William Kentridge enjoys international acclaim above any other South African artist, and is the subject of a major travelling exhibition now at the National Gallery. Yet his work precisely resists the desire for closure and fixity implied by the ‘retrospective’, argues Ashraf Jamal, who also interrogates the reasons for the artist’s success in the West
A travelling exhibition of the art of William Kentridge which has graced the rooms of major galleries in the United States now has its public airing at the National Gallery in Cape Town. This is without doubt a major event on the South African art calendar. What troubles me, however, is that it is billed as a major “retrospective”. The word has an irksome effect.When the “retrospective” concerns the work of a relatively youthful living artist – Kentridge is not yet 50 – the embalming process becomes all the more depressing. Symptomatic of the tendency to look back, define the present in relation to the past and, having done so, impute a future, a retrospective seems an arse-about-face way in which to approach the work of an artist who has barely begun to make an indelible mark on the South African cultural imaginary. Yes, Kentridge has been producing art since the 1970s. Yes, he has twice been fêted at Documenta and had a major showing at the Guggen-heim. Yes, his dramatic work has received international acclaim. But do these achievements merit a retrospective? The word smacks of hubris and the thoroughly noxious tendency on the part of curators to reify and memorialise the value of a work in perpetuity.Kentridge would be the first to let us know that any desire for closure and fixity is profoundly at odds with the way he conceives the making of art. In ‘The Body Drawn and Quartered’ (1998) he notes that “vulnerability and the process of growth [are] continuous acts of transition. This movement between what we see and what we know seems … the area in which visual artists, filmmakers operate.” In ‘Felix in Exile: Geography of Memory’ (1994) he speaks of a reliance and “trust in things that at the same time seem whimsical, incidental, inauthentic”. In ‘Fortuna: Neither Programme nor Chance in the Making of Images’ (1993) he opposes the “sensation … of discovery” to “invention” and, with specific reference to his medium – charcoal – notes “the imperfection of the erasure”. In ‘Art in a State of Grace, Art in a State of Hope, Art in a State of Siege’ (1986) he ponders why “passion can be so fleeting and memory so short-lived”. This realisation, he says, “gnaws … constantly”. Emotionally, intellectually and artistically, then, Kentridge precisely negates the fixities of place and time which a retrospective may suppose. His very gift challenges each and every attempt to fix his art as something monumental, or, worse, as a window onto a country’s history. Rather, Kentridge would put the very categorical imperatives – the old and new South Africa – under erasure. This process is both an ethical and aesthetic one. Indeed, in Kentridge’s work the two are inseparable. Together they form “a polemic for a kind of uncertainty” (interview with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev).In the light of my potted summation of Kentridge’s astute commentary, it would seem understandable that I challenge the pernicious desire to parenthetically and retrospectively frame his work. At no point has Kentridge memorialised his art.If his work, in his own words, appears “quaint”, it is because that is the price one pays for looking backwards. If he draws a 1950s Bakelite phone instead of a cellphone, this does not mean that he is being nostalgic. Rather, “the lines of communication … are contemporary even though the instruments are old” (interview with Christov-Bakargiev). As JM Coetzee notes in his essay on the History of the Main Complaint, “it would be a mistake to conclude … that Kentridge’s films are about a past era. A more likely explanation is that he simply finds the look, the style, the heft of those times congenial; perhaps also the mode of power then (centralized, dictatorial) is easier to image. There may even be a component of nostalgia in the backward look, as long as we recognize a certain loathing mixed in with the attachment (and is not precisely the mix of loathing and attachment what defines obsession?).”Here Coetzee has located the root of Kentridge’s seeming nostalgia, a nostalgia all too easily accepted as given and left unquestioned. If the instruments of high modernity – a Bakelite phone – are easier to image and more firmly locate the dictatorial fixities of power, this does not mean that Kentridge’s focus is reducible to these fixities. In the interview with Christov-Bakargiev, Kentridge defines his polemic of uncertainty – through the act of drawing – as “a model for knowledge”. This “model”, we must remember, is never finite or absolute. If Kentridge says that “what ends in certainty does not begin that way”, we must, in turn, question the aforementioned certainty. For Kentridge, certainty, like chance, is subject to erasure. Therein lies the highly appealing late modern paradox. What matters to Kentridge is “the unwilling suspension of disbelief”. This curiously fraught phrase points to Kentridge’s non-aligned and highly ambivalent relationship with the finite meaning of an image or a thought. His relationship with politics is as indeterminate: “concerned but distanced”. If this is so, it is because Kentridge – after Brecht – has always had a strange relationship with the familiar and a familiar relationship with the strange. It is this curious vertigo – which allows for belonging and non-belonging – that has given his art its querulous, suspended and cryptic edge.In ‘Landscape in a State of Siege’ (1988) he strips Africa of a putative innocence before colonialism. Instead, he affirms the “strange contradictory relationship between Western conquest and the tribalism that still endures”. Against the Edenic – akin to the “plague of the picturesque” – Kentridge speaks of a ceaseless “dismembering”; a layering of history upon history which renders impossible the desire to fix or separate the past and the present. “In the same way that there is a human act of dismembering the past … there is a natural process in the terrain through erosion, growth, dilapidation that also seeks to blot out events. In South Africa, this process has other dimensions. The very term ‘new South Africa’ has within it the idea of a painting over the old, the natural process of dismembering, the naturalization of things new.”In ‘The Body Drawn and Quartered’ Kentridge shifts from pentimenti to sonar, X-ray, MRI and CAT-scan. Here, I think, we find the core of Kentridge’s unsettling and highly suggestive vision: “Dissect as deep as you like and you will never find the mimetic reference of the sonar. They are already a metaphor. They are messages from an inside we may apprehend but can never grasp. In their separation from the apparent they come as reports from a distant and unknown place.”If Kentridge warrants the acclaim he has received, then it is because he has, through art, accessed the irreferential; that is, he has accessed the unpresentability of the sublime. His work does not define itself in relation to an external source. The work in itself is metaphor. What this suggests is that art – as metaphor, without mimetic reference – exists unto itself. As such, art is both ineffable and ontological. And yet, despite this insight, Kentridge’s art remains burdened by a retrospective marker which sets it up as a beacon for South Africa’s cultural progress and emergence within an international arena. Notwithstanding the singularity of his gift, why is it Kentridge more than any other artist who has been celebrated? Has his international success not skewed and deflected a domestic capacity to read his value? I am well aware that, here, I can be charged with parochialism. By challenging Kentridge’s international reputation, however, I am not – emphatically not – implying that those who broker and report on art within the nation’s borders automatically know better. Rather, I am interested in what it is that the rest – the West – find so deserving of praise.The answer lies in Kentridge’s readability within an international, specifically European, context. His aesthetic sensibility and lineage – other than Dumile Feni – is wholly European (Buchner, Goethe, Daumier, Hogarth, Goya, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, among others). Not only has he thoroughly digested and translated these influences, he has – by virtue of his (post)colonial location – added to this European store of knowledge. This addition is never cravenly deferential. In his director’s note to Faustus in Africa! Kentridge pointedly states that Faustus is a “riposte … to Hegel’s high-handed dictum … that ‘after the pyramids, World Spirit leaves Africa, never to return'”. In ‘Landscape in a State of Siege’ he challenges Theodor Adorno’s assertion that after Auschwitz lyric poetry is impossible. In short, Kentridge questions the very heritage he has made his own. In deconstructing this heritage he emerges as the bastard son of Empire: as its conscience. Hand in hand with Kentridge’s ethical riposte comes artistic innovation. The key innovation is his invention of a technique which comprises the redrawing and erasure of a given work which at each instant of its mutation is photographed and, eventually, animated. No drawing, therefore, is in itself completed. Rather, each is subject to erasure, each reconstituted, reframed, and assigned to a narrative unfolding which is never storyboarded and at no point conceived as closed. Kentridge’s distinction, then, lies in his repeated challenging of the closure of a given work. Here Kentridge’s thought process owes much to the deconstructive sensibility embodied in Derrida’s theory of erasure. This process, which in the moment of cancellation leaves the trace visible, tells the non-story: that which is occluded, that which is not immediately perceptible, which impacts upon the making of meaning. It is this deconstructive sense which makes for a way of understanding the world. The thought may not be original, but the distinctiveness of its application sets Kentridge apart. To what end, if any, does Kentridge forge his logic and its expression through art? Here, once again, we discover a distinctive – if critical – deferral to European thought. Like so many (white/male) South African artists, Kentridge has an avowedly uneasy relation to the country of his birth. This unease is thematically evident in his films and foregrounded in his most recent theatrical foray, Confessions of Zeno. While I understand Kentridge’s unease regarding the current confusions about a sense of place and purpose, embodied in the central figure of Zeno, I believe that the complacent appraisal thereof has tended to blunt the complexity of its agency. When, for instance, Kentridge asks that we keep “nihilism at bay and optimism in check” (‘Art in a State of Grace’), he is certainly posting a grievous concern regarding the ascendant danger of these respective drives. How he deals with and mediates these drives is worth closer examination. It is not mere ambiguity that Kentridge values, but a charged and self-reflexive ambivalence. When he states that “irony [is] the last refuge of the petit-bourgeoisie” (‘Art in a State of Grace’) we are alerted to his resistance to a prevailing tendency to sit on the fence and bitch from a position of power or lack thereof. What makes Kentridge so interesting, then, is the unsettlement of his position; an unsettlement needed in a society caught between the toll of fatalism and the clarion call of hope. Kentridge’s position, therefore, is a non-position: a negative critique of a lived and unresolved contradiction. Therein, I think, lies his appeal to a local and international audience which, similarly, finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. If Kentridge is so appealing today, it is not because his work posits a solution to an existing dilemma, but because it exemplifies that dilemma. His work is an extremely attractive sop for a troubled conscience. Does this, however, render the work worthy of such lavish acclaim? Is this all “great” work must be in this day and age? Is this what we want and need: muted passion, circumscribed and provisional logic, elliptical narrative, abridged representation? Are these the sources of present-day satisfaction? And is this the end-game which defines the co-optation of South African art, a co-optation which suggests not the distinctiveness of South African art but its post-liberatory inscription into a global malaise?What South African art emphatically does not need is the funereal glamour of a retrospective. A move of this nature is certainly premature with regard to an artist such as Kentridge who, I believe, would be far better served by a healthy inquiry into his aesthetic and ethical modus operandi. Here it is not only the international art community that is to blame, but also the domestic one which, invariably, has preferred craven reverence over an open-ended cultural engagement that is conducted – under erasure – within the present moment. My hunch is that Kentridge has not been party to the inflation and reification of his gift. That his peculiar – historically informed – obsessions have become international cultural capital says more about the market’s desperate attempts to transform its limit into a strength. The international success of Kentridge’s work is ironical: the work itself is not.One could, of course, ask: what artist in their right mind would resist such seductive and profitable international acclaim? Here Samuel Beckett comes to mind, as does JM Coetzee. The former declined the Nobel Prize, the latter remains wholly uninspired by the craven celebration which has diluted his fiction and afflicted his person. I imagine that Kentridge, though temperamentally dissimilar, remains similarly wary. Turn to any interview with the artist and one encounters a disarming modesty and pointed ambivalence. The artist’s reflections stand as hallmarks of intellectual and artistic clarity which, in the instant of insight, is always searching. The root of the problem, then, lies in how his work has been positioned. Here the prevailing fault lies with the critics, curators, and the hapless public who, knowing better, invariably follow accredited opinion like swine. For what is often forgotten is that Kentridge’s work, like that of any good artist, is driven first and foremost by a deeply private imaginary. That this must, by virtue of the laws of communication, become public, does not mean that it therefore becomes public property. Somewhere in the circuitry it is the private domain – which Kentridge cherishes more than any other – that is lost. By restoring the value of the private to the public I believe that we will restore the particularity of the rights – and rites – of taste unbludgeoned by the tendency, so striking both domestically and internationally, to bestow from above some value which a given work – in this case Kentridge’s – so patently rejects.