It's rare to walk into a cutting-edge contemporary art exhibit and find work that is wildly original, completely comprehensible, beautiful, moving, and brave. But William Kentridge, a South African artist whose nationwide tour recently opened at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum, allows just that. This first U.S. survey of his work goes to New York in June, Chicago in October, and Houston and Los Angeles next year. It's a road show that makes the recent work of some American and British artists feel like the squeak and whine of self-important gerbils.
Kentridge has invented a new medium—an unusual combination of drawing and film. He begins with a charcoal drawing on paper, which he films for a few frames. He goes back to the paper, draws some more, and then films those changes. Sometimes he erases parts of the completed drawing and films those changes. It takes him a week to make 40 seconds of film. The films are short—about seven or nine minutes in duration.
In 1989, Kentridge made the first of what would be a series of eight films completed over 12 years that follow two white characters, mining magnate Soho Eckstein and artist Felix Teitlebaum. The series begins with a pinstriped Soho at an overflowing table of wine and food while black miners in his employ traverse a bare landscape. Felix, always depicted nude, gazes passively from a balcony at Johannesburg. Both men are walled off from their black countrymen's suffering—Soho by his blind greed, Felix by artistic reverie. Over the eight films, both men slowly change, often through personal loss.
Felix's turning point begins in Felix in Exile (1994), in which he falls in love with an African woman who is searching South Africa's landscape for the secretly murdered. Felix, for so long the deluded romantic, finally feels the horror of South Africa's history, and as he looks in a mirror, her face looks back at him. Water flows from her side of the mirror into his, and her drawings of the blood-marked land fly into his room, a lyrical rendering of how one human being can make another understand suffering. The awareness she brings him is part alertness to others, part self-knowledge, and it will enter both him and his art.
In the seventh film, Weighing…and Wanting, Soho grieves his wife's leaving him for Felix. Heartsick, Soho enters a CAT scan. His skull's cross section contains black workers lining up outside the industrial ruins of Soho's mines. The cross section then morphs into igneous rock, which in turn becomes a large, scarred boulder sitting amid industrial desolation. Soho places his ear to this boulder, now a rock, as if to listen to the history it holds—both his and his country's. Later, Soho's image reappears, holding a blue-rimmed teacup against his ear like a seashell, as if he's trying to recapture what he's heard.
Yes, this is political art. But not of the badger and sneer variety. (See American collagist Barbara Kruger.) As Kentridge puts it, "I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay." We have had our share of similarly minded artists—Edward Kienholz, who died in 1994, is a looming and wonderful example. So, too, Jeff Wall in his photography masterworks. But too often, the closest our avant-garde art comes are self-indulgent projects about gender like Matthew Barney's five-part performance film project Cremaster. Or the works of Los Angeles performance artist Paul McCarthy, a Peter Pan charlatan who allegedly critiques the subjugations of middle-class family life. Or Nan Goldin's photographic diary of her life, in which she seems to find it original to say: See, I have friends with AIDS, and I get beat up by my boyfriends, something you suburban people who troop to museums to see my art are too bourgeois to understand.
True, South Africa provides Kentridge with especially compelling material. But his art isn't strictly topical. In a talk at the Hirshhorn a few weeks ago, Kentridge said that people have been asking him when he's going to start making art about AIDS in Africa—a political tragedy of even greater proportions in terms of sheer loss of life than apartheid. "The certain way of killing a project is to start with meaning," he replied. The meaning in his work, Kentridge said, comes in the process of drawing. "I absolutely can't predict in how or what way it will be in the work."
Like real people, his characters become better selves through lived experience. Calcified misbeliefs dissolve, they age and learn, and they end up surprising themselves and us. This authenticity comes from Kentridge's incrementalism; his drawings have been made over many years, in gradual response to the changes he has experienced in his country. This is why, unlike so much of our political art, Kentridge's could never fit on a billboard or a bumper sticker.