John A. Coleman
Spriituality, seeing and the art of William Kentridge
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That often ill-defined term “spirituality” must, minimally, refer to some actual practices (such as meditation, worship, using a mandala, journaling, consulting a spiritual advisor, fasting) which help us to see the world as it really is. That is no mean feat, given our fierce denials of reality—to see the world as it really is might, at times, force us, like Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, to shout out:” The horror! The horror!”  Sometimes seeing in new ways will change our behaviors; conversely, sometimes actual altering of behaviors (for example, going to live among the poor) may change the way we see.  To be sure, seeing, as the artist Georgia O’Keefe once put it, “takes time, as to have a friend.”

Nor, as Ignatian spirituality insists, in its evocation of the use of all five senses, is seeing the only metaphor for spirituality. Art becomes a vehicle of spirituality (even if it is not, as such, explicitly either religious or spiritual) when it helps us see the world as it really is, and to conjure how the world might be imagined as different from what it is. That spiritual task of “seeing” lies behind the fecund allegory of Plato’s cave. In that metaphor, Plato postulated that we, actually, live in a cave where we only see the somewhat distorted shadow images of the real. We converse, huddled together, trying to figure out what the shadows really convey. For Plato, the philosopher who escapes the cave and sees reality as it is in the light of the sun, returns to the underground, in an act of compassion, to help people better’ read’ the shadow images they see.

Few contemporary artists have so touched my imagination or sensibilities or raised spiritual questions for me as the South African artist William Kentridge. Kenneth Baker, the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, in a review of the current exhibition of Kentridge’s work at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art: “William Kentridge: Five Themes” ( March 21-May 31) claimed: “ Even people only casually involved with contemporary art tend to bookmark memories by their first encounter with the work of William Kentridge.”

Mine was a chance visit to the Art Museum of Western Australia in Perth in 2005 where an exhibition of Kentridge was held. I was haunted by his black cut-out film, “Procession,” with its images of the lame and halt and burdened blacks of South Africa marching across the screen. So much of Kentridge’s art consists of film or etchings of shadows or mere cut-outs that it comes as no surprise that Kentridge has said that he resonates deeply with Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Kentridge, the son of Jewish lawyers in Johannesburg who had opposed apartheid, recounts how, at the age of six, he was shocked into recognition by viewing photographs of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Kentridge’s oeuvre consists mainly of charcoal etchings, usually black and white, with a modest addition of some blues and reds. It also comes as no surprise that he was influenced by the post World War I German expressionists (mainly Otto Dix and Max Beckmann), by the Mexican muralists and by the etchings of Goya. He has said of his etchings and films: “I am trying to recapture a moral terrain in which there aren’t really any heroes but there are victims. A world in which compassion just isn’t enough.”

Kentridge’s is a political art. His filmed version of “Ubu Roi” shows a march of protesters as well as refugees, displaced by war. It represents a kind of universal diaspora of people seeking justice, usually far from home. His work, as one critic notes, addresses issues of agency and inaction, public and private; subjugation and emancipation. Yet, unlike most political art (which frequently turns out one-sided and preachy), Kentridge includes humor in it.  He has said of his political art: “ I am interested in 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”. Elsewhere, Kentridge verges on a religious image when he talks about the moral or religious aspect of his art: “Not to say that one is hoping to make the world a better place—it is working from the perspective of redemption rather than working for redemption”.

Highlights of the exhibition include Kentridge’s homage to the early French film-maker, Georges Melies, who painted his own backdrops and walked in front of them. Kentridge’s films are painstakingly constructed by his own frame-by-frame etchings. In another highlight of the exhibition, “The Black Box” (done in conjunction with Kentridge’s art work for a famous production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”), the artist turns the Enlightenment project of “Flute” on its ear. He shows how, in the early 1900’s, German Enlightenment ideas of “the white man’s burden” led to the German occupation of Namibia. When the natives revolted, the “Enlightened” Germans annihilated 75 percent of the Herero tribe in 1904. The presentation contains haunting music from the Hetero tribe. In another extraordinary exhibit, “What Will Come (Has Already Come),” a steel table, with a mirror surface, shows a video projection of birds, animals, a carousel and, then, the sudden aggression of Italy on Ethiopia from the sky, as the earlier birds turn into menacing airplanes raining bombs. Our own reflection in the mirrored surface does not allow us any easy disengagement from the horror.

Kentridge’s technique of animation and drawing presents us with a sense of the world as provisional. He erases earlier etchings yet leaves the erasures still visible. Traces and shadows remain of what has been erased (as they do in our lives and history).  Another key theme (found, among other exhibits, in his film version of a backdrop for the Shostakovich opera, “The Nose” based on the Gogol short story, which will be mounted by New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2010) is the all-seeing eye. He juxtaposes, in his images of seeing, overt sight versus inner vision. Elsewhere, Kentridge draws on the motif of the camera and suggests its dual function: the neutrality of objective reporting and the frightening prospect of the ubiquitous and expanding prospect of surveillance. The multi-screened films for “The Nose” pay conspicuous homage to the Constructivist painters of the Russian Revolution but also raise questions about the betrayal of emancipation at the show trial of Bukharin by Stalin in the 1930’s.

But, as much of his work shows, Kentridge does not lose his sense of play or imaginative alternatives or even beauty. His films, puppets and etchings for “The Magic Flute” show a wondrous dancing rhinoceros. Elsewhere he shows film footage of the horror of a white European big game hunter simply mowing down the rhinoceros for sport. In one sequence, he plays with a cut out of a rhinoceros and turns it into a wildebeest.

The exhibit  of Kentridge’s work will move on from San Francisco to eventual showings at the Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Albertina, Vienna and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.  For anyone interested in ways of seeing anew our world as it really is and might be, I strongly urge the spiritual practice of looking, engaging and entering into this remarkably fluid world of Kentridge’s etchings, videos, sculptures and mechanical scenes. 

John A. Coleman, S.J., a sociologist, is associate pastor of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco.

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