The Shadow of the Object may be a Sound Seeing Voices in William Kentridge

Laid out in a three-dimensional chronology across the spaces of two museums – Zeitz MOCAA & Norval Foundation – is the largest ever survey of William Kentridge’s work on the African continent

i. The Room next door.

The vast exhibition ‘Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings To Work’ at the Zeitz MOCAA and ‘Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture’ at the Norval Foundation, provides the interested art viewer with an exceptional opportunity to engage in the breadth and depth of Kentridge’s career. The luxury of these exhibitions is that there is, laid out in a three-dimensional chronology across the spaces of the two museums, an animated archive of the artist’s aesthetic enquiries. While ostensibly the Norval Foundation engages primarily with Kentridge’s sculptural forms, and Zeitz MOCAA presents the drawings and films, inevitably the two shows are intertwined in complex ways. The bodies of work bleed into one another – much as sound bleeds from one domain into its surrounds.

Bicycle Wheel (double megaphone), 2012. Steel, timbre, brass, aliminium, bicycle parts & found objects, 195 x 46 x 43,5cm. Technical design and construction by Chris Waldo de Wet and Christoff Wolmarans. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.Bicycle Wheel (double megaphone), 2012. Steel, timber, brass, aluminium, bicycle parts & found objects, 195 x 46 x 43,5cm. Technical design and construction by Chris Waldo de Wet and Christoff Wolmarans. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.

This figure, of sound spillage, alerts us to a frequent technical complexity within contemporary arts, which now so often engage with a sound field that will supplement, shift, or adumbrate the visual meaning of an artwork, very often overlaying it with a kind of affective charge. In the early history of video art exhibitions, this was often conceived of as a problem to be remedied.  ‘Why Should I Hesitate’ engages with the question of sound as a significant dimension of the artist’s meanings. The artistic and curatorial vision has drawn on the complexity of aural ‘leakage’ as integral to its meanings. At times this idea drives a visual conception. The installation of video work, Notes Towards a Model Opera is approached down a darkened corridor, with a viewing window through which one peers into the exhibition space, from a ‘back wall’ as if covertly, as if from outside the installation.

Installation image of Notes Toward A Model Opera, 2014-15. Three-channel video projection, colour, sound, 11-14 minutes. Courtesy of the artist & Zeitz MOCAA. Installation image of Notes Toward A Model Opera, 2014-15. Three-channel video projection, colour, sound, 11-14 minutes. Courtesy of the artist & Zeitz MOCAA.

Kentridge, rather than avoid or evade the dilemma of sound infiltration, has conceived of the forecourt of the Zeitz MOCAA as a kind of resonating cavity. The multi-volume entrance area of the museum reverberates with the sounds of a cycle of compositions that spill out into the cavernous ‘lungs’ of the building, fulfilling the impact of the museum as some kind of archaic sacred hall, a cave, a temple.

…sound spillage, alerts us to a frequent technical complexity within contemporary arts, which now so often engage with a sound field that will supplement, shift, or adumbrate the visual meaning of an artwork…

At the Norval Foundation the two marvellous sound installations, Mechanical drum set from Refuse The Hour (2012/19) and the Singer Trio (2018), are more or less placed to obliquely address one another, on opposite sides of the central corridor. These two kinetic installations1 are activated on timed loops so that one succeeds the other at periodic intervals. It is, in fact, the viewer who becomes the kinetic object, precipitated like a human pinball, back and forth between spaces when propelled, or precipitated, by the prompt arising from the sound in the room next door. Alternately, the viewer might by chance or design stand in front of one or other impassive installations, waiting for it to swerve into animation, only to hear that the real event is happening in the room next door. Such is the nature of desire.

Singer Trio, 2019. Singer sewing machines, wood, mild steel, aliminium, found objects & electrical components, 163 x 176 x 50cm. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.Singer Trio, 2019. Singer sewing machines, wood, mild steel, aluminium, found objects & electrical components, 163 x 176 x 50cm. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.

And here my thoughts wander to Christopher Bollas’s The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. That title is productive for thinking about Kentridge, in part because of his long engagement with shadows, but also because it prompts us to recall Sigmund Freud’s complex thinking about the ‘Subject-Object relation’ in the formation of the ‘Self’: as Freud notes, “the shadow of the object fell upon the ego.” In other words, one is oneself marked by the imprint of one’s objects, and as Bollas notes, one’s first object is the mother.  The mother is always the ‘room next door’ for the unborn infant from whence the sound world and the world of sound, enters into the self.

There is, then, I suggest, a complex of emotional meaning arising from the intersection of shadows, filtered sound, and the occluded view.

THIS PAGE CLOCKWISE FORM TOP: Mechanical drum set from Refuse The Hour, 2012/19. Percussion instruments, drums, timber, steel, brass, aluminium & electrical components, 160 x 300 x 100cm. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA. Still from animated film in ‘Drawings for projection’ (1989 – 2011) at Zeitz MOCAA. Close-up image of the timeline of Kentridge’s life at Norval Foundation, showing an intimate image of him of and his mother, Felicia, on his 2nd birthday. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.  FACING PAGE: Installation view of Kentridge & Gerhard Marx construction for Waiting for Sibyl, 2019. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Mechanical drum set from Refuse The Hour, 2012/19. Percussion instruments, drums, timber, steel, brass, aluminium & electrical components, 160 x 300 x 100cm. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA. Still from the animated film in ‘Drawings for projection’ (1989 – 2011) at Zeitz MOCAA. Close-up image of the timeline of Kentridge’s life at Norval Foundation, showing an intimate image of him of and his mother, Felicia, on his 2nd birthday. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.

Here another constellation of ideas comes into view because of the richly layered textures of the two exhibitions. Kentridge’s early etchings are informed by his interrogation of the intersecting spheres of the theatre, graphic arts and ‘Domestic Scenes’2. Kentridge’s long attachment to Francisco Goya is evident in various technical, formal and thematic enquiries. Kentridge’s Pit (1979) reminds us of Goya’s haunting Yard with Lunatics. Kentridge’s work is a vertical scene, in which an enactment of erotic debasement and appetite between a naked couple is observed from high windows (opening onto hypothetic rooms next door); and in the centre of the image there is a large painting, or perhaps a mirror, such as we now all know from the tropological one-way glass of the interrogation room. Goya’s Yard of Lunatics shows a space full of distraught figures contained in just such a vertical cube. If the hypothesized dating of Goya’s image is correct (1794) it is produced in the year after he suffered an illness that left him totally deaf. The trauma obviously had a significant and lasting impact on the artist, who entered into a soundless world, and his images become increasing distraught, disturbed and violent, the figures are isolated, as if – through not being able to hear – the subject is incapable of being heard.

Installation view of Kentridge & Gerhard Marx construction for Waiting for Sibyl, 2019. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.Installation view of Kentridge & Gerhard Marx construction for Waiting for Sibyl, 2019. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.

On the wall of the Norval Foundation exhibition, embedded within the timeline, there is a photograph of Kentridge as boy-child with his mother, Felicia Kentridge, who lights the candles on her first-born’s birthday cake. The family photo suggests something of the power of the shadow that weaves mother and child as a complex monad, rather than two discreet subjects, though in this charming image, the birthday cake too is integral to that doubled self, conjuring a scene of triangulated succour.

ii. Kaboom! went History.
Wall drawings in ‘Ubu Tells The Truth’ room at Zeitz MOCAA. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA. Installation view of Ubu Tells The Truth, 1997, at Zeitz MOCAA. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA. Installation view of Untitled (Madame Mao), Indian ink on found pages, 90,5 x 74cm (left). Untitled (Chairman Mao), 2016. Indian ink on found pages, 91,5 x 7cm (right). © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA. Installation view of O Sentimental Machine, 2015, at Zeitz MOCAA. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICAWall drawings in ‘Ubu Tells The Truth’ room at Zeitz MOCAA. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA. Installation view of Ubu Tells The Truth, 1997, at Zeitz MOCAA. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA. Installation view of Untitled (Madame Mao), Indian ink on found pages, 90,5 x 74cm (left). Untitled (Chairman Mao), 2016. Indian ink on found pages, 91,5 x 7cm (right). © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA. Installation view of O Sentimental Machine, 2015, at Zeitz MOCAA. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA

The history-projects of William Kentridge are ambitiously and powerfully on display at the Zeitz MOCAA. Here, for example, there are suites of drawings from Ubu and the Truth Commission, along with rough charcoal sketches of Ubu, made for this show on the walls of the Gallery, along with the video projection Ubu tells the Truth with its own rather extraordinary soundscape3. It is instructive to note the freedom in the execution of these current Ubu drawings, where the foreshortening and movement in the charcoal figures have a brio and animated confidence that is not quite as evident in the more deliberate figures from some twenty years ago.  Notes Towards a Model Opera is an ironic nod to Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) who generated workerist state-sponsored operas that dominated the aesthetic environment during the years of the cultural revolution in China, exuberantly ideological works that sought to efface the vehement years of mass starvation and environmental catastrophe. Madame Mao, a former actress, was herself a fan of western musicals, but sought to engineer performance works that could uplift and celebrate the peasantry who were integral to the revolutionary endeavour. O Sentimental Machine is a video-installation based upon a speech written by Trotsky while in exile in Turkey. The sardonic piece is a peon to Trotsky’s vision of the human as a “sentimental but programmable” machine.

Installation view of Kaboom!, © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA. Installation view of Kaboom!, © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.

Kaboom! is a video-installation that arises from Kentridge’s very recent The Head & The Load 4. It is a grim work that attempts to engage with the wretched history of the colonial deployment of African soldiers as ‘carriers’ during the first world war. The theatre production of The Head & the Load is due to be staged in Johannesburg in 2020, and students of history and of art history would be advised to take the opportunity to see the installation as preparation for that performance. In shooting the film Kentridge used an archaic camera lens that gives the film footage the feel of a work of early cinematography. The anamorphic film What Will Come evokes the devastating aerial bombardment of Ethiopia by Mussolini during the 1930s. This film is in many ways an adjunct work to the stereoscopes which form such a significant part of the sculptural installations at the Norval Foundation. Both the anamorph and the stereoscope are early technological experiments that demonstrate that vision is an effect of the interface of subjective neurological contrivance, representational technique, and a material reality.

iii.  Home languages and mother tongues
Bridge, 2001. Bronze sculptures and books, 93.5 x 57,5 20,5cm. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.Bridge, 2001. Bronze sculptures and books, 93.5 x 57,5 20,5cm. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.

Home language one

For some while now Kentridge has been gravitating toward the grand sculptural figure, and the massive bronzes that occupy the large Gallery at the Norval Foundation are a kind of apotheosis of form. The earliest Kentridge bronzes were meditations on his own engagement with the two-dimensional aspect of his work. In conceiving of the scenography for the theatre work, Confessions of Zeno (2002), Kentridge had devised a kind of “transformer figure” for puppet theatre. Deploying the metaphorics of shadow puppetry, characters inside the action could morph into surreal allegories of themselves simply through the puppeteer twisting the puppet by 90 degrees, thus revealing a kind of ‘theatrical unconscious’ in which a shadow puppet of an ageing man might be morphed into a blighted tree. Several sculptures have arisen from this ‘revolving shadow’ strategy and are to be seen along – with their shadow projections – at the Norval Foundation5.

“I think we are privileged in South Africa to be able to trace this trajectory from his initial working with shadows and silhouettes towards the animated spectacle that we see around us in these sculptures, which jump into a gestalt and then dissipate. In William’s work there is always this sense of the progression, the spectacle and the link to the socio political and the personal.”

Karel Nel, Senior Advising Curator at Norval Foundation.

The bronzes in the Atrium at the Norval Foundation straddle an unlikely mid-point between the monument and the banal: a massive corkscrew figure, Open, inhabits the space alongside Cape Silver and a massive ampersand, &. Kentridge had over the past several decades wrought several small figures that could inhabit a bookcase like so many shadowy silhouettes, and he had considered these as elements in a Lexicon. Kentridge has long been interested in the rebus, cockney-rhyming slang, and similar wordplay. Karel Nel, the curator of the exhibition, speaks with eloquence of the grammatical function of the ampersand which allows for a narrative relationality between the nominal functions of the objects that make up Kentridge’s private language.

Lexicon, 2018. Bronze, cast by Workhorse Bronze Foundry (Johannesburg, South Africa). Image courtesy of the artist and Norval Foundation.Lexicon, 2018. Bronze, cast by Workhorse Bronze Foundry (Johannesburg, South Africa). Image courtesy of the artist and Norval Foundation.

Home language two

At the Zeitz MOCAA there are a number of massive still life studies that have been generated, almost a kind of consolation, a supplement alongside the violence uncovered by the research into the history works. Enormous vases of flowers that radiate a textural perfume fill the walls of the marvellous “Library” room that is at a kind of mid-point in the exhibition. The sulphur-yellow walls and mahogany shelves conjure an old-world mood, which is a space of introspective quiet in the middle of the exhibition. Kentridge has for many years worked with set/costume designer Sabine Theunissen, and this show has clearly been a richly collaborative exploration, with Kentridge and Theunissen jointly realizing a spatial vision that conjoins the practices of the visual artist and the theatre-maker. Much as Theunissen has worked wonders with the theatrical spaces of Kentridge’s operas, she here has transformed the museum to show what is visibly possible at the Zeitz MOCAA. There is complete attention to logic, scale, sight-lines, lighting. The design of the exhibition also makes us aware of the complex spatial address of the viewing body. Being inside the exhibition is an immersive experience for the viewer.

“…the value was around the making of the exhibition, pushing the limits of the white cube and what is could be, changing the structure, adding materials that really thought about the development of the work, of the two dimensional work, of the digital media, but also of the visitors body in this space and how their experiencing and thinking through that. The kinds of materials and the exposure of these patterns and structures that support and hold the space of thinking about art and what it’s doing in a museum.”

Tammy Langtry, Assistant curator for performative practice at Zeitz MOCAA, in response to William Kentridge speaking about using the museum as a multi-media space.

iv. Printed Matter and the Woof of the Weave

The exhibition at the Zeitz MOCAA is a kind of masterclass in print-making, with a wide range of print techniques to be seen, from aquatint, to woodblock, etching and photogravure. Several instructional videos demonstrate of the print-making process6.

Several of the extraordinary tapestries produced in mohair on traditional looms in association with Marguerite Stephens’ weaving studio, remind the viewer of the wryly sardonic motifs from Kentridge’s production of Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose.

The Norval Foundation and Zeitz MOCAA have made possible an exhibition of remarkable thought and attention that make it a model of its kind. Cape Town and its visitors will be richly rewarded.

Jane Taylor is a South African writer, playwright and academic. She currently holds the Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Aesthetic Theory and Material Performance at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.

Pigeon (front), 2019. Bronze sculpture, 94 x 95 x 59cm. Cape Silver (middle right), 2018. Bronze sculpture, 364 x 285 x 160cm. & (middle right), 2019. Bronze sculpture, 330 x 299 x 212cm. Courtesy of Norval Foundation. © Dave Southwood.Pigeon (front), 2019. Bronze sculpture, 94 x 95 x 59cm. Cape Silver (middle right), 2018. Bronze sculpture, 364 x 285 x 160cm. & (middle right), 2019. Bronze sculpture, 330 x 299 x 212cm. Courtesy of Norval Foundation. © Dave Southwood.
Amerique septentrionale (Bundle on Back) from the Porter Series, 2007. Tapestry: mohair, acrylic, silk and polyester, 311 x 231cm. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.Amerique septentrionale (Bundle on Back) from the Porter Series, 2007. Tapestry: mohair, acrylic, silk and polyester, 311 x 231cm. © Brendon Bell-Roberts & ART AFRICA.
FOOTNOTES
  1. With circuitry and software designs by Janus Fouché and machinic construction by Christoff Wolmarans and Chris Waldo de Wet.
  2. The title of an early series of etchings and aquatints (1980).
  3. Original theatre sound design by Warrick Sony.
  4. Music by Philip Miller. The Norval Foundation and Zeitz MOCAA exhibitions chart much of the long-standing and varied collaborations between Kentridge and Miller, and as such, they constitute a valuable learning environment for the scholar of contemporary South African music composition. The musical dimensions of the exhibitions are grounded in the works of several composers and musical artists: Neo Muyanga and Kyle Shepherd have both composed works integral to this show, and the performer/music master Nhlanhla Mahlangu is a mesmerizing vocal presence and choral designer. The sound design and compositions for the works are subjects for ongoing research.
  5. Much of the crafting of these revolving figures has been in collaboration with artist Gerhard Marx.
  6. Jill Ross at David Krut workshop and Kim Berman are both seen at work