"You know, art can be something which can really disempower people, or it can be a vehicle which can empower people."
From "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 (2009)
This episode features three artists — William Kentridge, Doris Salcedo, and Carrie Mae Weems — whose works explore conscience and the possibility of understanding and reconciling past and present, while exposing injustice and expressing tolerance for others.
William Kentridge asks “how does one find a way of not necessarily illustrating the society that one lives in, but allowing what happens there to be part of the work?” Shooting without a script when making his animations, Kentridge’s experimental method demonstrates “thinking with one’s hands” and proposes an “understanding of the world as process rather than as fact.” Filmed working in his Johannesburg studio with an opera singer and pianist, the artist is shown creating a video projection out of torn paper choreographed to a Puccini aria recorded through a cell phone. The segment follows Kentridge’s interest in opera as he stages a video installation and performance at the Sydney Biennial in Australia. The segment also showcases a series of anamorphic films projected onto circular tabletops, with a mirrored cylinder at the center that reconstitutes the distorted image.
“Narrative and storytelling is in the blood,” declares Carrie Mae Weems. Through a mixture of archival personal photos and the artist’s first major photo-documentary series, "Family Pictures and Stories," Weems takes the viewer on a personal journey through her childhood in the 1950s to a broader examination of “the history of black subjects in photography” in the series "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried." Continually innovating, Weems has since adopted new strategies of picture making in the series "Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment" in which students at the Savannah College of Art and Design reenact pivotal Civil Rights and new moments from the past forty years. The segment follows the artist back to her home in Syracuse, New York, where she is seen staging the second chapter of the project in an ornate hotel ballroom, focusing on the drama of the 2008 presidential campaign.
“I am a Third World artist,” says Doris Salcedo, “from that perspective—from the perspective of the victim, from the perspective of the defeated people—it’s where I’m looking at the world.” Filmed in her Bogotá, Colombia studio while preparing a series of abstract sculptures based on antique household furniture, the artist devotes careful attention to the tormented wooden finishes and smooth concrete surfaces of her objects. “I don’t work based on imagination, on fiction,” she explains, characterizing her role as a “secondary witness” to the victims of violence whose testimonies she collects as research for her pieces, such as "Atrabiliarios" at SFMoMA, the "Unland" series of tables, the ephemeral installation "Noviembre 6 y 7," and "Shibboleth"—a 160 meter crack in the foundation of Tate Modern in London.