I like to think of culture as the memory of history.
– Ana Mendieta
Few artists can, even today, manage to absorb the complexities of European culture and thought, while at the same time removing themselves from a Western-centric recipe and engaging the other, allowing for the non-European, ‘peripheral’ narrative to shift the epicenter and enjoy greater prominence. The subtleties of William Kentridge’s work, and his serpentine weavings of different historico-cultural narratives, place him, for good reason, among the most pertinent and conscientious artists of our time.
William Kentridge: Peripheral Thinking, a retrospective currently on view at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, brings together over 100 works, representing more than three decades of artistic practice. The exhibition is a Kentridge extravaganza, and includes numerous video works, video installations, drawings, etchings, sculptures and sculpture installations, and music.
Kentridge has been astutely engaging with, and starting conversations about, histories of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism, while seeking to re-build collective conscience. Yet his work manages to move beyond political message, to transcend mere propaganda, mainly because Kentridge tends to leave things open-ended, preserving traces of what-was while moving forward, allowing for a perfect balance between knowledgeable control and chance. The historical narrative onto which Kentridge builds allows for a focus of energy towards an open wound, a wound which becomes an opportunity for change, a nudge, a springboard, but also a wound that never completely heals, as the memory of it will always remain. In this case, it is not an “immense piece of cloth in which we can cut out what we will and sew it together again as we please,” to use Henri Bergson’s words, but rather the frantic questioning and sorrowful gathering of the pieces as the only way of re-creation. In many of Kentridge’s works, we see this searching mark, the constant change, the gathering of the pieces, matching perfectly what Kentridge appears to have sought: to reveal, and explore the trauma, and to build from it, with its memory and in its memory. ‘There will be a future!’
Kentridge’s work, especially his earlier videos, is busy: poetic, melancholic, twisted, sorrowful, violent at times, or of a quietness characteristic of the acute loneliness of after-destruction, a quietness that is charged, ready to pounce. His work exists, develops, and transforms beyond the confines of the genre—drawing, film, or theater. The work fills the room, leaves itself, and stays with the viewer.
Along with some of his most well known videos, such as “Felix in Exile,” “Stereoscope,” and “Tide Table,” Peripheral Thinking includes a few of Kentridge’s latest projects, one being “Second Hand Reading,” a flip-book animation video set to the music of Neo Muyanga. For this film, Kentridge covers the pages of an encyclopedia with drawings and symbolic imagery such as self-portraits, an African woman dancing and giving a flag-signal, text, and trees from Johannesburg. “THE GIVEN OF THE TEXT” stands out as one of the more powerful frames in the video, an image that encompassed Kentridge’s complexities of thought, his vast number of references (which span from personal to historical, from European culture to African heritage) that he sneaks into his work, as well as his engagement with post-modern theories of art and literature.
Taking down the narrative aspect, and using instead of the undisturbed canvas of clean, white paper, the written, filled, self-sufficient pages of a book, Kentridge fully taps into the new possibilities of building on what is already there, taking from it, but also making it into something new. He takes an apparently simplified process of creating a video (using a book provides an easier way to achieve momentum rather than draw and erase or multiple sheets of paper), and this allows Kentridge to play with concepts and theories of language, of appropriation of text, of re-reading the text or re-reading meaning into the text, giving him greater freedom to re-define possibilities, re-explain the process (of both drawing and video-making), and perhaps also to reinforce the act of drawing as the driving force behind his work.
The idea of altering the text of an existing book and making it into something completely new is not a recent idea, and artists such as Tom Phillips have engaged with it in powerful ways, but the fact that Kentridge chose a book of impersonal value—an encyclopedia—reveals that his connection with the book is nothing more than that with a different kind of surface, a different kind of canvas that one can build on, one that is filled and marked, not new, alike perhaps to the South African conscience.
The beauty of the flip-book videos lays in their ability to slow down the imagery, for all the drawings to exist, unaltered, in the end. In Kentridge’s previous work, the drawings constantly changed, leaving behind traces and remains of the old, while constantly shifting and metamorphosing, which pushed the movie to fluidly expand and develop. In “Second Hand Reading,” due to the purely technical aspect of flipping the page to reveal the next drawing, getting to the next image requires an act of denial or delayed release of the previous. The fractured fluidity allows one image to exist on its own, alone, unconnected, for at least a fraction of a second. In this case the flipping of the pages is the erasure necessary; it is a more distinct erasure, and not an actual erasure (as in his previous films), but a denial.
Kentridge’s recent work moves decidedly from engaging his South African heritage and history to a more bird’s-eye view of global political and social issues. “Notes Towards a Model Opera,” a 3-channel video installation, exposes Kentridge’s interest and his comprehensive research into historical issues of modern China, political and social issues regarding power structures, class and racial conflicts, ideology and utopianism. “Notes Towards a Model Opera,” patterned after the eight model operas of the Cultural Revolution, addresses issues of cultural diffusion as it compresses together symbolic imagery such as maps, personal notes, classical ballet, a dancer holding a gun, another waving large red flags or using a make-shift megaphone as ‘the internationale’ plays in the background, text, as well as historical photographs from Mao’s China. Kentridge uses ballet and dance as a universal language to mold together contexts as distant and distinct as China, Russia, and South Africa, and he allows for the starting point to be something as revolutionary (both culturally and politically) as the eight model operas.
In a 2001 interview with Interview Magazine, Kentridge mentions that “there was always a sense growing up of living in a society that was waiting to become an adult, to change.” Perhaps this is a general feeling that we all face. And Kentridge’s latest works—unlike his earlier ones which were focused on and unafraid to show us the trauma, the wound—expose that desire to see the world mature. We see glimmers of both utopianism and sarcasm, of hope and distrust in humanity; but all along, what never leaves Kentridge’s work is his commitment to changing the landmarks of historical discourse, and re-introducing the other into the meta-narrative.