In 1887, LL Zamenhof published a book in Russian called Unua Libro (First Book) under the name Doktoro Esperanto. His goal was to create a universal second language that would lead to the lofty ideal of global peace and understanding. The language was called "Esperanto." No country has adopted the language and only one hundred thousand to two million people claim to speak it.
One stroll through William Kentridge’s show at Miami Art Central, however, and I feel both the unbearable weight of a funerary procession and the promises of a visual Esperanto.
The exhibit, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and organized by the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, is a comprehensive survey of Kentridge’s work–a compilation of drawings, films, installations and sculptures. Kentridge is most known for his animation films, which he calls "stone-age filmmaking." However, all of his work is based in the practice of drawing, even his films.
The shorts are animations of stills from drawings which are made up of literal spots of time–drawings which he sketches, erases and re-draws, photographing each stage of the process, animating a sense of time and loss, and thereby capturing the art of remembrance.
Entering the exhibit at MAC, the visitor is greeted by a dimming of lights and the sound of old cinema in the background, inducing the image in the mind’s eye of jump-cut Chaplin/Keaton motion.
An introduction to the show, writ large on the wall, informs you that Kentridge is South African. Immediately, the word apartheid joins the rhythm of the cinematic tune in your mind. Next, a print joins the fold–a picture of a large, old-fashioned motion picture camera on the wall.
The camera in the print looms over a cityscape–a reference to a 1929 film by Dziga Vertov made in the Soviet Union and entitled Man with a Movie Camera. In the film, Vertov chronicles a day in the life of Moscow, through the "kino-glaz" or "cinema eye." Vertov, in Man with a Movie Camera, was experimenting with what he called the "absolute language of cinema." Yet another attempt at "universal language."
In the next room of the Kentridge exhibit, I find the source of the old-cinema sound. A film entitled Journey to the Moon. Here, Kentridge uses his "stone-age filmmaking" to turn a stream of ants into a constellation; a series of drawings of a female nude into a song of longing, companionship, memory and desire. The film begins with Kentridge himself, in black and white celluloid, sitting down to a cup of coffee and a newspaper. As the film progresses, he makes charcoal drawings of a moon and a woman on the pages of a dictionary/encyclopedia. The drawings animate and his coffee cup turns into a telescope, which guides him through a pitch black charcoal drawing, in which he finds both stars and a human procession of shadows (this procession being a reoccurrence in Kentridge’s work).
Kentridge’s Journey to the Moon is a reference to another classic film: Georges Melies’ 1902 Trip to the Moon (or "Journey to the Moon")–a whimsical masterpiece that depicted the failed venture of a group of pompous French scientists attempting to colonize the moon.
"Melies’ moon is of course a late 19th century colonial moon, an image of difficult terrain and savages. My lunar landscape is Germiston, just outside Johannesburg, in effect the same lunar landscape from which the rockets take off," wrote Kentridge in a set of journal-like writings that accompanied his show at the BAC (Baltic Arts Center).
There is an evident link between the film and South Africa’s history. However, the film goes beyond this. Kentridge claims, in his writing, that when he began studying Melies’ Journey to the Moon and creating his own journey, he expected to depict South Africa in the form of his recurring black cut-outs, incorporating a kind of political critique. However, he found himself "instead, [wanting] a close-up of [his] feet in their shapeless boots walking across the studio…" Kentridge discovered that Melies’ motion picture was as much about the century in which Melies lived as it was about the artist in his studio. "The artist Melies is in the studio performing in front of his paintings," explains Kentridge in the same BAC writings.
And herein lies again a kind of universal language. There is something in the walking back and forth of the artist in his studio, in his attempt to see the world beyond, even the desire to escape it, which speaks to everyone. Drawing, Kentridge has often said, is like thinking.
In a recent article published in the New York Times entitled "The Fire Next Time," the writer Ernesto Quiñonez in which he tells of growing up in Spanish Harlem in the 70s talks about the power of art, describing his visits/escapes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "I looked at paintings I didn’t understand, but something in me knew I loved them…They held truths and a sadness that spoke to me."
For some reason, today, standing in front of the Kentridge and his rhythmic pacing on film, I too am overwhelmed by truth and sadness. I cannot stop thinking of my father, lugging heavy suitcases across the Caribbean. My father–a Cuban shoe-salesman immigrant living in Miami–used to take long, lonely trips to the West Indies to sell his shoes. I picture him sweating and pacing in hotel rooms and through airports, with heavy loads, on hot islands that were not his. I think of this and the sadness of Kentridge’s solitary steps and see that Kentridge is conveying something to me I can’t decipher or see clearly, like the blurring of his lines. Somehow, this show by a white South African artist is relevant to me here, in Miami–and on many levels.
Later, I find out that Melies’ father was a footwear manufacturer in Paris. I grin when I read this.
I think of my father in Martinique and other islands colonized by the French. I think of St. Maarten, colonized, like South Africa, by the Dutch. I think of Kentridge’s show and I come to the thinking that if the great art movement of the last century was a literary one–that of the post-colonial writings of the likes of Salman Rushdie, J.M. Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and others–then the language of this century must fit not only a post-colonial world, but a globalized world. It cannot be a language other than a universal one. And the only answer to this is that the great artistic movement of our century will no doubt be more a visual Esperanto than literary one.
Kentridge, in his silent visual language, illustrates, by drawing, erasing and re-drawing, the residue of lead and history–and by filling the pages of dictionaries, he is, in a sense, not re-writing, but re-phrasing and attempting to record history as it passes.
The Kentridge exhibition does not stop with this Journey to the Moon. There are more drawings, more films. His most recent film entitled Tide Table, for instance, shows a man, again with a newspaper, this time by the beach. Here, the tide works with the same idea of rhythm and erasure as in the previous film, attempting to smooth out sand that will forever be affected both by the heavy-booted and bare feet that have pressed it.