Writing Art History Since 2002

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Johannesburg Art Gallery Johannesburg

Michel Foucault once said that “nothing falls out of the archive”, by which he meant that history is blessed and cursed to recombine and reinvent both the best and the worst that human culture contains. In our age of apocalyptic, post-capitalist, paranoid God Bless Americanism, art has a crucial role to play in such an archival history, a role it has eschewed in favour of a co-opted careerism. That role is the transformation of experience. William Kentridge is one of very few South African artists taking on the challenge of the archive. But transformations in art can be glib – they can be illusionist, a real emotion or idea turned into the diversion of a novel machine, a new technology for seeing. At the heart of Kentridge’s recent show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Black Box/Chambre Noir, is just such a machine – an exquisite scaled down maquette of the proscenium designed initially for his staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in Brussels. But, being Kentridge, he puts it to far more resonant and incisive use than that of an optical illusion. Across its miniature boards glide gracefully articulated, yet strange and seductively artless automata – a pair of compasses, a protractor, a praise singer princess, a dancing rhinoceros. They play out a musical drama against a background of shadow plays, of delicate traceries of numbers, lists, brutal beatings. The projections move seamlessly from Kentridge’s signature drawings-under-erasure to found footage of a nineteenth century rhino slaughter. The front of the stage is presided over ultimately by a loudhailer, recalled into service from the artist’s own image archive, adorned with a sandwich board reading “Trauerarbeit” (Grief Work), the Freudian key to unlocking the psychological correlates of grief. Around the centrepiece of the miniature stage emanate series of palimpsestuous drawings and prints, taking up several linked rooms in the gallery: a list of the dead and their manner of dying; a list of stock items from mining houses; a list of accounts. Some reiterate images from the films and projected shadow plays, of rhinoceroses, skulls, compasses and protractors; others compile unrelated views of the same world, fragments of maps, social etiquette scraps from bygone days …As is well known, the exhibition grew out of a commission by the Deutsche Guggenheim, leading Kentridge back to an interest in Weimar-era culture, and its imbrication with Southern African history. At one level – and a very forcible, epically tragic level at that – the subject matter is the genocide of the Namibian Herero people by German colonists in the early years of the twentieth century. The shadow plays of beatings, extinction, annexure and grief bear melancholy witness to the tragedy. But, as the show radiates out from the maquette, it begins to take on dimensions beyond this, to the archival history of the region, the mining account books so familiar in South Africa’s case also, maps of familiar Johannesburg suburbs. The way in which Kentridge has worked over these ephemera, or worked them into the art he produces, reveals what the archive has hidden in its everyday documents and images: the banalization of domination, expropriation, the casual nature of colonial life and death. Around the gallery drifts the soundtrack to the mesmeric projected automatism at its centre. It conjoins original sampled compositions by long-time Kentridge collaborator Philip Miller with snatches of arias from The Magic Flute, and strains of original outjina Herero praise songs. While the stylistic thread of the operatic staging is clear in the soundtrack, the sampled material is never meretriciously used. In fact, one senses a maturing of Miller’s work in relation to that of his collaborator. His own compositions hold the interest, with innovative sampling evoking everything from death scenes to the clacking of typewriters; and the flow of the work in relation to the projections and the automata is seamless, taking on board its ethno-musicological sources, both Mozart and the Herero, with equal respect. Listening to it away from the context of the exhibition the work is, perhaps understandably, much lighter and pastoral in tone. The exhibition adds much to Kentridge’s oeuvre. He is at his best when undertaking such revelation, as he demonstrates here through the transformation of the banal, the everyday documentation of a colonial enterprise, into something terrible – the callous destruction of a people and their own history, and the grief-work needed in its wake.

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