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>> Interview: William Kentridge
>> The Legend of Two Islands: Pierre Huyghe
>> Game with Reality: Art and Theater
>> On Stage: Art, Space and Orchestration

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Inside the Black Box
William Kentridge in an Interview

William Kentridge in Stockholm during the
preparation for Black Box/Chambre Noire, 2005
Photo: Petra Hellberg Deutsche Guggenheim, © William Kentridge

The "Magic Flute", the Rhinoceros hunt, the German genocide on the Herero in Namibia: with "Black Box/Chambre Noire" the South African artist William Kentridge creates a mechanical, miniaturized world theater in the Deutsche Guggenheim that is also an elegy to a chapter of forgotten history. Cheryl Kaplan spoke with the artist.

In the winter of 2005, the South African artist William Kentridge and I met in Central Park for a walk through Christo’s installation The Gates. He was just starting to work on a new commission from Deutsche Bank for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin called Black Box/Chambre Noire. William Kentridge is best known for his animated films as well as theatrical collaborations with the Handspring Puppet Company, founded in Cape Town by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler. Kentridge has exhibited widely, from the 1993 Venice Biennale to the Museum of Modern Art (Projects 68, 1999), the Hirshhorn Museum (2001), the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (2001), Centre Georges Pompidou (2002), Castello di Rivoli (2004), and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2005). He has also been awarded the prestigious Carnegie Prize at the Carnegie International (1999).

William Kentridge in his Johannesburg studio
working on Black Box/Chambre Noir, 2005
Photo: John Hodgkiss Deutsche Guggenheim, © William Kentridge

Kentridge’s characters are frequently worn out by their struggles as they relentlessly strive towards a cure. In the animated short film Tide Table, life comes to an almost dead-stop for Soho Eckstein, the fastidious power broker and frequent protagonist. From Weighing… and Wanting to Stereoscope, Eckstein has watched kingdoms come and go. Sometimes he’s nearly drowned in his own tears.

In Kentridge’s 1996 film History of the Main Complaint, Soho Eckstein is in a coma, surrounded by doctors who multiply around him. The disease, part physical and part political, progresses, echoing South Africa’s plight as the tycoon falls apart. Kentridge’s characters tumble in and out of their own tragic flaws. The films, mostly done in charcoal, are relentlessly animated with a Bolex camera, frame by frame.

William Kentridge, image from Black Box/Chambre Noire, 2005
Photo: John Hodgkiss Deutsche Guggenheim, © William Kentridge

As part of an ongoing series of conversations, I talked with William Kentridge moments before his trip to Berlin from his Johannesburg studio. Straddling film, theater and opera, Black Box/Chambre Noire takes as its historical start the 1904 massacre of the Hereros in the former German colony of Namibia.

Cheryl Kaplan: Your drawings for "Black Box" reference theater, film, photography, opera, and a vaudeville act.

William Kentridge: The films in general are drawings in four dimensions. Sometimes a drawing starts as two-dimensional, and then it becomes a painted backdrop as in Black Box for the Deutsche Guggenheim. There are projections on flat surfaces moving through time, where a flat backdrop becomes animated. The logic and way of working has to do with drawing. I extrapolate outwards into filmmaking or theater. I’m interested in how cinema and the further development of photography coincide. Black Box references the black box of the theater, a space for experimenting, the chambre noir – the space between the lens and the camera’s eyepiece – and the black box as a recorder of disasters in airplanes. A black box miniature theater is an optical toy that is a forerunner of cinema. Instead of having actors on stage, it’s about seeing a child’s miniature toy theater and its machinery moving. Formally, the Black Box has something to do with vaudeville, which, in the 1890s, provided one of the transitions to movies.

William Kentridge, image from Black Box/Chambre Noire, 2005
Photo: John Hodgkiss Deutsche Guggenheim, © William Kentridge
How did you prepare for the Deutsche Guggenheim commission?

The preparatory work happened over two years of working on the opera I’ve done of Mozart’s Magic Flute using a 1:10 scale model of the set, working with projections and models of figures on a miniature scale. The Magic Flute is about the Enlightenment and its limits and those not eligible for it, like Papageno and Monostatos. Mozart’s Magic Flute was first performed in 1791 – and about a hundred years later, the Enlightenment appeared in the form of the colonization of Africa. At the Berlin Conference of 1884, Africa was partitioned; that was seen as an Enlightenment project, bringing lightness to the dark continent. I’m looking at German colonization in reference to Namibia for the exhibition. I went there to look at the place where there was a great massacre of the Herero by the Germans from 1904-1907. Some of that archival material and footage shot in the mountain where the genocide began is in the final piece.

William Kentridge, image from Black Box/Chambre Noire, 2005
Photo: John Hodgkiss Deutsche Guggenheim, © William Kentridge
William Kentridge, Untitled, (drawing for Black Box/Chambre Noire), 2005
Photo: John Hodgkiss Deutsche Guggenheim, © William Kentridge

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