Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 1999

I am sorry I have not been able to attend more of Mass MoCA’s Animation Festival and other events this summer. Only “Monsters of Grace” really approached being theatre. And only the Laurie Macleod dance performance offered more than one performance, but a city-wide power outage cancelled the first evening, which was the only one I was available to review.

I am sorry because I have enjoyed everything that I have been able to attend at MoCA, and I would have enjoyed being able to have a broader overview of what they were attempting to do and whether or not they succeeded.

This past Saturday animator William Kentridge came to show four of his short animated films and discuss his art and his views. Kentridge describes himself as a white, male, Jewish South African, and firmly asserted that his films showed only that personal point of view of the events in his homeland during his half century on this planet.

What was fascinating was the constant insistence of the audience that he was wrong. During the question and answer period following the showing of the films, people boldly stood up and told Kentridge to his face “what he meant” by a certain image or an idea in his films. Kentridge replied that he considered himself “merely a slightly priveleged observer” of his own creations.

These are the people who actually took those silly high school and college literary criticism assignments seriously. I got a lot of bad grades in my rebellious adolescence for refusing to put down on paper what Shakespeare “meant” by “A Midsummer’ Night’s Dream” or “Hamlet”. I would write long, fervrent paragraphs about how I was not Shakespeare, I lived in a completely different century, and I was merely a junior in high school – who the heck was I, or anyone else, to say with authority what Shakespeare meant by anything. I can hear the groans of the high school teachers reading this.

But here was a living artist, standing up and telling us what he remembered of the creative process, and what he thought he intended, or why he had made certain choices, and people where standing up and telling him to his face that he was wrong. That takes a lot more chuztpa than writing an essay on what the long-dead and seriously over-analyzed Shakespeare “meant” by “Hamlet”!

I was struck by Kentridge’s good humor and completely realistic sense of himself as a person and as an artist, and of the creative process, as he responded to these remarks. My favorite come-down retort from an artist to a critic is the remark made by a four year old to his mother when he brought a painting home from pre-school and she asked “What is it?” “Its paint, Mommy” was his reply. That is all any painting really is.

So here is what I experienced watching Kentridge’s films and listening to him talk. Animation is an art form which looks remarkably fast and fluid, but which is in fact painfully slow and difficult to create. What the audience sees and what the animator experiences are two such completely different things that it is almost impossible for the two to hold a conversation about the finished product. Kentridge spoke of his early films being about drawing as performance.

Kentridge works in charcoal and pastels on a long sheet of paper pinned to the wall of his studio. A few feet away stands the camera and the creation of a film invovles the endless walk back and forth between camera and paper to add some tiny thing or erase it. This process goes on for months, and Kentridge drew the parallel between it and keeping a diary – outside influences come to bear on the process and therefore the end result. If you are trying to resolve a conflict with your mother or your spouse, that will inevitably appear in your art.

The end result are very bold, personal films, mostly in black and white, about the experience of a middle-aged white Jewish male in 20th century South Africa. In three of the four films the central figure bore a strong resembalance to Kentridge himself. He explained that he found it easier, cheaper and less distracting to use a mirror than to have some model hanging around his studio everyday for the months that it takes hime to make a film. From an observers point of view it helps to center the films and clarify the point of view. Kentridge told us he did not see himself as a political person or an activist, nor did he want to be one. It is exciting to read the autobiography of someone on the front lines, but the experience of the soldier in the ranks, or the wife waiting at home listening to news of the conflict on the radio is far more common and can be even more compelling in its universality.

I was struck by the use of water in the films. Blue water, just about the only color used, seemed to seep from walls and pockets, pour from sinks, and flood whole rooms and regions. I interpreted this as a metaphor for blood. Water is also a basic life fluid and Kentridge had spoken of the great bloodletting which proceeded the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. But when someone asked him about it later he said that he had found this wonderful piece of blue pastel in his studio and that it had been so handy in adding what he called “forensic notes” to the films. Its paint, Mommy.

The real horror of any violent conflict or great disaster is that so much of life so rudely ignores it. While bombs go off in South Africa the tide still rises and falls, birds nest, people conduct business, worms come to consume the dead. Just business as usual. The dinosaurs died and the earth consumed them. Nature doesn’t care. Images like this recur in Kentridge’s work because, after all, we are seeing this one conflict through the eyes of an observer, not a participant. While men toil in offices in Johannsburg, people are being murdered in the street. The noise is annoying, you must be careful not to hit the bodies which litter the streets when you drive home, but otherwise there is little inconvenience. Until its your turn.

Kentridge said he felt priveleged to be allowed to show his film s at Mass MoCA because they were projected so well and the sound quality was so high. I felt priveleged to hear an artist who could talk about art with a little “A”, and whose creations were all the more powerful because of his ability to see them clearly for what they were, rather than what people wanted them to be.

For information on future programs at Mass MoCA please call 413-664-4481.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: