Thick Time: William Kentridge, Peripheral Modernisms, and the Politics of Refusal
Volume 2, Issue 1
In the final room of Thick Time, the William Kentridge show recently on at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, viewers encountered yet another of the installation environments those familiar with the South African artist’s work have come to expect from this fascinating—mercurial, polymath—contemporary global art-maker. We imagine we are in a room in a villa near the sea. On one wall, a demagogue gesticulates in vintage newsreel footage, addressing an audience in French (apparently an international gathering of socialists), while disappearing slowly from view as water rises to obscure all but the English subtitles.
In another projection, the (or a) demagogue has morphed into the artist himself, his head replaced with an old-fashioned megaphone, while a secretary takes dictation, or vigorous exercise. She stops occasionally to collect her tears in a special collecting device. Demagogue and secretary metamorphose periodically into machine-like assemblages.
The musical accompaniment—a score by South African composer Philip Miller, a frequent collaborator with Kentridge—suggests the silent-film era, evoking the march of progress, then bathos, the futurist machine promising revolution then running to slapstick collapse, overheated by so much hot air. Offering its own oblique commentary on the proceedings, an apparatus combining sewing machine and gramophone, like some monstrous Kafkaesque writing-and-torture machine, hammers away at intervals in an adjacent space.
Together, installation and apparatus evoke many of the recurring concerns that have animated Kentridge’s oeuvre for thirty years: the archive, machines, propaganda, time, inscription (and palimpsestic reinscription), utopian longings and their disappointment, the afterlife of revolution, modernity’s discontents. This installation’s title, O Sentimental Machine, references Leon Trotsky’s suggestion that revolution required individuals to be treated as “sentimental but programmable machines,” and the gesticulating demagogue whose diagnoses of the difficulties of the revolutionary struggle fade under the waves is indeed Trotsky. The work was made for the Istanbul Biennale and first installed in a grand hotel on the same island, Büyükuda, a short ferry ride from the city, where the great exiled revolutionary thinker first lived after his expulsion from Russia in 1929. He stayed until 1933, living quietly with his second wife, their young son, a French secretary, and a Greek cook, and writing My Life and his mammoth History of the Russian Revolution here.
Kentridge’s engagement with Trotsky should not be seen as some kind of reactionary critique, however: his paternal grandfather, after all, was a socialist MP in South Africa in the 1920s. Rather, the work asks us to contemplate multiple experiences or understandings of time focused through reflection on the aftermath of the Russian Revolution (the focus, too, of his extraordinary I am not me, the horse is not mine  amongst other work), a period that promised a different future, and that has fascinated Kentridge for some time. What would it feel like to live with or in proximity to such a moment? What might we read into Kentridge’s insistence on testing the resonances, again and again, between the South Africa of his own time—he continues to live and work in Johannesburg, where he was born in 1955—and earlier contexts? How have places only apparently peripheral to European modernism experienced its aesthetic and political effects differently? What are the formal and philosophical implications of his works’ frequent engagement with the archive of expressionist and modernist artists and documenters?
These are too many questions for a field report of this kind to answer, but it struck me in that room that Kentridge’s work seems more relevant and suggestive than ever in this new age of demagoguery, of the disappointments that attend the turn to authoritarian government in many places around the world. Indeed, it is the political right, one might say, that has learned recently that treating people as sentimental, programmable—and expendable—machines is useful. One can only wonder whether Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in Kentridge’s mind as he prepared O Sentimental Machine, but the artist’s politics, beyond an obvious and frequently foregrounded commitment to highlighting links between Enlightenment rationality and holocausts—European and colonial—are usually oblique, connections left for the viewer to make. Kentridge chooses rather to endorse what he has called “a polemic for a kind of uncertainty.” In a 1985 lecture, he asserted that the “greatest danger” was that offered by “a completed narrative, as in the dark moral engravings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which the image illustrates a story outside of itself. In these the finality of the story acts to shut the viewer out from it. An incompleteness or awkwardness is needed.”
Perhaps this is why Soviet Russia and, to a lesser extent, Weimar Germany, strike Kentridge as such productive historical contexts. These are, in Mark Rosenthal’s words, “milieus that fostered social-engineering experiments intended to produce a kind of heaven on earth.” Kentridge is repeatedly “attracted to the political optimism of a time before the world was, as he describes it, ‘exhausted by war and failure’”; he recalls thinking that one needed “to look backwards—even if . . . quaintness was the price one paid” for that impulse—and it is a commitment to what might now seem quaint, “a figurative, expressionistic-looking art,” Rosenthal suggests, that indeed “became Kentridge’s chosen métier.” A now-famous early assessment by Rosalind Krauss called the animation technique Kentridge used in his drawing-for-projection series—about which more in due course—“stone age.” How does this backward gaze work with the backwardness of forms that would have once have seemed futuristic, with techniques we might associate with forms of modernism? (One could here invoke Walter Benjamin on the desire of the historical materialist to constitute hopeful constellations from lost moments of utopian promise.)
One reason for Kentridge’s appeal, the Whitechapel show made clear to me, is that the work has an uncanny way of speaking to us in this particular anxious post-post-Cold War moment of the ways in which we might continue to interrogate, reassess, and learn from the politics and aesthetics of high modernism. In Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s estimation, Kentridge’s celebration of “the leftover, the shadow, the trace, the discarded, the unproductive, the doubt, the unresolved, the uncertain, the ‘dirty’ smudge rather than the monochromatic white, ‘poor animation’ rather than pristine, high-tech digital effects,” might be read both as “a statement against modernism’s search for purity and purification—for the absolute essence of art,” and also as a celebration of the modernist avant-garde’s “attempt to bridge art and life, to locate a hybrid space where reality and the symbolic could coincide.” Kentridge’s debts to modernist aesthetics run beyond Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Kazimir Malevich to earlier French filmmakers like Georges Méliès, the inspiration for 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Journey to the Moon, and Day for Night (all 2003; also in the Whitechapel show). Most especially, perhaps, the artist’s playfulness, use of collage, fragment, and hybrid performance, point to the surrealists and especially to dada: a Kentridge piece might as easily be a multichannel video installation as an illustrated lecture by the artist, featuring sets designed for an opera, dancers, and a musician playing a tuba in a corner.
I have followed Kentridge since the early 2000s, when, as a doctoral student at Oxford, I saw in a room in the Tate Modern his History of the Main Complaint (1996), one of the drawing-for-projection series that first brought the artist to an international audience. I swiftly made an appointment with the museum’s research department to watch the others—none longer than 10 minutes, each produced over a period of several months as Kentridge filmed thousands of frames with an old 16mm camera, each frame capturing a small change to one of several dozen large charcoal drawings that are constantly erased and redrawn. The series began with Johannesburg Second Greatest City after Paris (1989), followed by Monument (1990), Mine (1991), Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991), and Felix in Exile (1994).
The films featured Soho Eckstein, a pinstriped mining and property tycoon, and Felix Teitelbaum, another character and another aspect of Soho’s personality. Most were set in Johannesburg, with its hostels for migrant labor, peripheral industrial wastelands (with iconic mine dumps), and its modernist downtown office buildings modeled on Le Corbusier, whose disciples built many homes in the suburb in which Kentridge lives. “I have been unable to escape Johannesburg,” he writes, “in the end all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city.” In Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old, Soho is ensconced in “Eckstein House,” a building straight out of Sergei Eisenstein’s The General Line (1928), looking out from behind a solid desk over Johannesburg as it would have looked in the 1950s. Abandoned by his wife and beset by growing crowds of picketing demonstrators, his empire is declared, in a title appearing in a picture frame on his desk, to be in dissolution. Water wells up and engulfs him (a recurring trope: compare Trotsky’s fate in O Sentimental Machine), and he appears to detonate a series of explosions that destroys all of the city’s skyscrapers.
The urban landscape is the construction of a rapacious modernity, serving the interests of a few solipsistic white characters who act as if oblivious to suffering, and the films posit what Kentridge casts as a “relationship between exploring the landscape through drawing and retrieving the history through this process, a history that the landscape hides.” Indeed their form, the very making of the projections, enacts this process of uncovering. The artist speaks about looking out of the window of his studio in wealthy, leafy white suburbia (specifically, Houghton) and knowing that “this current, factual view is oblivious to how that wooded suburb was started”; making drawings as he does allows him to “point to the way in which we ignore the trajectories of time, through things we experience.” What is revealed, then, is the politics of meaning making, and the target here is repeatedly the Eurocentric worldview of white South African society (or societies) during the twentieth century. This is best understood, American philosopher and student of South African modernities Daniel Herwitz suggests, as having involved a “desire to continue [a] state of dependency” as “a badge of identity (European rather than ‘native’ or indigenous),” marking a “refusal to take on the project of remaking one’s culture in a way that reflects essentially new conditions of existence which are neither European nor ‘native’ but something as yet to be defined.”
History of the Main Complaint appeared just as the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work, and has been read as a metaphorical indictment of white amnesia in the face of the commission’s implications. It made such an impression when I first saw it because it spoke in a language hitherto not apparent to me in South African cultural production, making clear the imprint of global modernity on the visual landmarks of my childhood: the modernist internationalist architecture of certain government buildings, not only in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but even in my own provincial city, Port Elizabeth; it made visible the politics of the aesthetic that South Africans of my generation—perhaps especially those from middle-class suburban backgrounds—might otherwise have owned proudly as a mark of an internationalism we felt had been denied us by apartheid—or that had always been ours, but might perhaps now also be all South Africans’, in spite of apartheid.
Let me return to Thick Time, the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition, and do so backwards, appropriately, by revisiting O Sentimental Machine. Here I want to observe that the fact that the long-suffering secretary, whose antics (and commitment to exercise) offer the work’s most visibly humorous (and sentimental) narrative, is played by an actress, Sue Pam Grant, familiar to this expatriate South African viewer from Suburban Bliss, a very bad, very well-meaning sitcom aired by the state broadcaster just as the country was trying to make sense of the new era, adds immeasurably to the resonances I apprehend. Her presence recalls a period, now two decades past, when national terrestrial television still believed that it might synchronize the experiences of citizens of that nation, then in the process of being reconciled (so it was told; that narrative has long not held water) with temporal, visual, and aural objects in which certain kinds of citizenship were performed. In Suburban Bliss, two families (one black, one white) are newly neighbors; all manner of misunderstandings and cathartic discovery of common humanity ensue.
Such resonances will not be evoked for all viewers of O Sentimental Machine, of course. For each, the experience will be unique, and this, too, is part of the great pleasure and appeal of Kentridge’s work and the reason that it now claims such familiarity: even if you don’t think you’ve encountered the artist’s output, chances are that you have, especially if you’re an academic who keeps up to date with North American academic presses. A random survey of the small bookcase in the room in which I happen to be writing this reveals Kentridge artworks on the covers of three (fairly) recent monographs: Mark Sanders’s Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid (Duke University Press, 2002), appropriately enough, but also two texts without a specific South African focus, Joseph Slaughter’s Human Rights, Inc. (Fordham University Press, 2007) and Pheng Cheah’s What is a World? (Duke University Press, 2016).
Indeed Cheah begins his book, subtitled On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature, with a two-page discussion of Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time (2012), the first work in the Whitechapel exhibition. The work, Cheah writes, “brilliantly captures a key premise” of his own book, that
the hierarchical ordering and control of the world as we know it is based on technologies of temporal calculation. Kentridge shows how the cartographical organization of the capitalist world-system relies on Northern- and Eurocentric regimes of temporal measurement . . . This tethering to the uniform march of European standard time is a form of imprisonment that smothers lived local temporalities. . . 
Cheah’s description gets to the heart of the installation’s intellectual work. This much is made clear in the titles displayed periodically by the five-channel video projection on three sides of the space: episodes are set in Paris and London in institutions that dispense methods of marking time to imperial metropolises and to the colonies; we see offices in Dakar and elsewhere receive such instruction. “The world was covered by a huge dented bird cage of time zones, of lines of agreement of control, all sent out by the clock rooms of Europe,” Kentridge himself observes about the work elsewhere.
However, to experience the emotional impact of the work one has, really, to endure its full 30-minutes, to feel the air move as the “breathing machine” in the center of the room—inspired by a nineteenth-century Parisian apparatus to dispense “hygienic time” pneumatically, directed by a “mother clock . . . with a powerful bellows”—pulses like some monstrous, stationary marching, mechanical elephant (Kentridge, Six Drawing Lessons, 166). Newsreel-style tableaux from various recording stations yield to drawing-for-projection-style charcoal-and-erasure scenes in which light leaves the earth, carrying with it an image through the universe (which becomes a giant archive of all images from the past). There is a scene of domestic contretemps, played as slapstick, and another in the Observatory in Greenwich, evoking Martial Bourdin’s infamous 1894 attempt to blow it up (the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent). Finally, there is a procession—latterly another key Kentridgean trope—of the burdened peoples of the South, yoked to global time, wheeling around the installation to a suitably rousing—yet always also bathetic—Philip Miller score.
Kentridge’s own description of The Refusal of Time, developed concurrently with the writing of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard (2011-12) in which he reflects on it as “a messy, overlapping series of films, dances, drawings” that took shape in response to a long-running meditation on experience of temporality (Six Drawing Lessons, 164). Kentridge has long understood his own practice in relation to such a meditation; he describes the artist’s studio (or his artist’s studio) as “a machine for the alteration of time” (90). The Norton lectures reflect successively on “Subjective time,” “Geological time,” “Time held in the paper and a roll of film,” the time of opera, the time of revolution and of disappointment (165). We may attempt to refuse time, but no such final gesture is possible (just as the installation starts again at the beginning every half-hour). There is no escape from the time of capitalist-colonial modernity—we are all, the artist would likely agree, its tragic conscripts (as David Scott, after C.L.R. James, would have us understand).
Despite Kentridge’s prominent place on the world art stage, his appeals to a wide spectrum of European antecedents, the ways in which we might put his work into conversation with variously configured trajectories of modernist art-marking (from Beckmann and Schwitters, Eisenstein and Vertov, to Duchamp and Beuys), his visual—and aural—language would not be what it is without its routing of those influences through South Africa. It might be the case, of course, that it is precisely this South African inflection that has made the work so rich and suggestive. Attempting to understand the import of these affiliations, Mark Rosenthal draws usefully on Louis Menand’s comments on contemporary literary prize cultures (in a 2005 review of James English’s Economies of Prestige and Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters in the New Yorker). Menand argues that whereas artists in the age of modernism positioned themselves in relation to metropolitan standards, it is the case today that being susceptible of a national label, perhaps especially one thought marginal to those places that continue to host global arbiters of taste, allows for “differentiation.” There is something anti-modern about this, he seems to intimate, something that rejects the hegemony of Western modernity.
I am not convinced that this necessarily gets us closer to explaining the appeal of the work. It speaks to us all differently, with a sustained power to elicit reflections on the big questions—existential (time, space) and political (the role of art in times of political crisis, how idealism devolves into reaction, the dangers of totalitarianism)—that reaches across peculiarities of global location. At the same time, and through no fault of its own, it remains confined to spheres of restricted access (museums, opera houses, art fairs), spaces that replicate some of the operations of patronage that facilitated modernist cultural production and in which such aesthetics, in a variety of contemporary permutations, persist. Its South African signature shows how colonial spaces were changed, irrevocably, by the temporalities of European Enlightenment thinking, its discontents, its nadir in colonialism and imperialism. Kentridge’s work speaks back, revealing in the same instant that its location of speaking can be from no fixed location, no future time that is not already marked—and made possible—by its past.
With thanks to William Kentridge and to his gallery, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, especially Neil Dundas and Damon Garstang, for facilitating the use of images. Thanks to Christopher Bush for his invitation and edits.
 The show ran 21 September 2016-15 January 2017.
 William Kentridge, O Sentimental Machine (2015), five-channel video installation, HD video, color, sound, 9:55 mins. A video from the installation is viewable on the Goodman Gallery site at https://vimeo.com/185640053. Peter D. McDonald notes on his site Artefacts of Writing (Proposition 4.2.1, Note B) that the soundtrack also features a popular 1928 Turkish love song, “Mazi Kalbimde Bir Yaradır” (The Past is a Wound in my Heart). Appropriately enough, given the waters that rise over the footage of Trotsky in Kentridge’s installation, this includes the lines “Finally I got drowned / In the green sea.”
 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “William Kentridge” in William Kentridge, ed. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (Brussels: Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, 1998), 9-39, 13. Kentridge’s maternal grandmother was the first woman barrister in South Africa, his father is the renowned human rights lawyer, Sydney Kentridge.
 One can, however, take for granted (I think) that there are allusions to Jacob Zuma in certain recently recurring images, not least the man with a shower fixture over his head, which echoes South African satirical cartoonist Zapiro’s (Jonathan Shapiro) riff on Zuma’s suggestion, in his trial for rape (he was acquitted), that showering after sex was sufficient to prevent the transmission of HIV. See Stephen Grootes, “SA’s most famous showerhead sparks more debate,” Daily Maverick, 22 July 2011. Kentridge elaborates on the connections between European culture (Mozart’s Magic Flute as synecdoche) and the genocide perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of what is now Namibia in Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005). Similar resonances were explored in Faustus in Africa (1995), a collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company.
 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “Interview: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in conversation with William Kentridge,” in William Kentridge, Dan Cameron, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, J.M. Coetzee, William Kentridge (London: Phaidon, 1999), 6-35, 34.
 William Kentridge, extract from “Art in a State of Grace, Art in a State of Hope, Art in a State of Siege” (lecture given at the Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown, Winter School, July 1986), reprinted in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, William Kentridge (Brussels: Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, 1998), 55-57. He has claimed further that he is “interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay”, quoted in Michael Godby, “William Kentridge: Four Animated Films,” in William Kentridge: Drawings for Projection (Johannesburg: Goodman Gallery, 1992), 22.
 Mark Rosenthal, “William Kentridge: A Portrait of the Artist,” in William Kentridge, Five Themes, ed. Mark Rosenthal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 36-65, 39.
 Rudolf Frieling observes about I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine (2008) that it “revisits the language of the avant-garde both visually and textually, with fragments and loops that circle around the loss of revolutionary ideals. The installation’s title alludes to the disillusionment of the avant-garde in the wake of the Soviet Central Committee accusations that culminated in the trials of 1937—an irrational turn of events that no one has been able to explain historically.” See his “Walking and Looking: Technology and Agency in William Kentridge’s Film Work” in Five Themes, ed. Mark Rosenthal, 154-69, 168.
 Rosalind Krauss, “‘The Rock’: William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection” (2000), in Perpetual Inventory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 19.
 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “On Tears and Tearing: The Art of William Kentridge,” William Kentridge, Five Themes, ed. Mark Rosenthal (SFMoMA, Yale University Press, 2009), 110-29; 127.
 Kentridge has designed Shostakovich’s opera The Nose for the Metropolitan Opera in New York (2010), and Alban Berg’s Lulu for the Met (2015) and for the English National Opera in London (2016). The Whitechapel show featured a model for the stage design for Lulu.
 Film, 35 mm, shown as video, projection, black and white, and sound (mono), 5:50 mins.
 There are ten at last count. Kentridge’s younger brother, Matthew, recently published a curious—affectionate and engaging—reading of the series, as The SOHO Chronicles: 10 Films by William Kentridge (London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2015).
 Kentridge quoted in Godby, “William Kentridge: Four Animated Films,” 22.
 Linda Tone, note in William Kentridge [Projects 68] (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999), Exhibition Catalogue, n.p. She also notes the “predominance of black and white, the absence of dialogue, and the use of intertitles.”
 Christov-Bakargiev, “Interview,” 19.
 Quoted in Dan Cameron, “An Interview with William Kentridge,” in Neal Benezra, Staci Bovis, Dan Cameron, et al., William Kentridge, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000 [Exhibition Catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York]), 67-74, 68.
 Daniel Herwitz, “Modernism at the Margins,” in blank___ Architecture, apartheid and after, ed. Hilton Judin and Ivan Vladislavić (Rotterdam: NAi, 1998), H3, 405-21, 407. Herwitz’s formulation here echoes J. M. Coetzee’s well-known definition of South African “white writing,” in his book of that name, as being no longer of Europe and not yet of Africa; White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
 Michael Godby, “Memory and History in William Kentridge’s History of the Main Complaint,” in Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa, ed. Sarah Nuttall and Carli Coetzee (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1998), 100-11, 110. Godby writes: “Soho’s body represents the body politic and his car journey South Africa’s recent past. Moreover, in terms of historical structures, Soho’s role in the film may be seen as an allegory of capital. But these metaphors, and others, are presented in the form of a micronarrative, a story from the life of a single person. On this register, the narrative engages with individual experience and the relationship of individual to collective memory” (110).
 I had seen it twice before: at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in December 2013, and the National Gallery in Cape Town in September 2015. It was commissioned for Documenta (13) in Kassel.
 Pheng Cheah, What is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 1.
 William Kentridge, Six Drawing Lessons (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 168.
 Kentridge conceived of the bellows-like machine in these terms, drawing on Dickens for inspiration: “The ‘elephant, comes from Dickens’s Hard Times, where he talks about the industrial machines in the factory in the nineteenth century. He talks about them ‘moving up and down, like the movement of the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.’ Endlessly, just moving up and down. The machine actually did have a head, but it became a bit too literal. It has to do with the relentless nature of industrial society.” See Margaret K. Koerner, “Death, Time, Soup: A Conversation with William Kentridge and Peter Galison,” NYR Daily, June 30, 2012.
 Kentridge, in conversation with Margaret Koerner, credits this idea to German thinker Felix Eberty (1812-84), who, he explains, “had come to understand that the speed of light had a fixed speed and wasn’t instantaneous, and he worked out that everything that had been seen on earth was moving out from earth at the speed of light, so instead of having space as a vacuum, he described it as suffused with images of everything that had happened on earth. You would just have to be at the right distance from earth to be at the right moment to see what had happened in the archive—to see anything that had happened—so if you had to start 2000 light years away, in his terms you could see the crucifixion. If you were 500 light years away, you could see Dürer making his Melancholia print, which is 500 years old now.”
 See David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).