Magic Tricks in the Dark

An earlier, unfinished version of this post went out to my subscribers by mistake yesterday although I immediately deleted it and it does not appear on the blog itself. Also, for subscribers who receive these posts in their email: this post contains videos that you will not see in the email program, you have to click on the site itself.

I shouldn’t be surprised at what gets media attention: my previous post, about Marina Abramovic’s live performance in “The Artist is Present” went viral, mainly because of the louche interest elicited by my speculations on how she pees. That is to say, I got attention not so much for what else I said about her exhibition at MoMA but just for that one provocative question. Meanwhile I’ve been stymied in my efforts to figure out how to convey the importance to me of a particular moment sitting in the dark in William Kentridge‘s installation of 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès. But since the Kentridge show closes May 17 and I hope that anyone who has not seen the show will go see it, I’ll try to pull out of the darkness a few stray thoughts suggested by my experience of his work, like the floating pages that Kentridge snatches from the air as they float into his hands in several of his recent films. (This is a series of impressions, not a review, Roberta’s Smith’s New York Times review when the show opened offers a fair assessment).

I had set out in New York City last month to look for art works to fall in love with. Of all the categories of falling in love that I identified, the one that mattered the most because it was in some way attainable yet not total, was the category of something, however fragmentary, that would propel me back into my studio with sense of affirmation of creativity and a provocation for honesty and frankness of the gesture. Sitting for the first time facing Tabula Rasa I (2003), one of the 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, I was thrilled by a particular moment where the dark liquid in a coffee cup is poured out on a sheet of white paper as a cloud of charcoal dust, and the charcoal seems to draws itself, the paper is folded and when the artist reopens it, he gazes on a self-portrait of himself at the table .

William Kentridge, still from Tabula Rasa I, 2003, from 7 Pieces for Georges Melies

Kentridge’s films are interesting in that they are made up of elements that in themselves are not necessarily that interesting. The individual charcoal drawings that make up his films are done in a stodgy, static, outdated academic style, which may be deliberate and strategic but I think is also just the way he draws; in his most recent works, the film tricks he borrows from the early history of film animation, including a consistent use of reverse motion, may seem even more obsolescent; the music in all the films has a slightly nostalgic quality that could be too sentimental. The work doesn’t have an iota of the kind of ironic distance that remains so much a marker of contemporaneity in art. Yet when the drawings are put into constant motion of inventive fluidity, the music lends a driving haunting quality that transcends the nostalgic, and the subject matter whether it is apartheid in South Africa or the private life of the studio artist is literary, personal, generous, and modest, all in the best sense, the totality of the work speaks to a genuine and impressive confidence in the artist’s own creativity, and in creativity in general.

The first time I saw the Kentridge show, I was thinking to myself, “this work makes me want to go home and work,” and, also,  “I have to step up my game.” (Just then, Susan Bee, sitting next to me in the dark room spoke up, “This work is too good, it makes you want to give up.” She said that I had left that category out of my list of types of falling in love with art!) The work opens up the possibility of serious creative play for the artist/viewer precisely because it is made up of so many unpromising or unremarkable components and because Kentridge never uses his confidence in his own work as a weapon, as so many artists do (see the first room on the 6th floor of MoMA of  Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present in contradistinction).

The recent work’s focus on the artist’s studio practice, the action of making, of reaching for an idea, literally snatching ideas as they float past you, about pigment, matter and its vanishing, is echoed in the quotes used to good effect in the wall text:

“Walking, thinking, stalking the image. Many of the hours spent in the studio are hours spent walking, pacing back and forth across the space, gathering the energy, the clarity to make the first mark …It is as if before the work can begin (the visible finished work of the drawing, film or sculpture) a different invisible work must be done.”

Beyond this invisible or seemingly unproductive preparatory work, which Kentridge literalizes by filming himself pacing in his studio, looking through books, day dreaming about his wife who then appears, touches his shoulder and as quickly disappears from the frame, a naked but unidealized body, Kentridge also comments on the importance of  process even when the results are not immediately evident:

“Everything can be saved. Everything is provisional. A prior action is rescued by that which follows. A drawing abandoned is revised by the next drawing. … The smudges of erasure thicken time in the film, but they also serve as a record of the days and months spent making the fim — a record of thinking in slow motion.”

Kentridge’s commitment to retaining the the trace of process continues in “Double Lines, A ‘Stereo’ Interview about Drawing with William Kentridge” by Michael Auping, in the exhibition catalogue. Auping notes that Kentridge preferred to annotate the transcript of their interview, rather than polishing it into a smooth unified text. Auping writes, “He is not a polisher. He is a questioner. Reflecting the dialectical character  of Kentridge’s art, the interview takes the form of a self-argument. …As with his alter egos Felix and Soho, Kentridge in essence doubles himself in this interview by not only answering my original questions but also questioning his own answers.” In one such internal dialogue, Kentridge speaks about drawing (I’ve put the question of the answer into a lighter font color and, as in the catalogue layout, a further indent):

WK: […] If you have little money, drawing materials are not that difficult to come by. Drawing does not in most cases require special tools. In South Africa that matters in some fundamental ways. There is a democracy to drawing, and a certain kind of work ethic. One of the things that attracts me to drawing, and that in some way relates to its politics, is that it is a demonstration of agency. There is something about the act of drawing that reflect a process of labor. You have a sense of work, at least for me.

There is no work ethic. Or that is not what I am interested in. It is the appearance of work, making visible the hours on the paper. In an era in which the human labor in everything was clear, there was something utopian in making art appear effortless or at least miraculous. Now that we take the impossible for granted — digital animation, Photoshop (the invisible workings of a computer compared to the very visible and audible mechanics of a typewriter) — there seems a place for showing physical process (And through this mental process; this is not clear, but some impulse in this direction sits in my guts — not that they are to be trusted either).

These statements about materiality, process, and failure are ever more important to hear and read and see. So many young artists I know feel so much pressure to produce a marketable product that they never can trust themselves to engage in process, in making and unmaking. So much of Kentridge’s work reflects on process, change, and the constant attempt to make and unmake an image.

There is a characteristic gesture in Tabula Rasa I that caught my attention, one that recurs in a number of these works about studio practice and it is to the point of this emphasis on creativity as the very subject of Kentridge’s work: the hands of the artist as he prepares to draw or sculpt engaged in a ritual gesture of tentative prestidigitation, to conjure up the image or the mark. It is a gesture that is so self-ironizing about the artistic process that Art Carney used it often for classic comic effect in The Honeymooners, as Ed Norton, to preface the most mundane task. This film fragment captures some of these moments:

Unfortunately  it is impossible to provide good quality video links to the works that most relate to Kentridge’s homage to Méliès — such as Méliès’ The Trip to the Moon from 1902 — and to his recent use of live action animation: here it would be great to be able to see Shoot the Moon (1963), Red Grooms’ own tribute to the Méliès film, made with Rudy Burckhardt and Mimi Gross, and his live animation masterpiece, Fat Feet (1966), made with Yvonne Andersen, Dominic Falcone, and Mimi Gross, both of which sadly are not yet available on DVD. These works share Kentridge’s  pleasure in the simple magic of film although the Grooms films are less melancholic and more anarchic than Kentridge.

The degree to which the studio in Kentridge’s films is a construct and a fiction becomes clear when you see a bit of Kentridge working in his actual studio, in a clip of Art21: Kentridge’s “character” The Studio (as much a character as his other alter egos) is an intimate, dimly lit space, in perpetual twilight, seen through the scrim of the kind of greyed out scratches reminiscent of silent film. Thus it comes as a bit of shock when you see that his studio is in fact a brightly lit, state of the art, very clean space practically arranged with the requisite number of assistants.

But it is the very brightness of this actual space that makes some of Kentridge’s most recent work so strong, particularly his live performance of I Am Not Me, the Horse is Not Mine. I wish everyone I know could have shared the excitement of seeing this performance live last fall, followed the next evening by Joan Jonas’ performance of Reading Dante II, both part of performa09. There were some interesting similarities: the combination of new media with the most basic, oldest human means of artistic expression, — the body and drawing — an improvisational humble texture of the piece, the combination of video projection with very simple props and the body and voice of the artist, and literature (Dante and Gogol) as an important source read out loud by the artist. Both together made for a really inspiring and great week to be an artist!

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