At Robert Brown Gallery to June 12
William Kentridge worries about forgetting, whether it stems from natural memory slippage or selective amnesia. He’s grown especially wary since his native South Africa began reconfiguring its state machinery over the past decade, forcing its citizens to account for their apartheid-era abuses. For the most part, the national atonement process has followed the cues of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which in 1995 began dredging up apartheid atrocities and confronting the culpable. The logic is to reopen old wounds and let them bleed until they heal, thereby purging agents of disease from the body politic.
But Johannesburg-based Kentridge, ever fearful of the complacency healing brings, wants those wounds to remain open as reminders of his country’s racial injustices. In the 10 years since apartheid collapsed, the artist has taken time to reflect, rework, and refine his polemic, and he is finally ready for his close-up. Just two years ago, the 44-year-old Kentridge was showing in relative obscurity at respectable Cape Town and London galleries; now he has a full slate of museum engagements. Already this year, he’s had major shows in Chicago, New York, and London; locally, a Hirshhorn exhibition is scheduled for 2001. At Robert Brown Gallery, a suite of his recent works—etchings, collages, and short films from the mid-’90s—offers grim souvenirs of South Africa’s violent past in the arid landscape and the haunted faces of its people.
Although this show ringing Brown’s white-walled basement gallery focuses largely on print work, Kentridge’s three short films from the Drawings for Projection series he began back in 1989 warrant special attention. In them, we meet the industrial magnate Soho Eckstein, clad in his pinstripe suit, and his foil, Felix Teitlebaum, a naked, pudgy artist. Eckstein toils, deflated, at his desk, or goes home to pet his cat; Teitlebaum, also exhausted, moves slowly, as if the world’s weight rides squarely on his shoulders. Etchings of Teitlebaum seated or standing near a megaphone with eyes downcast dot the entire show. He may be listening to opera, or he may hear shouts blaring from the past, but in all the images his mood is pensive and guilt-ridden, as if he is lost in an act of remembering. It’s an affecting image, but one that’s weakened by repeated exposure: Kentridge’s reworkings of the man-with-megaphone theme—five of 17 nonfilm works in the show have them—look like exploratory sketches. They beg paring down.
In his filmmaking technique, Kentridge tries to provide insurance against inattention: To make each film, he shoots a charcoal-and-pastel drawing onto film, then alters the drawing slightly and shoots it again to create a narrative. Because charcoal’s dense pigment resists the finest eraser’s attempts to eradicate it, the erasures and smudges leave traces that remain long after a character has left the scene, giving memory a physical presence. The title christening the early frames of Felix in Exile (1994) never quite disappears; its ghost hovers throughout the first scene. Later in the film, the blood of Africans shot and killed on the savannas remains visible in the landscape. Kentridge’s world defies decomposition.
But the artist doesn’t simply memorialize his country’s cruel past and its victims; he casts a gimlet eye on the oppressors, too. The dense 1992 film Easing the Passing (of the Hours) offers a nine-minute diaristic look at the workaday world of a character called the General: Between his predawn masturbatory dreamscapes and his late evenings at home watching movies, the General, bound to his wheelchair, quashes a black rebellion and eliminates a seditious minion. Although the tyrant considers this work just part of another day at the office, his peaked and crippled form betrays his vulnerability and loneliness: Kentridge renders the General’s round head like a root vegetable—bringing to mind Sigmar Polke’s mid-’60s drawing series of cartoonish potato-heads aping industrial capitalists—and attaches the head to a stout chest planted in the wheelchair. The General’s silhouette creates a fetuslike form that incessantly crosses and re-crosses the screen as he rolls from assembly meetings to firing squads. This Duce looks ridiculous, imprisoned despite his power.
Two towering portraits of the General on view at Robert Brown sprout from this filmed image of the impotent thug. Both are drypoint etchings—one black-and-white, the other printed on paper hand-colored in acid yellow, blue, and red—wherein Kentridge makes the most of the medium’s sharp lines to encircle the General’s sinister monocle and pate with lines as sharp as coiled razor wire atop a prison fence. That monocle, the portrait’s focus, surrounds his worried eye open a millimeter too wide to reveal the fear below the bravado. In what is perhaps the ultimate insult, we pity the poor man. Then we realize that the General looks at us and perhaps sees himself; there’s possibly a bit of his darkness in all of us. If Kentridge forgives South Africa’s trespassers, he isn’t telling; but he certainly won’t let anyone forget them. CP