New York

William Kentridge, Shadow Procession, 1999, still from a black-and-white 35 mm film, 7 minutes.

William Kentridge, Shadow Procession, 1999, still from a black-and-white 35 mm film, 7 minutes.

William Kentridge

William Kentridge’s first American retrospective opened with a recent film, Shadow Procession, that seemed to ironize the South African artist’s meteoric critical rise in the last decade. The 1999 work records a succession of jerry-built figures in silhouette, which are projected on a wall at the entrance to the show like the fleeting animals conjured by moonlight on the walls of our childhood bedrooms. To enter the exhibition was to allow one’s own shadow to fall in with the phantom procession, and the film’s sound track at times made this entrance like joining some kind of popular festival, a cartoon people’s parade. But the celebration was fully ambiguous. Was the procession really akin to a festival, or did the music connote the organized joy of a nationalist march? At times the sound track became mournful, and the entire valence of the parade shifted, so that it evoked less a celebration than the misery of forced migration, the relentless entropy that accompanies the conditions of displacement and exile.

Like the retrospective itself, Kentridge’s work exists under the sign of exile. It is there in the diasporic history summoned by the Jewish names—Soho Eckstein, Felix Teitlebaum—of the South African characters in the “Drawings for Projection,” 1989-. It is there as well in the mythic references that recur in many of these films, such as the recent suite of works inspired by the wanderings of Odysseus. And it is there in Kentridge’s titles, of which the prime example is Felix in Exile. Throughout most of this 1994 film, the perennially naked Felix Teitlebaum muses in a derelict hotel room, far removed from the strife of his homeland. This room, however, replicates a founding image of modernism: the 1915 Petrograd exhibition “0.10,” where Kasimir Malevich’s iconoclastic Black Square was unveiled. Felix rests for long periods in the infamous wooden chair—utilitarian yet forlorn—that was situated beneath Black Square. And Kentridge replicates the painting’s equally infamous installation, positioning one of his represented drawings near the ceiling, hung across a corner of the room. Once upon a time, at the moment of modernism, such a gesture signaled a secure progression toward an identifiable end: The avant-garde work of art would invade the sculptural zone of the relief, halfway along a path from the wall-bound virtuality of painting to the three-dimensional social reality of architecture. And at another moment—not so long ago—artists emerging from the painterly practices of early Minimalism were compelled to follow a similar progression, a march called in the then-new critical terminology the shift “from work to frame.” The “progression” and the sense of an inevitable direction have faded away. But the crucial questions for the work of art today arise again from its expulsion into a space between the mediums of art.

Kentridge occupies this interspace precisely, far from the “confusion of mediums” lamented by Clement Greenberg before the onset of the corrective that was modernism. Far too from “assemblage” or what was called “intermedia.” Rosalind Krauss’s notion that Kentridge is one of a series of artists involved today in “inventing” a new medium lies closest to the precision of his work, yet Krauss’s schema—even considering its embrace of that form of hybridity she calls the “self-differing medium”—potentially misses the specificity with which advanced art today occupies a space between mediums, allowing Kentridge’s work to be compared with a host of other contemporary projects: Gabriel Orozco’s situation of his practice between sculpture and photography; Liisa Roberts’s creation of 16 mm films that she baptizes “sculpture”; Sam Taylor-Wood’s production of cinematic photographs or video-inflected films. Kentridge’s “Drawings for Projection” go even further, however. They lie not just between drawing and cinema: His 1990 film Monument, for instance, focuses on a represented example of sculpture; and, inasmuch as its scenario is derived from Samuel Beckett’s play Catastrophe, Kentridge’s deep involvement in theater surfaces as well.

Drawing, film, sculpture, theater, even photography: A new type of image lies between these domains of specificity, and Kentridge’s work is most successful when he finds ways to interweave these zones formally rather than merely represent them thematically. For instance, in a suite of recent films—Ubu Tells the Truth, 1997; WEIGHING . . . and WANTING, 1998; Stereoscope, 1999—Kentridge has taken recourse to a form of film editing called a “wipe,” a transition in which one scene slides across its predecessor, chasing it from view like a wave washing across the sand at the edge of the sea. This rather dated cinematic convention is echoed in the artist’s self-proclaimed “stone age” techniques (i.e., the nervous panning from side to side across a large storyboard) and, most obviously, in the incessant, wavering erasures at the basis of his graphic process, a more primordial form of “wiping.” Binding film and drawing in this way, Kentridge mines an interspace that often provides the moments of highest tension in his art: Glimpses of actual film footage spliced into the drawn animation of Ubu Tells the Truth show up, for example, at moments of extreme violence and blinding explosions. And indeed, figured as a mode of exile, Kentridge’s interspace is anything but a realm of ungrounded freedom and escape. In Medicine Chest, 2000—a new type of three-dimensional work that expands on a scene from Felix in Exile—Kentridge rear-projects a film inside an actual medicine cabinet, itself a cross between domestic readymade, sculpture, and mere theatrical prop. The projection builds to a sequence depicting a bird attempting to fly free of the cabinet’s inner confines. Bouncing repeatedly off each of the screen’s framing edges, the bird escapes nothing, managing only to fill the space with a monochromatic haze, the erased remnants of its animated flight. It was another, different kind of Black Square. It was one of the most beautiful images I have ever seen.

George Baker is a frequent contributor to Artforum.