On its surface, the recent large-scale William Kentridge exhibition that debuted in September 2009 at Kyoto’s National Museum of Modern Art (MoMAK) was a relatively straightforward survey of a mid-career, internationally recognised artist. Organised by MoMAK chief curator Shinji Kohmoto, the exhibition toured to the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, introducing all of Kentridge’s major animation works to date, as well as original drawings, prints and stereographic installations, to local audiences.

This model has been familiar in Japan since at least the Picasso retrospective organised by the Yomiuri Shimbun in 1951 in the aftermath of World War II, and is one that fits easily into flowcharts that see intellectual capital circulating from a central source to the waiting margins. However, the fact that works were drawn exclusively from South African and Japanese collections, and the curatorial rhetoric behind the exhibition, entitled ‘What We See & What We Know: Thinking About History While Walking, and Thus the Drawings Began to Move…’, broke sharply with the typical internationalist party line. Indeed, the exhibition celebrated the potential for more point-to-point exchange even as the past decade’s intensified globalisation of contemporary art has spurred a flattening of artistic and critical values.

Kentridge, of course, is known for his evocative portrayal of life in South Africa from the end of Apartheid to the current era of ANC government, the AIDS epidemic and increasing xenophobia towards immigrants from neighbouring countries. Yet as an educated, white South African, he also occupies an ambivalent position in relation to narratives based on a victim/witness-perpetrator/oppressor dynamic. In his essay to the exhibition catalogue, Kohmoto addresses this point by provocatively writing that rather than dealing with him on his own terms, ‘[European and American discourse] casts Kentridge in the role of an alibi to clear the Western conscience’.

Interestingly, instead of following this up by suggesting that he has a better, more authoritative understanding of the artist, Kohmoto takes an opposite tack. Invoking a kind of self-aware provincialism, he offers his perspective from Japan as one that develops from a personal, intuitive reading of Kentridge rather than a contextual one, a point reinforced by an introductory wall text to the exhibition asking visitors to move beyond ‘Eurocentric post-colonial criticism’ and consider the work as a ‘verification and storytelling of the universal and primordial issues faced by humans in the modern age’.

This meant that in the exhibition proper, the work was largely left to speak for itself. At its presentation in Tokyo, ‘What We See’ followed a no-nonsense layout interspersing works on paper with animation installations in more or less chronological order. It opened with a room of early drawings and prints that underscored the physicality of Kentridge’s creative process—made evident in the vigorous charcoal smears and smudges that add texture and contrast to his images—as well as his lasting engagement with agit-prop aesthetics. Notably, the poster triptych Art in a State of Siege (1988) presages later works through its satirical depiction of two characters, a haughty Victorian-looking lady with a fish on her head and a venal industrial baron chomping on a cigar, as well as a giant, vintage electrical fan looming over a barren landscape.

The exhibition’s major statement came with its presentation of the ‘9 Drawings for Projection’ series of hand-drawn animations, which established Kentridge as an international representative for South African contemporary art. The ‘9 Drawings’ had previously only been presented on a single reel or as separate works, but for ‘What We See’, Kohmoto commissioned technicians to devise multi-channel headsets that enabled the projections to be shown together in one room for the first time, with the nine animations divided among five screens.

Made between 1989 and 2003, the animations suggest a continuous story, but were not necessarily intended as such. They revolve loosely around three central characters—a property developer, Soho Eckstein; his wife, Mrs. Eckstein; and Soho’s younger alter ego, Felix Teitelbaum—but make numerous detours through surreal imagery and borderline dysfunctional montage sequences. The simultaneous presentation of these works further deconstructed any sense of diegetic cohesion, collapsing an epic narrative into a scramble of instantaneous impressions. While it was certainly possible to watch each film in its entirety, scanning the gallery one could enter the works at arbitrary points, skimming from the torrid features of Soho Eckstein lording over his empire from an executive’s desk in the first of the animations, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989), to Felix Teitelbaum confronting his reflection in a shaving mirror in Felix in Exile (1994), scenes of crowds pouring through city streets in Stereoscope (1999) and a lone cow wading across a beach in Tide Table (2003).

This panoramic effect made the few incidents of physical violence that occur in the ‘9 Drawings’ easy to miss, imbuing them with almost casual significance. The appearance of a bullet-riddled body oozing blood into the earth or police beating a protester on the street might flicker onscreen for only seconds before being replaced by a view of a Corbusier-inspired Modernist villa or an oddly comical cat rendered in crude strokes. What the arrangement foregrounded instead was the sheer sense of kinesis informing Kentridge’s work, with each individual frame of the animations taking on a momentary life of its own. Particularly evident was a material narrative that develops through a proliferation of objects such as rotary telephones, operators’ wires, megaphones, speakers, coffee presses, medical pumps and scanners, X-rays, scales, ledger books, a monument, billboards, surveying scopes and seismographs, as well as mines, factories and buildings. Thus even as the mostly monochrome ‘9 Drawings’ reference early film, their simultaneous display also evoked the particular indiscrimination of the cinema of memory, in which seemingly incidental images inevitably end up at the centre of one’s recollections.

This idea of visual memory in turn evolves into bodily memory in later works that animate pieces of cut out paper into minimalist shadow theatre. As suggested by its title, Shadow Procession (1999) features a line of characters, such as a man on crutches and another wheeled along in a gallows-like tub with showerhead, proceeding one-by-one across the screen in jerky movements that accentuate the grotesque simplicity of Kentridge’s character designs. Set to a manic, hypnotising rendition of the hymn ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’, the work conjures an exodus or forced march but offers few other clues to the circumstances behind this situation. Told more through movement than detail, this is a story that unfolds in terms of duration and repetition rather than action and consequence, a story that exists in meditative rather than experiential time.

However, at some point the exhibition’s scope began to turn against itself, emphasising the artist’s relentless productivity at the expense of the playfulness of his ideas. For example, Drawing for the film Weighing… and Wanting: [CAT Scan] (1997), reveals that Kentridge employs subtle collage effects to give his images an extra suggestion of depth, as a prone figure on one sheet of paper literally disappears behind a drawing of the titular CAT scan on a separate sheet. But overall the drawings on display never transcend the level of reference material. Similarly, the stereographic installations and prints, which use mirrors or special glasses to trick viewers into seeing three-dimensional space in two-dimensional fields, also help to provide insight into Kentridge’s unique interest in the mechanics of viewing, but still come across as diversions. In this sense, it would almost have been worthwhile to break ‘What We See’ up into two parts, allowing more breathing room for such works as well as the installation 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès and Journey to the Moon (2003), which finds Kentridge transforming his studio into the setting for self-deprecating slapstick routines and a fantastical voyage, respectively.

As is, the farcical elements of 7 Fragments and Journey to the Moon—perhaps the most sublime work in exhibition—served as a bridge between the intensely personal narrative of ‘9 Drawings’ and the carnivalesque grand guignol of I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008), which, through its referencing of Constructivist aesthetics and propagandistic themes, turns politics into abstraction in order to reflect on the absurdity of politics. Set to long-time Kentridge collaborator Philip Miller’s chaotic, percussive score, this eight-channel projection features an assortment of odd characters, some of them live performers filmed in silhouette, others crafted through paper collages, jauntily dancing across stark backgrounds. These visual elements are given a macabre twist by the inclusion, scrolling across another projection, of excerpts taken from transcripts of the sham trial of Nikolai Bukharin during a Soviet Central Committee meeting in 1937. The work is both amusing and deeply chilling.

What is emphasised in seeing Kentridge’s oeuvre in one go is that these are physically taxing works, requiring active engagement from the audience. While the exhibition title references Kentridge’s own peripatetic working method, it could just as easily describe the experience of viewing his animations. These works resist easy comprehension, in marked contrast to Picasso’s Guernica, for example, which has come to symbolise the terror of war, almost obviating the need to actually see the painting itself. The complexity of Kentridge’s work is partly related to the cannibalisation effect of his animation process, in which each successive image overwrites or erases its predecessor, and the cannibalisation effect of the multi-projection format, in which looking at one projection ‘swallows up’ the other projections. Viewers are constantly trying to keep up with disappearing information.

Despite its erudition, this is work that resists intellectualisation. To talk about it necessitates imposing order upon it, but doing so betrays the integrity of the works’ multitude of individual components. Ultimately, each individual’s interpretation reveals more about his or her own biases and interests then any true essence behind what Kentridge is doing. And here, Kohmoto’s framing of the exhibition in opposition to an international context comes into play, as perhaps his point is that Kentridge’s work asks viewers to confront their own provincialities—to reflect upon their own specific viewpoints, and in so doing move beyond the comfort of understanding. 

William Kentridge, A Lifetime of Enthusiasm. Still from the film installation I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008. Collection of the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. © The artist. 

William Kentridge, Art in a State of Siege, 1988. Detail. Triptych. Collection of Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg. 

William Kentridge, Tabula Rasa II. Still from the film installation 7 Fragments for Georges Méliés, 2003. Collection of the artist. 

William Kentridge, Journey to the Moon, 2003. Film still. Collection of the artist.

Andrew Maerkle is a free-lance writer based in Tokyo.