San Francisco

William Kentridge

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

CAROLINE WALKER BYNUM RAISES an interesting question in her 2005 book, Metamorphosis and Identity: “Were medieval werewolves really metempsychosis?” Metempsychosis is the transmigration of the soul from one animal to another, and odd as the question seems in thinking about the South African artist William Kentridge, it has a curious resonance with this survey, recently on view in San Francisco, precisely because there is a single essence that inhabits his every theme and leap from medium to medium—whether drawing, animation, installation, sculpture, or opera—and that is the ruthlessness, or should I say the wolf, of change.

Mark Rosenthal, the adjunct curator of contemporary art at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, who curated “William Kentridge: Five Themes” (which, having made a recent stop in Fort Worth, travels over the next two years to West Palm Beach, New York, Paris, Vienna, Jerusalem, and Amsterdam), sees an episodic spirit in Kentridge, an obsessive, worrying, comic agent of humanity. His organization of the artist’s production over the past thirty years captures Kentridge’s evolving facility as his hand becomes more fluent and the emotional sweep of the work comes to balance barbarity and tenderness with increasing eloquence and lightness, though always holding the mournful gravity of a eulogist—however Beckett-like a speaker of endgames and pratfalls he may be.

The five themes of Kentridge’s show include the artist in his studio; the tale of his alter egos Soho Eckstein, the harsh South African industrialist, and Felix Teitelbaum, the lover and poetic man of the senses; the violent character Ubu and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed after the collapse of apartheid; the miniature theaters and related works centered around Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute; and the remarkable recent projection-based performance titled I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008, which focuses on Nikolay Gogol’s absurdist story “The Nose,” the Shostakovich opera based on it, and the fate of the Russian Constructivists in art and life, along with Stalin’s execution of Nikolay Bukharin, once a close associate of Lenin. But let me return to werewolves for a moment.

The werewolf signifies two selves that move back and forth between competing states of existence: the wildness of an ungoverned, merciless, natural being and the elevated ambitions and epistemological breadth of the cultivated human. They exchange skins and identities. The wolf’s rapaciousness changes the human trapped inside—a sign of chaos and tragedy, but also of the possibility of transformation from catastrophic animality to rationality and enlightenment. In the history of Kentridge’s art, there is always this migration between antipodes, whether in the troubled reciprocity of Soho and Felix or in Ubu’s clownish look and malevolent meting out of injustice or in the artist’s rendering of Mozart’s wise Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, who is a pre-Heisenbergian sower of uncertainty, a corrupter of epistemologies who repudiates the light of truth.

The abrasion between might and reason, wolf and human, and, in Kentridge’s case, between the symbolic orders of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa chafes and ulcerates the better angels of our nature. As with Paul Celan’s icons of trauma in his great poem of the Holocaust, “Death Fugue,” whose ending reads, “Your golden hair Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith,” the potential for redemption that Kentridge pictures is endlessly burdened by the potential for irrevocable harm, and so as a trained actor and man of the theater he has long introduced himself into his own work as an ameliorant. He presents himself in his films as a master of prestidigitation who retrieves from the wrecked moral health of his country the possibility that the wolf, the spirit of Soho and Ubu, may find its opposite in an ecology of mutable ethics.

No instance of this is more powerful than his film series “7 Fragments for Georges Méliès,” 2003, in which he literally plucks his drawings from the air and wipes his images into existence through a simple process of reversal in his stop-action animations. In doing so he destabilizes time and the project of history, proposing that the semblance of truth is always tearing at historical fact. The possibility of any Kentridgean object is that it alights as an instrument of wishes en route to lunar fantasy and just as fluidly becomes the ruinous locus of a black man’s subjugated back that is horsewhipped and broken in the streets of Johannesburg. One weighs on the other. There is no Soho without Felix, and no Soho/Felix without Kentridge’s thought that they are two sides of a “third-person self-portrait,” as he describes them. There is no third person without the subject of the self in the first person, who is compelled by the willfulness of the state that legislates and commandeers, turning every citizen into a subaltern for whom the way free is through violence or magic. So Kentridge agitates for the legitimacy of an anti-monumentalization that opposes hegemonic rule.

Against the ossified racism of South Africa and of law as the rigid implement of a brutalizing empire, Kentridge offers a topography of shape-shifting that is purely Lucretian in its appetite for the mutability of matter that boils at the base of cellular life. Yet he leaves the world covered in the finest particulate of ash, at once compensatory and dismal, so that the oneiric sweetness of redemption still stings on the tongue, weighted by grieving, sharpened by a taste for irony, and always, relentlessly, invoking the sleight of hand and terrors of change.

Travels to the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL, Nov. 7, 2009–Jan. 17, 2010; Museum of Modern Art, New York, Feb. 18–May 17, 2010.

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.