New York, San Diego

William Kentridge

The Drawing Center/Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

The story of South Africa in the twentieth century is the story of apartheid. The political turmoil and tragic consequences of that oppressive system haunt the work of South African artist William Kentridge. “I have never tried,” the artist has said, “to make illustrations of apartheid, but the drawings and films are certainly spawned by and feed off the brutalized society left in its wake.” Kentridge’s art entails submitting a handful of his sensuous, black-and-white charcoal drawings (usually twenty or so) to a succession of erasures and additions, altering and transforming each work multiple times as he photographs them. The result is loosely narrative films consisting of dreamlike images. Through the animation process, people metamorphose into landscapes and everyday things appear and disappear, mutate into other objects, or become abstract forms. Music and onomatopoeic sounds accompany these“ silent movies,” creating compelling visual poems, emotionally and psychologically charged ruminations on the world left behind in the aftermath of apartheid.

This year, New York’s Drawing Center hosted Kentridge’s Felix in Exile, 1993, and History of the Main Complaint, 1996, while San Diego’s downtown MoCA space presented Weighing and Wanting, 1997, his seventh and most recent video, along with the suite of drawings that were the basis for the film. (The latter video was also recently shown in a group exhibition at Barbara Gladstone.) As in his other films, Felix and History depict two starkly contrasting characters. Soho Eckstein, a cigar-smoking industrialist in a pinstripe suit, apparently represents the greedy, corrupt, oppressive element of South African society, while Felix—who somewhat resembles the artist and always appears psychologically vulnerable and literally naked—is a pensive silent witness to the film’s narrative journey. In Felix, Kentridge introduces a third character, Nandi—a black, female surveyor we first encounter making a sketch of the land on paper. Throughout the film, Nandi closely scrutinizes the various proceedings with the help of a theodolite. This conceit is bound up with two others: Felix sitting alone in his room in the city, holding a suitcase from which escape pages of paper that transform themselves into landscapes and events as they fly into the air; and black corpses bearing wounds and oozing blood, lying in the landscape as sheets of paper flutter down from above, covering the bodies until they merge with and disappear into the ground.

It’s as though paper has become a metaphor for the moment of transition that Kentridge and his country are experiencing. Where paper had been the currency of exchange (business contracts, money, newspapers) in pre-apartheid South Africa, it now stands for the failure and dissolution of the old world, a metaphor for hiding the brutality and dirty secrets of the past. The flow of water—another significant element in the film—seems to function as both purifier and sanitizer of the old world and a way to sweep aside memories and events that should never be forgotten.

The same themes of loss, powerlessness, and dislocation are compellingly explored in Weighing and Wanting. Here the narrative loosely concerns a love affair that violently destroys itself at one moment, only to come together again in the next. The film hovers in an ambivalent space where Soho finds himself incapable of choosing between the public world of business and the private world of love and intimacy. In one segment, he rests his head in a woman’s lap, which suddenly dissolves into a cold, strident, ringing telephone. The film juggles various dilemmas—love or money? sex or affection? togetherness or solitude?—in a turbulent sea of flux in which elements of the exterior world blur and merge into the interior world of the body (in the form of a recurring MRI scan) and where landscapes populated by industrial structures fade into empty wastelands. The title, taken from the message left on biblical King Belshazzar’s wall (“ You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, for you have not humbled your heart before God, so your kingdom has come to an end”), resonates clearly with the downfall of the South African regime, which in turn implicates the greed and corruption of Soho.

Ultimately, Kentridge’s fascination lies less with the essence of events than with their residue, and all three films explore questions of identity in a world whose familiar coordinates have been upset and where people’s standing is no longer certain. The films always return us to the shadows, a place of uncertainty, even when they contemplate the familiar. Here the landscape is an eternal stranger, and the estranged figures who inhabit it are merely part of this illusory world.

Even though we know the terrain evoked by Kentridge’s films is Johannesburg ( where the artist has lived his entire forty-two years) and the country is South Africa, the territory is ultimately unlocatable. And, as in dreams, we go down shadowy trails without quite knowing where we are. Perhaps we aren’t meant to. Perhaps we should just allow these places to be, let the unconscious do its dance with the memories and fragments of history. At the same time we must never forget.

Rosetta Brooks contributes frequently to Artforum.