William Kentridge: Untruth and Reconciliation

smithsonian.com
kentridge1.jpg In post-apartheid South Africa, Truth and Reconciliation became the
 ruling ethic of the new, black majority government. Archbishop Desmond 
Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and other black leaders shunned violent 
retribution against a regime that had institutionalized racism.
 Instead, black leaders embraced a healing confrontation with their now
 powerless white oppressors, documenting past horrors so that all South
 Africans could make peace with the past and live more freely from its
 shadow. Born in 1950s Johannesburg to a well-to-do Jewish family, William
 Kentridge would become a preeminent moral light too. But Kentridge is 
an artist and an animator, not a politician. He wields humble tools of 
surprising wit and power: charcoal, erasers, cut paper and light,
 beamed from projectors in black-and-white flickers. Kentridge is best 
known for his sensuous charcoal drawings and erasures, which are
 brought to life using the antique technique of
stop-motion animation. His best work, concerned 
with South African history, is poetic rather than documentary. Recently I attended a lecture by Kentridge in Baltimore. He showed 
some sketches for an in-progress collaborative animation project with
 the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Theater seems an appropriate venue
 for the grand societal themes found in Kentridge's subtle and witty 
animations, and he has already produced a piece based off Mozart's
 Magic Flute. This new project 
is based off a Shostakovich opera about
The Nose,
 a satirical short story by the
 Ukrainian writer Gogol. The opera comes from an ominous era just after 
the Russian Revolution as Stalin ascended to power. To strike the
 right visual tenor in his sketches and clips for the final animation,
 which shows a galloping horse of cut paper and an eponymous nose
 walking about, Kentridge researches his work with a scholar's zeal. He
 appropriates stylistic elements and artifacts from Russian culture of 
the time. Also, he overlays the eerie radio cacophony of Stalin,
 downloaded from YouTube, which he calls a digital sketchpad for 
animation. An audience member asked how his research differed from a scholar's 
research, or presumably the kind of enlightening fact finding that 
took place in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation era. Kentridge
 replied that artists use evidence as a raw material not for an essay,
 but for a fiction that is nonetheless true in essence. He calls the
 willingness of an audience to accept a work of art as "real" an act of
 generosity. From the land hallowed by Truth and Reconciliation,
 Kentridge says that artists seek a "physical reconciliation with the
 world," which is stronger and more lasting than the particular context
 in which the raw 
materials once existed.
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