Moral Minority

Photo: Robyn Twomey

At the age of 6, the South African artist William Kentridge came upon photographs of the Sharpeville Massacre, the killings in 1960 that galvanized the anti-apartheid movement in his country. It was not just the facts of death—the bullet holes, the blood-stained ground, the rag-doll corpses—that shocked him. The images also shattered the internal compass of the child: The world was not as he had thought. Although his mature work is often steeped in the shadowy melancholy of middle age, Kentridge has nonetheless continued to insist (as children reliably do) upon first principles—notably, the struggle between good and evil. He’s preserved that original shock. He’s retained that moral scale. It amounts to a kind of knowing innocence.

Today’s art world is powerfully drawn to Kentridge because he’s mastered one of our period’s greatest challenges: how to create an art of cultural authority, one that takes the moral measure of our time. Although many artists make what’s called “political art,” their work usually appears tinny, dull, and painfully grandiloquent. (Some even turn historical injustice into a form of career support, using rape, racism, and genocide to bolster their importance.) Kentridge, by contrast, has developed a subtle but bold sensibility that avoids the traps of consciousness that typically bedevil political art. And he’s formed a distinctive means to convey that sensibility: flickering animated films, based upon charcoal drawings, that depict the psychic cost of the apartheid era.

But there’s something else about Kentridge that’s powerfully attractive, especially to young artists. He seems unusually free. He does many things at once. He creates films, drawings, and operas. He tells stories. He crosses genres and makes new connections. He has roots in South Africa but moves easily around the world. Is that the way art should be today? Kentridge is becoming a kind of model, a symbol of possibility for the new century. In New York, he gained widespread recognition in 2001 during a retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. He will soon have another important New York moment: He’s been immersed in The Magic Flute, directing (and designing sets for) a production that’s touring Europe and will come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the spring of 2007.

A beguiling hint of what’s in store for us is now at the Marian Goodman Gallery on 57th Street. Kentridge’s interpretation of The Magic Flute, a masterpiece of the Enlightenment, offers him a way to explore nothing less than the founding ideas of secular Western culture. As he’s worked on the large production, he has also created some fresh, utterly distinctive works of art inspired by the opera. For the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, he’s devised a miniature or toy theater called Black Box/Chambre Noir that dramatizes the dark side of the Enlightenment, notably the idealism that paradoxically helped support German imperialism and justify genocide in Africa. His second miniature theater (at the Goodman gallery) will surprise many people for whom, Kentridge himself says wryly, “I’d become the image of doom and gloom.’’

Kentridge knows good and evil can be distinguished but are also inseparable. He’s outraged, but without slogans.

Amid a show of charcoals made for The Magic Flute, this new theater celebrates the brighter side of the Enlightenment. Kentridge has given life to moments of radiant, astral release and focused upon the childlike bird-catcher, Papageno. “There’s something in the anarchy and foibles and weakness of Papageno,” he says, “that we hang on to desperately—and Mozart hangs on to desperately—to keep the exalted but dead world of Sarastro in balance.” In short, Kentridge is once again invoking the titanic clash between good and evil. But he hasn’t left out the good. And he has a sense of humor.

Kentridge, who comes from a prominent Jewish family in South Africa—one known for opposing apartheid—doesn’t look like the usual Chelsea artist in designer jeans and stylish rumpled blazer. Actually, he doesn’t look like an artist at all. He resembles a writer from the fifties, someone who’d be at home with the big, questing talkers of that era, such as Harold Rosenberg (who insisted upon taking Dostoyevsky personally). He loves to tease apart shifting ideas. He’s attracted not just to the music in The Magic Flute but to the libretto, which, he is quick to point out, Goethe admired. It is altogether natural for him to refer to “the flickering between knowing and not knowing, trying to grasp and not being able to grasp.” Kentridge is an artist of dramatic black and white who can think in gray. He knows good and evil can be distinguished but are also inseparable. He reveres the lofty heights and studies the ambiguous shallows. He’s outraged, but without slogans.

A sensibility of this kind can take a long time to develop. The young Kentridge tried many approaches. He was always interested in drawing but also attracted to theater and politics. Early on, however, he came to an essential realization about moral scale: A person from his privileged background could not speak directly for the oppressed or adopt the perspective of a disenfranchised victim of apartheid. If he was to tell all of the truth, he must tell it—as Emily Dickinson suggested—“slant.” (Art Spiegelman understood this aspect of scale when, in Maus, he used the cartoon to address the subject of the Holocaust.) In the early nineties, Kentridge began collaborating with the Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa, developing productions such as Faustus in Africa! that made use of puppets as well as actors. Puppets are deeply mysterious creatures, both more and less human than their handlers. They can give you a great slant.

Kentridge’s signature films have that same slanted scale. The figures are more like moody puppets than like flesh and blood, and the protagonists have the archetypal power found in cartoons, puppet shows, and operas. One, for example, is an evil real-estate tycoon called Soho Eckstein. Another, named Felix, is a melancholy artist. (Kentridge’s 1994 film, Felix in Exile, is on view in the contemporary galleries of the Museum of Modern Art, and his 9 Drawings for Projection, from 2005, is on view from February 15 through 20.) The horrors of apartheid irradiate the films and emerge through drawings—such as one of a murdered man—but do not always claim center stage. As the cosmic chorus plays in the background, Kentridge creates a foreground full of modernist ambiguity. At one point we see Felix shaving and staring in the mirror. As he shaves, he’s erasing his face stroke by stroke.

Despite their philosophical aura, Kentridge’s animations are extraordinarily physical and nothing like the slick animation of the digital era. (He likes to call his animation “illiterate.”) They get much of their feel from the charcoal drawings upon which they are based. Charcoal itself is a primitive, visceral way of drawing, like using a burnt stick. It perfectly captures the “black and white” in Kentridge’s sensibility, and, equally, the changeable grays of his ambiguity. Very little of Kentridge’s hand is lost in the filming. I’ve never seen film so insistent upon the sensation of touch—upon making and erasing marks. The tactile quality of Kentridge’s art not only grounds his abstractions but, like puppetry, brings the viewer very close to the stories being told. When you look at a charcoal drawing, you can almost feel the dust on your fingers. You’re implicated.

Charcoal can also appear old-fashioned, something to be used by students in art school, and Kentridge’s art has a retro surface that bothers some people. His animation evokes the earliest days of film, his drawings depict out-of-date objects like heavy black telephones, and his style has close connections to the German Expressionism of Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. Is Kentridge, then, a nostalgic throwback to the World War I era? Not at all. His relationship to history is one of standards, not debts. An artist like Kentridge simply has to have the past present. The past becomes a character. It comes to life because this moralist holds the past—the Enlightenment itself!—accountable to the present. At the same time, the past can also judge the present. Mozart is, of course, a living artist.

Moralists are usually dreary. Kentridge is playful. When he was in New York recently, he particularly enjoyed the current Rauschenberg show at the Metropolitan Museum, he says—especially Rauschenberg’s earlier Combines. He found them “so much more painterly, and so much wittier” than he’d anticipated. He liked the artist’s “lightness” in moving among imagery and genres and his insistence that meanings not be prefabricated but, instead, discovered in the making. He described the attitude as: “Do them, and then you’ll find what they add up to, what the metaphor means.” Kentridge himself loves when meaning slides around in a morally pointed, seriously playful manner. An important character in his Magic Flute, for example, is a rhinoceros. (In the opera, Tamino charms “the wild beasts” with his artful playing.) For the dark Berlin presentation, Kentridge included horrifying archival footage of a white hunter proudly executing—there’s no other word for it—a magnificent rhino. For the light New York show, he created a comical animation of a rhinoceros doing an acrobatic handstand. The animal can symbolize a wild beast, a victim, and a marvel—even, perhaps, Africa itself.

Moral Minority