A William Kentridge drawing is often far more than a static image, worked up to a state of perfection and allowed to rest in peace. Instead it’s a history of transformation, a story of things said and then unsaid. Kentridge’s charcoal ‘drawings for projection’ constitute whole scenes in his animated films, progressively erased and redrawn for the camera, leaving behind irrefutable traces of their past movements.
The South African artist, who represented his country at last year’s Venice Biennale, has been in great international demand since the late 1980s, when he began a series of animations exploring the legacy of apartheid. Black Box/Chambre Noire is the lavish catalogue of a newly commissioned work shown at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, from October 2005 to January this year.
The show marked a new direction for Kentridge. Although he had worked for decades designing theatrical productions, the artist had never before placed a theatrical maquette at the heart of his own work. So ‘Black Box’ has three possible meanings: the avant garde theatre space, the inside of a camera, and the flight data recorder of disaster inquests.
In these two words Kentridge also signposts concerns which are central to his practice: the willing suspension of disbelief, the fundamental nature of light and shadow, and the corrosive debris of South Africa’s traumatic history. In this work, that trauma lies in the organised genocide of the Herero tribe by colonial Germans a century ago.
Kentridge writes eloquently about his work. His thoughtful storytelling weaves effortlessly from Mozart back to Plato, and from the Enlightenment to the dark days of 20th century genocide. The second substantial essay in the book, written by the exhibition’s curator, Maria-Christina Villaseñor, is informed by several days spent with the artist in his Johannesburg studio. Like the book as a whole, both texts are thought-provoking and composed with great care.
Echoing the binaries of light and dark in Kentridge’s work, every white page sits opposite a black one. Between the texts, the book is liberally punctuated with clusters of beautifully printed photographs. Views of the studio open the book; details of work in progress follow, and towards the back cover, we see the mini-theatre as an audience would; a synthesis of cut-out characters, automata and drawn projections.
But, as Villaseñor writes, meaning in Kentridge’s films ‘is never reducible to a single image or frame, but rather is wholly relational and unfixable. It arises and occurs between individual images.’ For all its sumptuous detail, Black Box is a ghost of a movement which happened in another place, at another time.
Catriona Black is an animator and art critic for the Sunday Herald