Kentridge, Drawing for the film “Mine,” 1991 © William Kentridge

William Kentridge, Drawing for the film “Monument,” 1990 © William Kentridge