It is nearly impossible to talk about William Kentridge’s artistic practice without mentioning – if not devoting entire exhibitions, articles, books, or blogs to – the subject of home. In fact, one rarely sees the artist’s name without the qualifier “South African,” and he himself has said that his work is rooted in his hometown of Johannesburg, where he was born and continues to live and work. It is not surprising, then, that amidst the many influences drawn out in Art21’s William Kentridge: Anything is Possible, dwells a pervading sense of hearth and home.
While home for Kentridge is Johannesburg, the traditional home of artwork — in Kentridge’s images specifically — is the studio, which is explicitly evident in his work. Kentridge employs such diverse media and techniques as drawing, tapestry, torn paper, sculpture, film, and music. “Understanding the world as process, rather than as fact,” his work is a palimpsest of form that almost always bears traces of its making. Kentridge’s artistic practice mines the turbulent history of apartheid and colonialism in South Africa, resulting in a layered picture of both historical events and personal experiences and memories. As Leah Ollman observed, in the aftermath of apartheid that Kentridge experienced, “South Africa was drawing itself, drafting, erasing and reformulating its structures of power, its social relations, and its systems of rights.” Similarly, Kentridge’s charcoal drawings, which most often form the basis of his work, are continually rendered, erased, and redrawn. Inextricably tied to the notion of home is that of memory, and the resultant smudges, shadows, and ghostly lines of the permutations that Kentridge’s drawings undergo exemplify the tenuous and fluid nature of memory itself.
An early point of origin for much of Kentridge’s subsequent work in stop-motion films is 9 Drawings for Projection, a series of nine films that began in 1989 with Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris, which was made through this process of drawing and erasure. In Anything is Possible, Kentridge describes Johannesburg as “a city of dichotomy between leafy suburbs which are man made to a bleak landscape around it, a complete fiction.” He goes on to say that, “the history of the city is of course the history of two cities – the white city and the black people living either invisibly in the city or in the areas around the city.” Kentridge’s work explores this dichotomy, dealing with both home and homelessness, the familiar and the foreign, black and white, reality and illusion, and the opposition between still versus moving image.
Home, family, and an interrogation of identity also inhabits the work of Cape Town-based artist Berni Searle, for whom the theme of origin provides a context for understanding her work. More specifically, being of both African and German-English descent, Searle’s artistic practice often explores the split origins of her mixed racial heritage.
“When I was sixteen and knew nothing about art, I sat through almost six hours of Andy Warhol’s Empire. I did not understand it but thought: this is in a major museum, it must be important, what is going on here? I stayed until the museum closed. His Screen Test films are some of my favorite works made this century, but you need to give them back the time they took to be made.” – Uta Barth
In the first part of my contribution to the Flash Points series on “Art and Experience” I asked a selection of artists included in the exhibition InVisible: Art at the Edge of Perception – a show about empty spaces, sensory limits, boundaries of perception – how they hope viewers experience their art. Curious whether their answers mirrored their artistic practices of not only making but also looking at art, for part two of my post, I asked the artists – Uta Barth, Christian Capurro, Joanne Lefrak, and Janet Passehl – how they experience art themselves.
There are several books published on art and perception, from philosophical, art historical, educational, psychoanalytical, and medical perspectives (among others, I am sure). To name just a few, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote extensively on the nature of perception, theorist and psychologist Rudolf Arnheim published Art and Visual Perception in 1954, and John Dewey delivered lectures on aesthetics in the 1930s, subsequently publishing Art as Experience. In a 1976 essay titled “Art as a Cultural System,” anthropologist Clifford Geertz points to the problem of word versus image, observing that the experience of art is difficult, maybe even impossible, to accurately put into words: “The excess of what we have seen, or imagine we have, over the stammerings we can manage to get out concerning it is so vast that our words seem hollow.” On the other hand, he states that “the perception of something important in either particular works or in the arts generally moves people to talk (and write) about them incessantly.” This is undoubtedly true –curators write lengthy catalogue essays; scholars analyze and theorize, regularly coming up with new -isms; critics opine about the latest exhibitions; artists compose statements; students write papers and dissertations; and in the age of Twitter and Flickr, a time where there seems to be an increasing desire to share our experiences – both mundane and profound – blogs are devoted to the subject.
Good experience, bad experience. Life experience, work experience. First experience, years of experience. Learning experience. Sensory experience. Out-of-body experience. Shared experience. We experience life in innumerable, and oftentimes indescribable, ways. When Flash Points editor Rachel Craft approached me to write this post, she posed the question, “How do we experience art?” This question, almost as difficult to answer as the familiar “What is art?” (or the similar “Why is this art?”), is one I was preoccupied with while curating the exhibition InVisible: Art at the Edge of Perception.
InVisible marks a first experience for me – my foray into curatorial practice. Shortly before proposing the theme for my exhibition, I read an article that stated that the majority of museum-goers spend, on average, only six seconds looking at art. What kind of experience would one have in such a short period of time? InVisible is a group exhibition of works by six international artists who explore the line between visibility and invisibility and, in so doing, invite us to participate in a deeper, and I hope slower, act of looking. The artists in the show – Uta Barth, Christian Capurro, Joanne Lefrak, Janet Passehl, Jaime Pitarch, and Karin Sander – examine the demands and subtleties of the viewing experience and create art that tests the limits of perception.
Drawing attention to what often goes unnoticed, many of the works in the show heighten our awareness of the inconspicuous details in the artists’ materials or of mundane objects. Some of the works, pushed to the edge of legibility, disappear into the gallery space itself. Several of the artists manipulate ephemeral phenomena, harnessing the potential of light and shadow, while others use strategies of erasure and find the “something” in what might otherwise be described as “nothing.”
For Part One of this blog post, I asked a few of the artists in InVisible how they hope viewers experience their art.