Freeze Frame: William Kentridge’s Tapestry Projections

Published on December 7th, 2010 by Nicole Caruth

In Chapter 7 of Anything is Possible, viewers are taken behind the scenes of Stephens Tapestry Studio in Johannesburg, the exclusive manufacturer of William Kentridge’s tapestries since 2001. As the camera pans this brightly lit space, occupied by looms and balls of spun mohair, women weavers work and sing in harmony as they translate one of Kentridge’s drawings into woven form. This scene is captivating not only for the joyousness portrayed in the making of the tapestries, but also because of this method of reproducing his drawings. Tapestry is a curious choice that begs further examination, in particular the question: why has Kentridge chosen this loaded Western form to illustrate South African history?

Tapestry is one of the oldest forms of woven textile and dates back to antiquity in Egypt, Asia, and Pre-Columbian America.[1] Typically used as decorative wall hangings — and even insulation — tapestries were designed to move easily from one home or palace to another.[2] They are objects meant to be rolled up and transported, as Kentridge says in Anything is Possible, “like portable mural[s].” Tapestries were also symbols of wealth. Kentridge’s tapestries are made using the French Gobelin high-warp technique, which came to prominence in 17th century France and is largely associated with the royal court of King Louis XIV. French Gobelin is characterized by the weaving of threads in a horizontal motion on a vertical loom. But before weavers can begin, the drawing that is being reproduced must be translated into a cartoon — a life-size replica drawn on tough paper and itself created through a multimedia and multistep process of photographing, enlarging, modifying, and drawing that takes approximately two months to complete. The completed cartoon (made by a cartoon maker with Stephens’s assistance) is placed behind the loom to serve as a guide or map for the weavers, who then create the tapestry from the bottom up. The finished product is essentially a grid of pixels or dots of color that form a pattern—not unlike a digital image or projection.

William Kentridge, "Porter Series: Amerique septentrionale (Bundle on Back)," 2007. Tapestry weave with embroidery, Warp: polyester, Weft and embroidery: mohair, acrylic, silk, and polyester, 122 7/16 x 90 15/16 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

The process of creating Kentridge’s tapestries is less about translating one medium to another than it is “a precisely calculated blurring of the possibility of conceiving of photography, drawing, and projection as separate and independent mediums,” writes curator Carlos Basualdo.[3] In this light, projection refers to how Kentridge himself understands tapestry. Rather than thinking of these works as mere reproductions of his drawings, the artist sees the form as “frozen projection.” This suggests that the loom, like the camera for the artist’s films and videos, is a mechanism for achieving a larger dimensional view of his original paper images. Along these lines, the loom can be one of the many devices to which Kentridge refers when he says in William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible, “I’m interested in machines that tell you what it is to look, that make you aware of the process of seeing, make you aware of what you do when you construct the world by looking at it.” Certainly, film and video would seem the more effective (or at least more popular) means of achieving this in our contemporary technologically-sophisticated time. But Kentridge pushes viewers to reject conventional ideas of tapestry as antiquated and to instead see the form with a digital frame of mind.

In 2007, Kentridge’s tapestries were the focus of an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By that time, Stephens Studio had completed nearly one hundred tapestries based on seventeen of Kentridge’s Puppet Drawings—a series characterized by torn black paper silhouettes pasted on top of nineteenth-century atlas maps of cities, both recognizable and imagined. Unlike paradisiacal or religious scenes typical of Western tapestries, Kentridge’s are crude and unconventional in their simplicity. Painstakingly woven details typical of the form, such as flora and fauna, are non-existent here. Cream-colored backgrounds are marked with numbers, as well as faint black and gray lines indicating latitude and longitude coordinates and geographical features such as mountains and bodies of water. Jagged human figures, bearing rusty-brown skin like weather-worn steel sculptures, look to move across these bleak surfaces. More monstrous than angelic, they are inscribed neither with race nor gender. Magnified on a monumental scale, the figures not only dominate the terrains they traverse but also the viewer too. When art critic Eric Gelber wrote about an exhibition of Renaissance tapestries in 2002, he observed, “Entering a room with a series of tapestries hung in it [in the Renaissance Era] must have been awe-inspiring, equivalent to the experience of seeing a film in a movie theater for the first time.”[4] In Kentridge’s exhibition, the tapestries, too, must have been quite dramatic en masse and even cinematic. But the moving image is fleeting whereas tapestry is fixed, its threads having ”frozen” things in time and place and thereby allowing closer scrutiny (or at least greater awareness) of the topography and the conditions under which Kentridge renders his subjects.

William Kentridge, "Procession," detail, 1999–2000. Set of 26 bronze figures, dimensions variable between 15 3/4 x 11 x 10 3/5 in. and 13 x 10 x 6 7/10 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.

In Norwège, Suède et Danemark (Porter with Chairs), (2005), a lone figure walks across this Arctic region, hunched over and bent at the knees from the weight of chairs piled upon its back. Its gaze is directed toward the ground. The scene is similar in Russie d’Europe (Man with Bed on Back) (2007), but this time the figure bears a bed and, perhaps, a small companion resting on top of it. Many of the tapestries shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including these two, share the title Porter Series (2001-present). The porter, a person hired to carry burdens or baggage or who is responsible for cleaning a building or factory, is a recurring subject in Kentridge’s work and is usually depicted carrying or pulling a heavy load while walking alone or in a procession.[5] For instance, in the opening scene of the film Monument (1990), a solitary figure walks across a barren landscape with a block upon his or her back. In Stair Procession (2000), a torn paper drawing installed in a staircase at MoMA P.S.1 in New York, human and biomorphic silhouettes appear to climb the stairs alongside the viewer. Where are these figures going? The porters in the tapestries—who walk to unknown destinations hampered by objects upon their heads and backs—suggest nomadism, displacement, and the inability to lay down one’s burdens. For if the subjects were staying and these locations were their homes, why would they bear the weight of things such as a bed or chairs that are essential to home and daily life?

The Porter Series tells stories of diaspora, the movement or migration of people. Basualdo conjectures that the very making of them, which begins in the mountainous terrain of Swaziland, might replicate the possible journey of Kentridge’s porters, from country to city, farms and mines to townships, to the urban streets and suburbs of Johannesburg where Stephens’s shop is located.[6] “The tapestries” he writes, “could be thought to monumentalize the history of the landscape in relation to the city.”[7] However, the locations of the porters in the tapestries extend beyond South Africa to countries like Spain, Denmark, and Russia. In Espagne ancienne (Porter with Dividers) (2005), a single figure walks across an old map of Spain, appearing to be bound to the large drafting compass that trails behind its body. The tool implies that the porter’s path is being sketched on the landscape; that the act of migrating will be inscribed on the land itself. Elsewhere in his oeuvre, Kentridge certainly articulates his keen awareness to how landscapes evince political, cultural, and emotional pasts, particularly in the artist’s native South Africa, in films like Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989) and Mine (1991). But where the films are a means of conjuring the landscape of apartheid, telling or reminding viewers of its history and how it impacted the environment, his tapestries are a reminder of how history is visible (read: projected) across all landscapes. If we just stand back, as the tapestries force us to do, we can see how lands have developed and continue to show how people move across them.

Production still from the film "William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible." © Art21, Inc. and The Metropolitan Opera, 2010.

Kentridge has continued to work with Marguerite Stephens and her team of weavers since the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition, and in Anything Is Possible, we see his newer tapestries, bearing equestrian and nose motifs, that relate to his recent productions, I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) and The Nose (2010). And by now, it is not hard to imagine, at least in theory, how these tapestries could serve as backdrops to his productions—as surrogates for his video projections. In a culture inundated with digital imagery and projections and large-scale everything, tapestry is not such a curious choice. For if anything, Kentridge’s tapestries act as a meditation on the present: in a fast-moving culture inundated with faster-moving digital imagery, what could better provoke viewers to slow down and become more aware of processes of looking and seeing than to freeze the frame, so to speak, in a form as old and analog as tapestry?

[1] Gabrielle Guercio, “Becoming Aware in a World of People on the Move,” William Kentridge: Tapestries (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2007) 43.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carlos Basualdo, “Office Love,” William Kentridge: Tapestries (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Yale University Press, 2007) 14.

[4] Eric Gelber, “Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence,” Artcritical, March 1, 2002.

[5] Guercio, 46.

[6] Basualdo, 20.

[7] Ibid.

One Response to “Freeze Frame: William Kentridge’s Tapestry Projections”

  1. [...] participatory, or research-based forms of art.  I really like William Kentridge’s tapestries, for which the artist collaborated with a Johannesburg-based weaving art studio.  Kentridge was [...]

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