William Kentridge’s Black Box: Mozart, Goya, and the Darkening of the EnlightenmentPublished on November 2nd, 2010 by Thomas Micchelli
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) were born ten years apart, and both were influenced by the Enlightenment’s belief in the perfectibility of the human race through the power of reason. This, it would seem, is where their similarities end.
Today, Mozart is viewed as an exemplar of Classical idealism whose world of powdered wigs, waistcoats, and courtly manners is light years away from our own. Goya, by contrast, was a Romantic pessimist whose extreme self-expression makes him the first modern artist in the minds of many. Yet these two essential, antithetical figures find common ground in the imagination of contemporary artist William Kentridge.
For anyone with a passing knowledge of the work of Goya, Kentridge’s suite of eight intaglio prints, Little Morals (1991), should have a familiar ring. In Negotiations Begin, one of the most caustic images of the series, Kentridge lifts two figures from Plate 12 of the Spanish artist’s Disparates (Follies, also known as Los Proverbios, ca. 1820) and drops them, virtually wholesale, into his circle of fools riotously dancing in sight of a naked body tied to a stake. One of those dancers, a fellow in a bulky overcoat with a megaphone where his face ought to be (perhaps prefiguring the artist’s designs for Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 opera The Nose), reappears in another of the Little Morals prints, Procession of the Delegates. This time, however, his flung-apart arms recall the central victim in Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814).
The imagery throughout Little Morals (featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 exhibition William Kentridge: Five Themes) evokes the style and sense of Goya’s great print folios, such as Los Caprichos (1799), La Tauromaquia (1815-1816), and The Disasters of War (1810-1820). Their compositional framework — often featuring grotesques arrayed against a minimal or nonexistent background — creates a theatrical space that foregrounds their moral outrage. Like Goya’s Disparates, Kentridge’s title, Little Morals, may plainly bespeak his intentions, but the prints are hardly straightforward. Cloaked in enigmatic imagery, they sidestep didacticism in favor of poetic indirection.
On September 30, 1791, two hundred years before Kentridge completed Little Morals, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s singspiel The Magic Flute premiered at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. The order, simplicity, and grace emanating from Mozart’s music — especially from The Magic Flute, his last theatrical work — couldn’t be farther in theme or character from Goya’s 19th-century horror shows. But Mozart, who died two years after the storming of the Bastille, did not experience the turbulent aftermath of the French Revolution. This climaxed in the Napoleonic wars and, particularly for Goya — much of whose early work reflected the same radiant optimism as Mozart’s music — the French invasion of Spain.
Just as he references Goya in Little Morals, Kentridge repurposes the music of The Magic Flute for the soundtrack of his mechanical theater piece, Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005). Commissioned by Deutsche Bank and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, Black Box is an intricately constructed raised proscenium stage, 12 twelve feet high, 6.5 feet wide and 4.5 feet deep, with drawings and projections, including live-action and animated films, and mechanized puppets that roll in and out of the wings. As Maria-Christina Villaseñor explains in her essay on the piece, Kentridge “considers the term ‘black box’ in three senses: a ‘black box’ theater, a ‘chambre noire’ as it relates to photography, and the ‘black box’ flight data recorder used to record information in an airline disaster.” Black Box/Chambre Noire, therefore, becomes a container of tragic memory, captured in sound and light and filtered through the formal properties of art.
Black Box/Chambre Noire recounts the German suppression of the Herero uprising in present-day Namibia (then known as German South West Africa). At the turn of the 20th century, the already-considerable tension between the indigenous Herero people and the colonial regime became exacerbated as an ever-increasing number of settlers flooded the area and expanded their expropriation of Herero land. In 1904, war broke out and the German commander, General Lothar von Trotha, responded with a genocidal policy of massacre, rape, and starvation, slaughtering thousands of men, women, and children. Many more died after fleeing into the harsh Omaheke desert, where von Trotha had cordoned off the waterholes. The survivors were later put to work in forced labor camps.
In a 2005 interview with Cheryl Kaplan, Kentridge explains that at “the Berlin Conference of 1884, Africa was partitioned; that was seen as an Enlightenment project, bringing lightness to the dark continent.” (In 1915, South Africa wrested the territory from Germany and ruled it until Namibia’s independence in 1990.) By underscoring the rationalist basis for physical brutality and economic exploitation which he, as a white South African growing up during apartheid, also witnessed firsthand, Kentridge casts the utopian aspirations illustrated by The Magic Flute, via Black Box’s musical score, into deep wells of irony.
In Art21’s documentary, William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible, we hear Sarastro’s aria from The Magic Flute, “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” (“Within these hallowed halls revenge is unknown”), sung by bass Wilhelm Strienz with Thomas Beecham conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, as a megaphone-headed puppet — reminiscent of the figure in the print series Little Morals — moves across the stage wearing a signboard with the word Trauerarbeit inscribed on its front.
Kentridge defines Trauerarbeit in the Kaplan interview as “the work of mourning. Freud writes about that in 1917 in Mourning and Melancholy…how memory compares to reality and what it takes to arrive at an objective view once the lost object is actually gone. It’s a process of detachment and de-vesting.” If, for Freud, Trauerarbeit is a process of detachment, of reconciling with a traumatic episode so one can begin to deal with it more objectively, then what Kentridge seems to be doing in his approach to the Herero genocide is a process of reattachment — of reconstructing the disheveled shards of memory so that the emotional work of grieving and, ultimately, of understanding can take place.
The artist further explains, in a voiceover in the film:
The [Beecham] recording we use in Black Box was made in Berlin in 1937. And there’s a sense of what does it mean to be singing a song about the benevolence of humankind and the brotherhood of man, with all of the Nazi brass celebrating that moment. If I didn’t find the music beautiful and seductive, then one could just ignore it. But the fact that one is caught by it — but understands that intolerable situation in which it is being produced — is the starting point of the energy to spend those months making the piece.
By the cruel turns of history, the sublime melody that Mozart wrote for Sarastro’s aria will one day provide window dressing for psychosis, barbarity, and genocide in the Germanys of Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler, which Kentridge conflates through the Thomas Beecham recording. In the catalogue for the William Kentridge: Five Themes exhibition, the artist states, “As a symbol of the Enlightenment, Sarastro [the high priest in The Magic Flute] combines all knowledge with all power. In the 218 years since Mozart wrote the opera, we have come to realize what a toxic mixture this is: the combination of certainty (because with knowledge or wisdom comes also the certainty of that wisdom) and the right to a monopoly of violence.” In other words, rationalism breeds rationalization. This, in turn, leads to self-delusion and the will to power.
Beauty and violence — the Janus head of so-called advanced civilizations — are indelibly marked in the legacy of the Enlightenment, which was itself cleft by the French Revolution. One face of the Janus head is Mozart’s, gazing back at a faith in rationalism that culminated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the other is Goya’s, confronting The Terror and The Disasters of War. Kentridge channels both visions—Apollonian order and Dionysian chaos—in Black Box, where the loftiness of Sarastro’s aria seeps into our time by way of imperial cultures (Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany) that travestied Enlightenment ideals. He uses 21st-century hindsight to wrap parentheses around that which is “beautiful and seductive” about the Enlightenment, as embodied in Mozart’s music. At the same time, he foregrounds the “intolerable situation” of what has been wrought in its name — just as Goya did in his Third of May 1808 and Disasters of War. As Kentridge says of Black Box in the Five Themes catalogue, “It is not a sequel to The Magic Flute; rather, it is a sort of health warning to accompany it.”
Perhaps it is Kentridge’s suspicion of the “beautiful and seductive” that has deterred him from engaging in the conventional hallmark of a visual artist, namely the practice of painting. On the contrary, he seems to produce everything but: drawings, collages, prints, animated and live-action films, theatrical designs, even tapestries, but always with a minimum of color (where any appears at all) and a resistance to sensual surfaces. Also, for much of his work—like Goya with his printing press or the elaborate stage machinery Mozart needed for The Magic Flute’s special effects (which included trials by fire and water) — Kentridge relies on forms of mechanical intervention that are dependent upon but distanced from the touch of the human hand. The apparent distrust of sensuality and preciousness can be interpreted as a democratizing impulse in his artmaking (further expressed by the frequent participation of collaborators), which Kentridge manifests as multiples or an ephemeral film or theater work, offering them as replacements for the invariably expensive, handmade object.
This reliance on mechanical mediation might also be seen as a critique of authenticity in art, most commonly conveyed in modern painting through the slash of a loaded brush and its connotations of outsized emotion. Kentridge steps away from such freighted gestures, countering them with an allegiance to undisguised fakery. The more complex his apparatus (nowhere more evident than in Black Box), the more blatant his artifice of illusion. Although Kentridge has explored the latest video technology for some of his works, many of his cinematic effects are executed by the simplest and most detectable of means — techniques that were available to Georges Méliès, whom Kentridge so admires, at the turn of the 20th century. Through such obvious trickery, he externalizes his agnosticism toward rationalism and emotionalism, both of which are prone to self-deception.
“This thing I’ve made” — Kentridge seems to be saying — “will never lie to you because it is already patently false. To see it at all is to see right through it.” And it is this sense of fakery — the insights we glean from the pleasure of knowing we are being deceived — that invites us, as postmodern viewers, into his work. By conjuring illusions that he steadfastly refuses to mask, he fuses the clarity of the Enlightenment with the nightmares of its aftermath. This assertion of the strength of his metaphors through the truth of their falsehoods allows us, jaded and knowing as we are, to plunge unimpeded into his unabashed kindling of the marvelous.
 Music by Philip Miller (sung by Alfred Makgalemele and Vevangua Muuondjo). Musical recordings in Namibia by Minette Mans and Philip Miller
 Villaseñor, Maria-Christina. “William Kentridge: Black Box/Chambre Noire, 29.10.05-15.1.06.” Deutsche Guggenheim. Web. Accessed on 05 Oct. 2010: http://www.deutsche-guggenheim.de/e/ausstellungen-kentridge01.php.
 Abbink, J.; de Bruijn, Mirjam; van Walraven, Klaas. Rethinking Resistance: Revolt and Violence in African History. Leiden, the Netherlands; Boston: Brill, 2003. 281-286.
 Kentridge, William; Rosenthal, Mark; Aupig, Michael. William Kentridge: Five Themes. San Francisco, Calif.: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; West Palm Beach, Fla.: Norton Museum of Art; New Haven, Conn.: in association with Yale University Press, 171.
 Ibid., 171.