|William Kentridge | Inside the Black Box
The "Magic Flute", the Rhinoceros hunt, the German genocide on the Herero in Namibia: with "Black Box/Chambre Noire" the South African artist William Kentridge creates a mechanical, miniaturized world theater in the Deutsche Guggenheim that is also an elegy to a chapter of forgotten history. Cheryl Kaplan spoke with the artist. In the winter of 2005, the South African artist William Kentridge and I met in Central Park for a walk through Christo’s installation The Gates. He was just starting to work on a new commission from Deutsche Bank for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin called Black Box/Chambre Noire. William Kentridge is best known for his animated films as well as theatrical collaborations with the Handspring Puppet Company, founded in Cape Town by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler. Kentridge has exhibited widely, from the 1993 Venice Biennale to the Museum of Modern Art (Projects 68, 1999), the Hirshhorn Museum (2001), the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (2001), Centre Georges Pompidou (2002), Castello di Rivoli (2004), and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2005). He has also been awarded the prestigious Carnegie Prize at the Carnegie International (1999). Kentridge’s characters are frequently worn out by their struggles as they relentlessly strive towards a cure. In the animated short film Tide Table, life comes to an almost dead-stop for Soho Eckstein, the fastidious power broker and frequent protagonist. From Weighing… and Wanting to Stereoscope, Eckstein has watched kingdoms come and go. Sometimes he’s nearly drowned in his own tears. In Kentridge’s 1996 film History of the Main Complaint, Soho Eckstein is in a coma, surrounded by doctors who multiply around him. The disease, part physical and part political, progresses, echoing South Africa’s plight as the tycoon falls apart. Kentridge’s characters tumble in and out of their own tragic flaws. The films, mostly done in charcoal, are relentlessly animated with a Bolex camera, frame by frame. As part of an ongoing series of conversations, I talked with William Kentridge moments before his trip to Berlin from his Johannesburg studio. Straddling film, theater and opera, Black Box/Chambre Noire takes as its historical start the 1904 massacre of the Hereros in the former German colony of Namibia.
Cheryl Kaplan: Your drawings for "Black Box" reference theater, film, photography, opera, and a vaudeville act.
William Kentridge: The films in general are drawings in four dimensions. Sometimes a drawing starts as two-dimensional, and then it becomes a painted backdrop as in Black Box for the Deutsche Guggenheim. There are projections on flat surfaces moving through time, where a flat backdrop becomes animated. The logic and way of working has to do with drawing. I extrapolate outwards into filmmaking or theater. I’m interested in how cinema and the further development of photography coincide. Black Box references the black box of the theater, a space for experimenting, the chambre noir the space between the lens and the camera’s eyepiece and the black box as a recorder of disasters in airplanes. A black box miniature theater is an optical toy that is a forerunner of cinema. Instead of having actors on stage, it’s about seeing a child’s miniature toy theater and its machinery moving. Formally, the Black Box has something to do with vaudeville, which, in the 1890s, provided one of the transitions to movies.
How did you prepare for the Deutsche Guggenheim commission?
The preparatory work happened over two years of working on the opera I’ve done of Mozart’s Magic Flute using a 1:10 scale model of the set, working with projections and models of figures on a miniature scale. The Magic Flute is about the Enlightenment and its limits and those not eligible for it, like Papageno and Monostatos. Mozart’s Magic Flute was first performed in 1791 and about a hundred years later, the Enlightenment appeared in the form of the colonization of Africa. At the Berlin Conference of 1884, Africa was partitioned; that was seen as an Enlightenment project, bringing lightness to the dark continent. I’m looking at German colonization in reference to Namibia for the exhibition. I went there to look at the place where there was a great massacre of the Herero by the Germans from 1904-1907. Some of that archival material and footage shot in the mountain where the genocide began is in the final piece.
Was there archival footage of the genocide?
No, but there are copies of archival photographs and documents as well as footage of the mountain I shot with a video camera a month ago. It’s a sequence of a Herero woman walking through this landscape. Namibia is extremely dry, but this is a lush part. I had also seen footage of a rhinoceros hunt in Cameroon from 1912 in an archive in Berlin. One of the original impulses was a re-examination of the Magic Flute, but that rhinoceros hunt also stayed a key element. At the site where the battle first happened, the Hereros, in anticipation of the attack, retreated with their families and cattle to a mountain where there was water, called Waterberg. They waited there for the attack. The German forces fought under General Lothar von Trotha and the Herero forces under Samuel Manharero. The Germans took months getting ready, building railway lines, and then a great battle took place. The Hereros were driven into the desert where most of them died of thirst, ambushed at water holes. 85% perished in three years. The site is now a national park in Namibia. At the bottom of the mountain, there’s a German war cemetery where 23 German soldiers are buried. It’s well maintained with a visitor’s book, where German tourists write thing like: "thanks for keeping such good care of the graves" and "please can there be no more wars in our times and you do such honor to these people." In the campsite dining room there are photographs of the Kaiser and his wife and of German troops, but nowhere is there any word of what happened there. It’s as if you had Auschwitz and a few Germans who died of dysentery while they were working there and then had a sign where they were buried, but not a word else about what happened in Auschwitz.
Did the Hereros disappear entirely?
The population went from 85,000 to 15,000. This was when theories of racial genetics got going with Kaiser Wilhem’s Institute for Physical Anthropology in Berlin. Decapitated heads were sent there to be measured and cleaned, charting the ethnology of the skulls. This links the Herero of 1904 with the genocides of the 20th century. I had archival images of those heads that were sent to Berlin and references to the measuring of skulls. There’s a character in Black Box whose main job is to measure skulls.
Are there still six characters?
The six characters are a Megaphone man who’s the narrator; a transparent Herero woman defined by the head-dress: she’s actually a spring with a piece of transparent gauze on her head. A mechanical running man: a cut-out piece of paper that runs; a pair of dividers, that’s the measuring arm, measuring skulls and geography; an exploding skull that makes a brief appearance; and a second Herero woman based on a German postal scale from 1905, a scale for weighing letters.
Your characters often fall into traps and then spend the rest of the film overcoming obstacles. Are these obstacles purposeful or random?
They’re not scripted, they emerge from one drawing to the next. In Stereoscope, the question of living in a full room and an empty room was going to be the starting point. It became the entire film.
Did your relationship to the "Magic Flute" change as you got closer to the specifics of the "Black Box"?
No, but there’s a deconstruction of the music used for the hunting and shooting scene of the rhinoceros. The music is Sarastro’s aria, "In these holy halls, there is no vengeance taken." There’s only benevolence and goodness. The irony of those words is that it’s taken from the recording sung and applauded in Berlin in 1937; the gulf between those words and reality is profound. That’s a common enlightenment problem: the gap between the words and the authoritarianism that goes with it. In Black Box there’s a sequence of two men beating each other or a third object based on postcards the Germans made and sent home of people being whipped, a prurient violence assumed to be a thrill that wasn’t hidden away. The mechanical figures are based on those postcards.
What did your research reveal that you didn’t know at the start?
The big thing was the invisibility of the story in Namibia. It would be very hard to imagine our relationship and the history of WWII in the absence of records, books, writings, films, memorials, museums, debates. Those are absent here, though not completely. I by no means am the first person to look at this material. My ongoing interest is the question of Enlightenment and Colonialism, it’s a very current question in the world today. The Kaiser wiped out a whole population for the sake of Germany’s honor. Those questions are not so far from us still.
What’s the role of elegy, of the act of mourning and reflection, in your films and drawings?
There was a term someone introduced to me that I’ve kept in my head for Black Box, it’s the word Trauerarbeit the work of mourning. Freud writes about that in 1917 in Mourning and Melancholy.
Freud talks about how memory compares to reality and what it takes to arrive at an objective view once the lost object is actually gone. It’s a process of detachment and de-vesting.
A Trauerarbeit machine on stage could turn, and things would come out of it.
|Text courtesy of db-artmag 2005.
|Amongst the foremost international artists today, William Kentridge sees his work as rooted in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was born in 1955 and continues to live and create most of his work. His drawings, films transferred to video, installations and sculpture stem from an attempt to address the nature of human emotions and memory, as well as the relationship between desire, ethics, and responsibility. Kentridge investigates how our identities are shaped through our shifting ideas of history and place, looking at how we construct our histories and what we do with them. His is an elegiac art that explores the possibilities of poetry in contemporary society, and provides a vicious satirical commentary on that society, while proposing a way of seeing life as a continuous process of change rather than as a controlled world of facts. In 1976, he graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with majors in Politics and African Studies. During the 1990s, he gained international recognition for his distinctive animated short films, and for the charcoal drawings based on ‘erasure’ that he makes in order to produce them. He has also worked in theatre for many years, initially as a set designer and actor, and later as a director. Since 1992 he has worked in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company - creating multi-media pieces using puppets, live actors and animation. Whilst he has throughout his career moved between film, drawing and theatre, his primary activity remains drawing- and he sometimes conceives his theatre and film work as an expanded form of drawing.