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Transition 10.4 (2001) 85-86

The Art of William Kentridge

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The images that accompany this essay are the work of William Kentridge, a South African artist. Born in Johannesburg in 1955, he has taught printmaking at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, studied mime at L'Ecole Jacques LeCoq in Paris, and helped to found the Junction Avenue Theatre Company and the Free Filmmakers Cooperative, both in Johannesburg.

An avowedly multimedia artist, Kentridge is a sculptor, draftsman, filmmaker, and theater director. He is perhaps best known for a series of animated films that feature an anxious white South African named Felix Teitlebaum. They include Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989), Sobriety, Obesity, and Growing Old (1991), History of the Main Complaint (1996), and Stereoscope (1999). Since 1992, he has worked in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company, creating multimedia pieces using puppetry, live acting, and animation. His theatrical works often reconsider European literary monuments from an African perspective, as with Woyzeck on the Highveld (1992), Faustus in Africa! (1995) and Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997).

Mr. Kentridge's statement is adapted from the catalog to William Kentridge, a retrospective exhibition of his works to date, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York. The exhibition opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., in March of this year, and will travel to New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Cape Town by 2003.

I am walking around my studio. Each time I stop, I am aware of myself alone in the room, but I am also aware of my peregrinations around the table. Now, if this journey of mine had been drawn or filmed, there would be a record of its different stages--an accumulation of frames, or cels.

In a drawing, each frame, or cel, could be drawn on the same sheet of paper, and the previous ones erased, so you would have a visible trace of that journey around the table. In this way, imperfect erasure emphasizes the passing of time, making visible something that is normally invisible. If someone were to walk into the room and see me standing there, the journey would be lost. In other words, there's a difference between what we see and what we know.

When we see something as a fact, rather than a process, then what we are seeing is false. For example, looking out of the window now, I can see the leafy suburbs of the north part of Johannesburg. It's not that these lush, deciduous trees aren't there; it's just that this current, factual view ignores the way this wooded suburb was created. If that was all I saw, I would be missing the small, scrubby thornbushes that were here 120 years ago, before the city was built.

I think all this fits in with my deep-rooted uncertainty about the possibility of depicting change. An object becoming another object, a state of mind becoming a different state of mind, an exterior view of the body becoming an interior X-ray--these transformations allude to the fact that things are contradictory.

* * *

A few months ago, I went to a performance by a two-person circus called Le Cirque Imaginaire. One of the acts featured a man who blew soap bubbles, ordinary soap bubbles, and then smashed each bubble with a hammer. [End Page 83]

The extraordinary thing was that when he hit each bubble, it shattered as though it were made of glass. After he'd broken fifteen or twenty of these glass bubbles, he opened his waistcoat and revealed that his left hand was holding a small bell--each time he struck one of the soap bubbles with his hammer, he hit the clapper on the bell, and the soap bubble turned to glass.

The artistry of it was in the timing, and it was extraordinary. But for the viewer, what was equally extraordinary was the power of the illusion. Even when the performer had revealed how the trick was done, the soap bubbles still seemed to turn...


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