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The Man behind the Curtain: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Drawing
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The Man behind the Curtain:
What Cognitive Science Reveals about Drawing

The Man behind the Curtain

I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing, the contingent way that images arrive in the work, lies some kind of model of how we live our lives. The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are or how we operate in the world.

—William Kentridge

Hands play with torn scraps of paper.1 Somehow they come together to form a horse. As the thick fingers keep moving, shifting bits and pieces around, the horse is momentarily lost but reappears, again and again. We see its mane, then a leg, a tail. "I am not me, the horse is not mine," the artist tells us. It doesn't matter. We are made to find meaning in what we see. Now almost all the bits of paper are gone, only a few shards remain. We still see a horse. We can't help ourselves.

The artist pulls larger torn pieces of paper out of the air. He presses them onto the wall, where they seem to meld into one another. He moves an eraser back and forth across the now whole paper as a self-portrait appears beneath his hand. It's clear the tape is simply running backwards. The artist has first erased, then torn up, a drawing, and now he's showing this in reverse. It doesn't matter that we know how the trick is done. If anything our understanding seems to add to its wondrous magic: the artist has pulled his own image out of thin air. In this film, "Invisible Mending,"2 he has satisfied our deep desire to see something broken made whole.

William Kentridge is a magician who wants us to see the man behind the curtain. He welcomes us in. The very crudeness of his materials—torn paper, thick charcoal, and blunt eraser—exposes his tricks while at the same [End Page 1] time intensifying our pleasure. The catalog to a recent retrospective of his work includes a DVD with raw source material from his animated films, paired with excerpts from those films. It shows live footage of the actual hotels, cabanas, people, and cattle on the beach near Capetown, South Africa, that inspired the poetic elegy "Tide Table."3

"Tide Table" was unscripted, Kentridge tells us. He felt his way through the images as they emerged in the process of drawing. The diverse characters "wandered onto the scene in quite a blind way, and the hope is there are meetings and recognitions once they are there."4 And we, his audience, feel our way along with the artist. We recognize in his work the ways we all grope in the dark for shards of meaning in our own lives, finding patterns within partial and fragmented experiences of the world around us.

Cognitive scientists explain that everything we know, we know through our bodies, which were designed by evolution to enable us to survive under an enormous range of conditions.5 Analogy—comparing current situations with past experiences—is a primary tool we use to navigate the environments in which we find ourselves. We explore the possible intentions and emotions of others by imagining ourselves in their place, literally simulating their actions in our own minds.6 Kentridge is able to engage this visceral response through his work. We feel for the old man in the beach chair in "Tide Table," recalling his youth on that same beach. We share his pleasure when he finally gets up to pick up a stone and skip it over the waves.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have revealed that visually perceiving a thing in the world, or simply imagining that thing lights up the same part of the brain.7 Harvard neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn explains that the brain doesn't care whether what we see is "real" or "imagined." As we watch Kentridge perform and reveal his tricks in front of our eyes, we experience a deep sense of empathy with smudges of charcoal and eraser marks. We don't care whether we are simply looking at charcoal smudges: we see...