From an overwhelming slew of art, literature, music, cinema and theater references, there seems to emerge a provisional feel for order in William Kentridge’s filmic worlds: worlds created between the artist and spectators’ activity in constructing narratives from discrete fragments. How this materializes is not always prone to clear analysis and it is not always clear to the artist at the time of making.
In part, this is because Kentridge often works from tales of the absurd, such as Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose,” which dissociates itself from its owner and disguises itself as a gentleman to the bewilderment of the author, and Alfred Jarry’s play “Ubu Roi” with its “disembraining” machine and the central characters’ self-gratifications.
Visitors to Kentridge’s first solo exhibition in Japan, “What We See & What We Know: Thinking About History While Walking, and Thus The Drawings Began to Move . . .” presently in Kyoto (then Tokyo and Hiroshima) have the opportunity to see if, like the conclusion to Gogol’s tale, when you think it over, there really is something in it.
Born into the era of apartheid in South Africa, it is not immediately apparent that Kentridge addresses fraught political questions in his work. Rather, he gently negotiates, with what almost amounts to polite distance, a wide array of issues such as culpability, activity and passivity, the Johannesburg landscape, history — family and otherwise, alter-egos, and distortions and resolutions of seeing. And he does this in a style he calls “stone-age” filmmaking.
K entridge begins with a charcoal sketch, which is photographed. The drawing is then manipulated and photographed again, a process that is repeated thousands of times to make the frames of a stop-motion animation.
Between altering the sketch and photographing it, Kentridge does a great deal of walking between the image and camera, during which time he also does a lot of thinking about his work (hence the exhibition title). His films do not proceed from preformed ideas but are a coalescence of the thoughts that cross his mind while going back and forth.
“Tide Table” (2003), which began from little more than a desire to set a film on a beach, is an apt example of this process. It begins with the suited Soho Eckstein (a property developer/industrialist and recurring character in Kentridge’s films) shifting from a hotel balcony to a deck chair on a beach that is being observed from above by military uniformed figures who watch through binoculars.
Soho watches a group of figures involved in a baptism among the waves as cattle stroll among them, suddenly becoming sickly thin then fat. The emaciated cattle relate to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, also known as the slimming disease, and to an Old Testament tale of a pharaoh’s dream where seven lean cattle eat seven fat cattle, representing a cycle of scarcity and plenty.
Soho’s attention then shifts to a boy, a younger version of himself, who meets a nanny who is in fact based on Kentridge’s own childhood one.
W hile evidently a complex compounding of social, political and historical elements, “Tide Table” also addresses the relationship we maintain with the past and our past selves, bound up in the title of another work, “I Am Not Me, The Horse is Not Mine” (2009). The title is a reference to a Russian proverb concerning the avoidance of blame by constructing contradictory alibis and excuses — a major thread running throughout Kentridge’s oeuvre and one that he relates to the divided and diverging self as a fundamental human quality.
What he means by this is the everyday antagonistic impulses we have, such as wanting to both go out and stay indoors at the same time, and how these conflicting impulses are fragments with which we construct who we are. Visually, Kentridge deals with this issue in varied forms. He appears in his own films or has his image projected as a backdrop when he gives lectures, or elsewhere his image is drawn into the films, erased or medically scanned, and even as his apparently guilt-ridden alter ego film character, Felix Teitlebaum.
Such relations can become ever-more convoluted, however, as in “Tide Table” (2003). Although the film concerns Kentridge’s relation to his younger self, the model for the boy was his son, and the beach setting is not where Kentridge spent his childhood summer holidays, but where his father did. Going further back through his family’s history, the suited man on the beach is based on Kentridge’s grandfather in a 1930s photograph. It occurred to Kentridge a couple of years after making the film that the beach is also the one at which his great- grandfather had drowned in 1909.
These are the narrative fragments that begin to congeal into ongoing and open-ended stories. They are also fragments of Kentridge himself, uncovered in contemporary and personal excavations and woven into history and the arts.
“William Kentridge: What We See & What We Know: Thinking About History While Walking, and Thus the Drawings Began to Move . . .” runs till Oct. 18 at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; admission ¥850; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri., till 8 p.m.), closed Mon., and Oct. 13. For more information visit www.momak.go.jp