Not Making SensePublished on January 6th, 2011 by Catherine Wagley
When I was in college, a linocut by William Kentridge hung in the Art Department stairwell, and I saw it daily. Called Walking Man Turning into a Tree, it’s a dense, dark image of a body that barely fits inside the picture plane. The only things indisputably human about it are its endearingly highbrow legs—they look like they could belong to the eccentric sort of professor who lectures passionately on Kierkegaard then square dances in the evenings. The legs push forward while the torso and head above them morph into craggy tree branches. Similarly craggy trees speckle the horizon in the background, indicating a merging of body and context. The Walking Man is about to become just another feature of the landscape.
This linocut made personhood out to be both idiosyncratic and utterly helpless, and it resonated with the sensibility of my college self. At that point, I knew little about Kentridge, other than that he’d been called a political artist, and was a white South African with a virtuosic sense of space and a long attention span—making a single animated short could take him a year. He often grappled with apartheid’s still-raw legacy in his art, but his politics were rather vague and overwhelmed by a sense of self-searching.
At the small liberal arts college I attended, students often had grave discussions about what it meant to be privileged and progressive—in other words, what it meant to be us—swapping political awareness for a cozy sense of self-awareness. An image like Walking Man, which suggests people are bound to their context in spite of themselves, felt strangely comforting to us, just like it felt comforting to read Susan Sontag saying we “can’t understand, can’t imagine” war’s terrifying violence, or to acknowledge empathy’s frailty. At least we weren’t supposed to understand. But we hadn’t yet realized how awful and unjust it is to be unable to understand, and that recognizing your distance from someone else’s suffering doesn’t excuse you from trying to get closer.
William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible, a film that focuses more on the politics of Kentridge’s process than his message, shows his work to be far less comforting than I originally thought. In fact, his projects endlessly agonize over the problem I once thought they solved: that of understanding your own relationship to context, especially when that context is racked with violence that only indirectly affects you.
Because Kentridge’s work already grapples with alienation and because it tends to be visually poetic, it can be easy to overlook its violence in favor of its beauty, especially for those of us who see South Africa as a distant landscape for which we have few concrete reference points. Lately, I’ve found myself looking at Kentridge through the lens of tragedies geographically and emotionally closer to me, though they still feel weirdly removed. Saying my relationship to AIDS mirrors Kentridge’s to apartheid would be presumptuous and probably inaccurate, of course. But it’s not presumptuous to say I relate to the self-versus-context struggle Kentridge’s work depicts because I feel paradoxical vested in and distant from a different crisis, one that began to end around the same time apartheid did but still holds residual, insidious sway over U.S. culture and politics.
Critic and poet Eileen Myles describes a vein of non-fiction writing that emerged in the 1980s, around the same time Kentridge began making art. According to Myles, this non-fiction emerged as an indirect response to AIDS. Personal narrative became more guttural than factual, and certain “true” writing resisted being “responsive to anything other than [its] own sense of annihilation and distress.” Writers tried desperately to be honest while keeping some distance from the crisis tearing up their world, wanting to probe what pain and death looked like without accepting pain or death. So they dealt with their feelings self-indulgently, letting frustration drive their narratives. Kentridge seems to be this trend’s visual equivalent, a non-fiction narrator who dwells on the frustration of not fully understanding violence rather than representing violence directly.
Kentridge’s Felix in Exile (1994), an animated short about an isolated aesthete, almost drowns in frustration. At the film’s start, Felix, who can’t distinguish melancholia from social awareness, sits nearly naked in a barebones room. The room slowly fills with heavy-handed charcoal renderings of the South African landscape and, by the end, the once desolate room is full of wet and thick corpse-ridden, debris-filled drawings (some made by Felix, others by his lover, a stately black activist). They’re obsessive efforts to relate to what is happening outside. But since Felix remains walled off, these efforts induce sympathy more than anything; the drawings cannot bridge the distance between him and the world outside.
Felix in Exile is the fourth film in Drawings for Projection, a series of nine shorts that began in 1989, the year of the Cape Town peace march, and continued through the next decade. Felix is one of two general protagonists, both of whom are white and Kentridge look-alikes—as the series progresses, they resemble the artist more and more, hair thinning and bodies morphing. A second protagonist, a typical sort of robber-baron named Soho Eckstein, “owns half of Johannesburg.”
By the time of Stereoscope, the eighth film in the series, Soho has presumably been disenfranchised and unrest has swept through Johannesburg. Wires from Soho’s factories shoot through the city like bullets, impaling people—including an iteration of Soho, who has split into multiple bodies. When he pulls himself back together, he’s in a barren room, leaking water out of pockets and limbs until he’s surrounded by bluish fluids.
Kentridge completed Stereoscope just a year after the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a half-formal court in which perpetrators of violence confessed crimes in exchange for amnesty, presented its final report. Soho’s leaking resonates with Commission-era confessions; it’s as if he’s attempting to connect with the world he has previously exploited by spilling out into it. Clearer and calmer than the heavy, quick lines that make up Soho’s figure, the fluids have a quieting effect on the film. But the quiet leaves Soho alone with himself, still walled off from his world, just like Felix was.
In Kentridge’s most recent project, part of the self escapes from the body to which it belongs and ventures out on its own, making the relationship between self and context all the more confusing. Called I am not me, the horse is not mine, the project loosely responds to Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose. In Gogol’s story, Kovalyev, a man whose nose has gone missing wanders around noseless, looking for the part of himself that got away (“Such incidents really do happen in the world,” writes Gogol). Meanwhile, the nose does well for itself, rising in the ranks of public officialdom and reaching a higher station than its former owner. It’s a classic metaphor for social violence: the part separates from the whole, and tries to dominate the whole, causing a power imbalance that could wreak havoc.
Kentridge’s drawings for the project (which have since been incorporated into an opera) show those endearing legs from Walking Man peeking out from underneath the silhouette of an oversized nose. Again and again, the nose climbs up a metal ladder and falls back down, having failed to secure a place for itself at the top. As it falls, it cracks apart in the way Humpty-Dumpty must have. Without a place for itself, the nose can never feel, or be, complete and in Gogol’s story, this eventually leads it back to Kovalyev.
Gogol’s Kovalyev has a general lack of significance that makes him as grating to the reader as to the public with which he interacts (newspaper men, doctors, and officials nearly all find him preposterous). But how could Kovalyev not be grating? As unpleasant as nose-loss must be, he turns his need for personal wholeness into a public issue, and it’s embarrassing to be so openly self-absorbed.
Kentridge’s work risks the embarrassment of self-absorption over and over again by exposing its distance from what it attempts to understand. This makes the work intensely honest. A self matters, Kentridge tells us, as does that self’s history, racial position, privilege and shortcomings, but self-searching is a dicey, often unpleasant thing to share with the world.
I supposed it would be possible to forget about oneself and soak up the experiences of others instead, especially others who have a more specific relationship to apartheid, AIDS, or any other crisis, and have learned how to talk about it. But that would be cheap, and ultimately unproductive. Our job is to understand our own experience of the world, or at least to try. Otherwise, understanding could reach an impasse, and I can’t think of anything more terrifying.
In William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible, Kentridge addresses a theatre audience. “My job is to make drawings, not to make sense,” he says. It’s a flip sidestepping of what he’s really doing: doggedly rehashing, in drawing after drawing, the difficulty of making sense of a world that consistently eludes us.
 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2004), 125.
 Eileen Myles, “Chewing the Fat about AIDS—Arts Today with Eileen Myles,” Artists with Aids, http://www.artistswithaids.org/artery/symposium/symposium_myles.html
 Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose,” The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 323-326.