by Sean O'Toole
Zeno Writing is a difficult piece of film. A mournful fragment from William Kentridge's theatrical adaptation of Italo Svevo's 1923 novel of the same name, the film offers a highly articulate, if deeply impressionistic vision of apartheid. Incorporating Kentridge's signature charcoal drawings and anthropomorphic silhouette figures trudging across the screen, Zeno Writing includes some new filmic innovations such as Kentridge's use of archival footage to evoke the troubled stream-of-consciousness of a man constantly tabulating facts and figures.
As a fragment of a larger narrative, Zeno Writing is not always obvious. Kentridge uses a sophisticated narrative form to explore the awkward juncture of highbrow European traditions in a gritty South African reality. It is not a new strategy for the artist, but with Zeno Writing it is, however, difficult to make an easy connection between the archaic European world of the film and the suburbs of 1980s Johannesburg. The images are less obviously rooted in the South African experience with the subject matter only nominally familiar.
Take, for instance, the large charcoal drawings of ornate Edwardian parlours, a street scene from Rome, a landscape study of what looks like Mont Blanc. There is a distance between these images and the viewer, a disconnectedness that makes these images less visceral, less immediate. Not that there is a need for any art image to resonate directly with a viewer; difficulty is always allowed. But comparing the work on show at The Goodman Gallery with that currently on view at Kentridge's Cape Town retrospective, there is none of that parochial familiarity so much a staple of the artist's oeuvre.
And yet many of Kentridge's characteristic obsessions are clearly in evidence. Zeno Landscape 1 (2003) is a portrait of a deteriorated landscape still smoking from battle, an image that serves as the rather ominous closing image to the film. A series of geometric red lines overlay the charcoal drawing and suggestively hint at Kentridge's cartographic urges. This work is clearly in the tradition of his Colonial Landscapes series, and tends to remind one of works such as Deep Pool (1995-96). Not that all his large charcoal landscapes are necessarily about mapping.
Take Kentridge's study of a defoliated forest, another scene from the film. This work evidences another thrust in Kentridge's output; his fascination for landscapes resonant with human intervention. Where before it was civil engineering objects, power supply pylons, drive-inn screens, in essence the Highveld landscapes; in Zeno Writing the subject is the war-ravaged terrain.
The war imagery in Zeno Writing is particularly striking - and resonant given the times. Kentridge's 12-minute film incorporates many archival images of war; trench warfare; flotillas of battle ships, some of them sinking; pirouetting bi-planes; exploding earth. Some of these images have been further interpreted and reworked by the artist into a haunting series of etchings. One particularly appealing etching shows two bi-planes dancing through a sombre sky, a tangle of lines suggesting motion in the static image.
An odd paradox frames 'Zeno Writing', the show. It is a fragment of a story said to explore the intricacies of growing up as a white South Africa under apartheid. Watching the film piece one is, however, less inclined to ponder apartheid South Africa than the state of the world at the moment. This is probably the biggest shift evidenced by Kentridge's output on his show at The Goodman Gallery. Universality, rather than particularity, frames his current work. Those who have revelled in his intensely local depictions of South African life might as a result be disappointed. But Johannesburg's loss has certainly been the world's gain.
Opening: March 1
Closing: March 29
Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Tel: 011 788 1113
Fax: 011 788 9887
Hours: Tues - Fri 9.30 a.m - 5 p.m, Sat 9.30 a.m - 4 p.m