Review of William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2018
416 pp., Illus. 237 col. Trade: $49.95
In my 2007 Leonardo review of Rosalind Krauss’ book Perpetual Inventory I characterized her essay on William Kentridge as the most compelling in the book . Krauss introduced him as a South African artist whose animated films pursue the problems of apartheid and spoke about how he creatively mixed film, drawing, and erasure with highly charged ideas. She also spoke about how his peripatetic approach, improvisational process (fortuna), and his use of erasure spoke of a creative practice that combines drawing and seeing with making and assessing. Krauss concluded that regardless of whether Kentridge’s drawings for projection come together in a series that examines apartheid, capitalist greed, eros, memory, or whatever, his process is not based primarily on the theme of the series. Rather, in her view, and I share her view to some degree, the works result through the dictates of his creative process. William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises by Leora Maltz-Leca sees his philosophical relationship to the work as more important than his creative practice per se. Therefore, one intriguing question on my mind as I wrote this review is why Maltz-Leca, and indeed Kentridge himself as relayed in this book through a number of interviews, did not change my mind.
The Krauss essay, originally published in 2000 , was historically connected with Kentridge’s artworld ascendency. He was introduced to the mainstream art world of Europe and American when he emerged from relative obscurity in the late 1990s with a series of animated films entitled Nine Drawings for Projection. Comprised of expressionistic drawings and put together through a stop motion technique that Kentridge calls “stone-age animation,” these hard-to-decipher narratives evoke grand tableau history paintings. They also showcased the animation process he invented in 1989, when a broad range of artistic practices were being embraced in South Africa. His way of filming (animating) works created with charcoal and erasure allowed him to create a decidedly different type of relationship with the viewer than the experience of a two-dimensional drawing or painting alone. In addition, his multi-media visuals, reinforced by eclectic soundtracks, served to offer up dream-like narratives relating to the social and political turmoil of apartheid South Africa and later its aftermath.
Process as Metaphor is initially introduced as a book that looks at the projection series that elevated him to fame. It does more, however, for there are also notations about many of Kentridge’s other wonderful works. For example, his 2012 work The Refusal of Time is discussed extensively throughout the book. Refusal. This work — an immersive piece that grew out of conversations between the artist and Harvard physicist Peter Galison — is a showcase for his wide range of artistic practices and visual motifs, including drawing, film, sculpture, and performance. Also interwoven into the exposition are Kentridge’s version of Mozart’s Magic Flute (2005), his production of The Nose by Shostakovich (2010), and multi-media projects like Zeno Writing (2003) and 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès (2003).
Schematically the book is composed of five chapters that are bookended by opening and ending commentaries on South Africa. Each of these chapters zones in on a component of his process (erasing, animating, processing, drawing (up), and projecting). The sum total is intended to articulate expanded aspects of, as the book’s title implies, metaphor and process. Maltz-Leca explains her intentions as follows:
“This book is less an exploration of the textures, smells, and caprices of materials and making than a pondering of their philosophical dimensions. It is less concerned with Kentridge’s formal maneuvers per se than with the rhetorical gambits he posits in their wake.… Rather than a metaphor of context, [his works] involve a metaphoric process, or how Kentridge formally and discursively situates his various studio methods as analogues of operations in the world beyond.” [her italics, p. 16).
The first chapter, “The Politics of Metaphor Erasing,” explains that Kentridge “pitted metaphor against the linear reasoning of the law” (p 24). The son of two lawyers who were prominent opponents of the apartheid system, Kentridge saw art as a means to create meaning through a process that ran counter to the rationality he saw in legalisms. Indeed, one rationale given for Kentridge’s attraction to erasure — a technique of building and erasing a work as it takes form — was that it is impervious to the kind of cross-examination inscribed within the law. Eventually filming the conceived and erased works sequentially allowed him to craft animations of continually revised images that, in turn, serve as a fulcrum for memory and forgetting, two key Kentridge themes: Moreover, “[e]rasure, although initially grounded in the politics of hiding and amnesia, ultimately comes to signal a potential reversibility of action and with it the unraveling of time and historical process” (p. 24). As for metaphor itself, it is presented as a part of his attraction to what we cannot rationally argue. The author presents it as an inverse framework to logic, a process counter to rationality and as a concept of disjunction. Chapter one also introduces fortuna, which he has explained is an approach that lands him technically somewhere “between pure chance and planning” (p. 21).
The second chapter, “History as Process of Chasing Hegel out of Africa Animating,” pairs his animation technique with history. She tells us the artist’s investment in animation came from its ability to show Hegel’s history of change; the animation serves as a metaphor for history. It is also indebted to the apartheid context where competing views were in play. The author argues that Kentridge’s work shows he is more like a Hegel revisionist than a Hegelian for he sees the tradition of history as a dynamic series of processes, which I didn’t fully comprehend. The sense of art history presented as Kentridge’s touchstone is a modernist one, with discussion of Jackson Pollock, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Bruce Nauman, and a number of other figures spicing things up, as discussed further below. “Stalking the drawing” is also involved with this, for he crafts his animations through a process of drawing, assessing, walking, erasing, and so forth. This technique additionally speaks to the influence of his studies in Paris with Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999), a French actor, mime and instructor. Lecoq’s theatrical exercises underscored that physical activity is vital for actualizing creative work that conveys subtleties of meaning. Of interest in terms of the book’s focus on process is the notation that the idea of process had an unusual prominence in the South African art world of the 1970s Johannesburg resistance culture.
Chapter three is presented as a connective linkage between the apartheid and post-apartheid periods and is indicative of a shift in focus; his post-apartheid art is presented more in terms of philosophical ideas, with less integration with the South African social and political environment than the opening chapters. As the details framing South African society began to recede, philosophical and psychological elements like the self, the unconscious, dreams, and ideas become more prominent. Titled Process/Procession Processing Regime Change, this chapter (previously published in the Art Bulletin ), does offer a rich survey on how and why processions became a dominant feature in many of his works. Briefly, on the one hand, they are intended as images of history. On the other hand, process and process-ion are said to work together to summon South Africa’s larger historical changes. It was clear that the processions have great resonance with South African traditions, but the nuts and bolts of the connections were never quite clarified as I read. Process is also linked with Kentridge’s peripatetic process of “stalking the drawing:”
“In the process of working … my mind gets into gear — by which I mean the rather dumb physical activity of stalking the drawing or walking backwards and forwards between the camera and the drawing: raising, shifting, adapting the image. … The film evolves as this ongoing walk between the paper and the camera, in the hope that somewhere in the middle of that walk, some idea will emerge to suggest what the next drawing or sequence should be” (p. 136).
Chapter four, “Thinking/Doubting/Doubling Drawing (Up),” maintains that his engagement with metaphor intensified in the post-apartheid period. We learn that for Kentridge drawing is a symbolic code that reaches beneath language, deep into the unconscious. We also learn more about his pacing and his psychology. Pacing for him is a meditative space for not thinking: “[T]here needs to be a physical activity because it’s not about ‘while I’m working I’m thinking,’ its ‘while I’m working and not thinking that the thoughts will happen” (p. 203):
“Acknowledging his blindness to his own motivations, Kentridge dissociates his ‘I’ from his ‘brain.’ In doing so, he visibly splits before us, articulating the fissures that play out in his chronicles of the infinitely fractured self and displaying a deep-seated uncertainty about our capacity to know ourselves—and by extension, the world. Such doublings and blind spots throw all knowledge into doubt.” (p. 204)
The strongest sections of this strikingly philosophical chapter concern Stereoscope (1999), a film characterized as the artist’s most extended meditation on imaging consciousness. Intended to speak to the idea that both those who supported and those who opposed apartheid lived split lives, the artist draws on an array of devices that are also metaphors used to explain how the brain works (the telegraph, the telephone, recording systems, etc.). These in turn create analogies to the mind and our inability to “see in.” Maltz-Leca explains that Kentridge has said that our inability to make things cohere is the rationale for this film. It represents his attempt to map things which normally one just talks about:
“Ordinarily, when one looks into the viewer of a stereoscope, two slightly divergent two-dimensional images cohere in a single picture that appears three-dimensional, thereby mimicking the natural stereoscopic function of human vision. In Kentridge’s film, however, the pairs of images never cohere, their gap paralleling the incoherence of a world that will not accord or make sense.” (p. 221)
Chapter five largely homes in on projection, with all of its Freudian connotations, exploring how the mechanics of cast light and traveling images intersect with the metaphorics of Freudian projection and displacement. Titled “The Most Promiscuous of Metaphors Projecting,” this chapter points out that Kentridge returned to projection the projection series after an eight-year hiatus and to support a post-apartheid ethics of identification. Other Faces, the tenth projection piece, was crafted in 2011, eight years after the ninth piece, Tide Table.
Overall, this book does an excellent job in presenting the three elements that formed Kentridge’s process: his 1970s work with the Junction Avenue theater group in South Africa; his training in Paris with the French actor, mime and acting instructor Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999) in the early 1980s; and his extensive studies of Hegelian and Marxist thought, which dominated apartheid era oppositional culture. Maltz-Leca’s presentation of Kentridge’s process in terms of his evolving body of work was less effective, although it may translate better with people more well-versed with Kentridge’s projects overall. Basic elements, like how Kentridge weaves characters like Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitelbaum through the Drawings for Projection series are still somewhat vague to me, although I did gather that these two characters are Kentridge alter-egos and said to depict an emotional and political struggle that ultimately reflects the lives of many South Africans. [Soho Eckstein is said to represent the archetypal white Johannesburg businessman of the post-apartheid era and Felix Teitelbaum is the humane and loving alter-ego to that ruthless capitalist white South African psyche.]
A few elements stood out. First, for me, there was a measure of unreality to the book because it’s thesis focused more abstractly on metaphor as a process of life rather than process in terms of artistic praxis. The end result is that Maltz-Leca offers an overview of Kentridge’s theory of consciousness. I was hoping for more connective tissue with the work itself, his life, and references to South Africa’s evolution since apartheid ended.
Second, I was intrigued by how the artist’s work and the author’s product aligned. Kentridge’s work coheres in terms of a visual communication, despite the lack of a unified narrative in many of the pieces themselves. By contrast, this author’s use of thematic ideas to frame recurring visual fragments did not clarify Kentridge’s work so much as it mirrored the disjointed quality of the artworks. This meandering quality resulted because artworks of similar themes were composed at different times over the course of his life. A fascinating element within this is that it underscores a difference between art products and critique. Incongruent expressions in art can (and in this case do) convey mutation, metamorphosis, change and upheaval. They can unfold like a dream because as art they do not need to make sense in a logical or rational way. In a scholarly publication, however, this kind of jumping around makes it difficult to conceptualize particular works and how the composite fits together. I would have preferred a framing that used the artist’s chronology or particular artworks as a structure for a unifying narrative.
Third, a surprising element of the book was how narrowly the author defined the Euro-American tradition. The author remarks that it played a large role in Kentridge’s development. Yet, while it was clear that the artist’s location, culture, and the political climate within South Africa informs his work on some level, the Euro-American philosophical tenets seemed more aligned with a late twentieth century fashion that drew upon figures like Marx, Hegel, and Freud. In terms of art, it was striking that Modernist American art theory had an oversized influence. One endnote says that Clement Greenberg confided to Kentridge in 1975 that the political situation in South Africa demanded political art. This is amusing and was quite surprising given that this critic famously insisted upon the separation of art and politic. Surely Greenberg knew that many late twentieth century artists in America saw a demand for political art? Despite his activism I suppose it is possible that Kentridge was totally unaware of the statements against apartheid by established American artists? Suffice it to say that during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s and the 1980s movement in the United States to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa many artists of all colors were fiercely debating social engagement and documenting it as well (e.g., Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, Jeff Donaldson, etc.). Devices within these projects (the use of crowds, language, etc.) included elements quite similar to Kentridge’s work of this time period.
In my 2007 critique of the Krauss essay on Kentridge I noted that the artist served as a good example of how the narrative of a product does not encompass all that a work is “about.” Maltz-Leca’s presentation of Kentridge’s theory of consciousness did not change my sense of this or that his art stands on its own terms. For me, Kentridge’s work brings to mind how a visual language can have a different quality than an associated narrative. In this case, I had hoped for a more concrete entry into the ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ quality of the narrative because the works create an impression that there is much more to see. This beautifully designed and carefully researched book includes a wealth of pieces and yet — despite the breadth of her scholarship, fascinating anecdotal information, and a sesquipedalian vocabulary — I found the sum total did not fill in enough about his process or how his post-apartheid experience is inscribed in the work. This is because Maltz-Leca’s multi-layered study is often found hard to follow. One obvious problem, and one well known to all art historians, is the difficulty in capturing visuals with words. Her enviable vocabulary helps, as do some of the elegant spreads of still shots. Nonetheless, I often found myself at a loss, although some of this was aided by clips online.
Not only did Metaphor as Process affirm my sense that visual commentaries and narrative ideas differ because the visual language of an artist is of a different quality than that of the narrative associated with the work, it also reminded me of the difficulty in bringing artistic praxis into the art theory lexicon. Because this study of Kentridge is focused on the philosophy behind the artist’s work it aligns with the way art historians have traditionally read images in terms of philosophical narratives that served to subsume both that our brains do more than think and that artistic processes are too complex for thinking/not thinking, rational/non-rational descriptions. In other words, as presented, Kentridge’s ideas do not seem to include the complexity of the artistic brain at work. Therefore, ultimately, Process as Metaphor reminded me that one of the special characteristics of successful art is that it can work even if conceived from an intellectual premise that seems to conflate the art with something else.
1. See Amy Ione. "Perpetual Inventory (review)." Leonardo 44, no. 5 (2011): 445-446. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed June 15, 2018) and Rosalind Krauss, “‘The Rock’: William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection” in her Perpetual Inventory (Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT University Press, 2008)
2. Krauss, R. (2000). "The Rock": William Kentridge's Drawings for Projection." October 92: 3-35.
3. Maltz-Leca, L. (2013). “Process/Procession: William Kentridge and the Process of Change.” The Art Bulletin 95(1): 139-165.