A gifted draughtsman with a penchant for social commentary along the lines of Daumier or Grosz, Kentridge’s drawings have an earthy crudeness; they’re raw, messy and visceral. As stand-alone pieces they are impressive, but the real magic happens when they are animated. These “drawings for projection” as Kentridge refers to them, are essentially about drawing and the absence of drawing. As images evolve and dissolve before our eyes, morphing from one into another, we witness the very process of drawing. Even Kentridge’s erasures have narrative and formal roles. They invoke movement and the passage of time, and their left-behind traces hover over the work like memories of what came before. These palimpsests add a rich layering, and, in Kentridge’s words: the “smudges and erasures serve as a record of the days and months spent making the films—a record of thinking in slow motion.”
Kentridge has plenty of time to think. His is an incredibly labor-intensive process: drawing, shooting, erasing, shooting, redrawing, shooting, etc., with each film based on a series of some 20-40 charcoal drawings. Film enables Kentridge to capture the transitory effect of time passing and the transitory quality of his art—much of his work exists for only a short time before it’s irreparably altered, only to live on in film and memory.
The sad duet of pinstripe-suited Soho Eckstein, a wealthy mine owner/developer, and his polar opposite, the usually naked, Felix Teitelbaum set against the backdrop of a society “brutalized” by apartheid is the central focus of his films. They are two sides of the same coin, representing man, South Africa, and even Kentridge himself (judging from their resemblance to him). Of course, Felix is more him, but in taking on Soho, Kentridge is owning up in a subtle, but profound way to his shared responsibility as a white South African for the oppression and exploitation of that country and its indigenous people. This is just one indication of Kentridge’s innate humanity, which pulses forth from his work. Whether it’s something tangible like the glint of tears we see in Soho’s eyes or the caress of a thumb—so human, so tender, or Kentridge’s poetic choice of words: “Her absence filled the world,” one cannot help but be moved.
Kentridge uses a streamlined, yet complex iconography, featuring barren landscapes and distinctive Art Moderne architecture to describe his homeland. If I ever get to Johannesburg, I bet I’ll recognize the place, on account of this handful of visual clues. He favors antique office equipment: typewriters, switchboards, embossers, ticker-tape machines, which are in sync with his retro aesthetic. When Kentridge uses color he does so with a light touch using either blue, which in Stereoscope is used to represent water, blood and electricity or a subtle coral color. Kentridge’s strong theater background is evident in his holistic dramatic approach with spot-on background music selected to support his storylines.
7 fragments for Georges Méliès, a tribute to the French “cinemagician” known for his special effects, is composed of seven film fragments and two short films meant to illustrate Kentridge’s artistic practice. Standing in the middle of the room looking at the various images (both live action and drawn) is an extraordinary experience. Pacing back and forth around his studio, Kentridge seems to grab pages magically from thin air (thanks to that visual sleight of hand: running the film backwards). His studio’s a madcap place where anything goes: demitasse cups become telescopes, an espresso pot a rocket ship heading for the moon, drawings tear apart and reassemble. In a lesser artist’s hand, this might appear cutesy, but Kentridge’s aesthetic choices, opting for an “unplugged,” naïve approach, keep it fresh and inspiring.
I felt transported back, a wide-eyed child captivated by the explosion of visuals and sound, the dazzling spinning vortices of stars of The Magic Flute and the Chambre Noir miniature theaters. They are enchanting, whimsical multi-media flights of fancy that challenge Kentridge on so many levels (the latter even features mechanical figures that traverse back and forth across the stage). There’s a joyousness about them; it’s clear Kentridge delights in delving into his theatrical bag of tricks in search of truly marvelous solutions.
I came away from the show blown away, yet again, by Kentridge’s original vision and depth of imagination. Thanks to 7 fragments for Georges Méliès, I also came away with an enhanced understanding and appreciation of his artistic process.
Artillery 4.5 (2010): 46