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Theater of Memory:
William Kentridge’s Installation Black Box/Chambre Noire at the Deutsche Guggenheim

From October 29 2005 through January 15 2006, the Deutsche Guggenheim will be presenting the commissioned work “Black Box/Chambre Noire” by the South African artist William Kentridge in its exhibition space at Unter den Linden. In showing this multi-media installation consisting of animated films, plastic objects, drawings, and a mechanical miniature theater, the Deutsche Guggenheim continues its series of commissioned works following John Baldessari’s Somewhere Between Almost Right and Not Quite (With Orange).

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

William Kentridge’s work evinces a deep connection to the themes of memory and the past, which the artist socially and politically reflects upon. Rigorously reworked charcoal and pastel drawings form the basis of his films, in which the traces of clearly visible pentimenti underscore the process nature of the works and the ineradicable presence of the past. Kentridge is also known for his theater productions, in which he creates many-layered multi-media performances. Objects and their shadows, puppets and the puppet player’s hand, traces of his handwriting and erasures can be found in his stage designs and film projections. He chose Germany, home country of the work’s commissioner, as his point of departure for the new work Black Box/Chambre Noire. Many of Kentridge’s works research Africa’s and South Africa’s history, yet the artist has long felt connected to German art and culture and has produced works inspired by German artists or literary figures. His approach to this theme was also influenced by his simultaneous direction of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Both the stage model as object and the theme of the Enlightenment can be found in Black Box/Chambre Noire. The work investigates the rather dismal effects of the epoch’s philosophical legacy and reflects upon the key process of reversal often found at the core of Kentridge’s works.

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

Kentridge playfully uses the three planes of meaning inherent in the title Black Box/Chambre Noire: the “Black Box” as theater, as photographic “Chambre Noire” or darkroom – and as the container of flight data documenting catastrophes. The motif of the “Black Box” forms the background for the construction of history and meaning, the grieving process, guilt and atonement, but also the shifting perspectives of political commitment and responsibility. In Black Box/Chambre Noire , the development of visual technologies is interwoven with the history of German colonialism and the German presence in Africa, particularly the 1904 German massacre of the Herero in the German Southwest, today Namibia. This massacre, which some historians consider to be the first genocide of the 20th century, nearly led to the tribe’s extinction. After Southwest Africa became a German protectorate in 1885, over the following years German settlers penetrated deeper and deeper into Herero land and appropriated it. As the situation of the Herero tribe became increasingly hopeless, their chief Samuel Mahareru called upon his people to revolt against the ruling Germans. Under the command of General von Trotha, the German troops fought back. Despite mounting protest against von Trotha’s harsh methods both in the colonies and in Germany, he was only forced to resign in 1905, after 75 percent of the population had been killed. In 1914, South Africa took over German Southwest Africa as a protectorate – the despotism only ended in 1990, with Namibia’s independence. His South African identity has led Kentridge to question ideas of guilt and complicity, atonement and grief.

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

Kentridge’s investigation of this historical event led him to the Freudian term “Trauerarbeit” – literally “grief work” – as a never-ending task. This continuous research corresponds with Kentridge’s ruthless and self-reflective investigation of the way meaning is created. Each time he formulates a new work, Kentridge shows how selective and subjective memories can be woven together to form the larger historical narratives. Thus, the process nature of Kentridge’s work Black Box/Chambre Noire takes on a complex quality. On his journeys throughout Namibia as well as during his research in the National Archive there, Kentridge found texts from the time, which he later used as a basis for a large number of paper works. Kentridge’s unique working process integrates these drawings in his Black Box/Chambre Noire film and combines them with film material he shot in Namibia as well as with archive photographs and excerpts from German films of the colonial era. Even the music Kentridge and Philip Miller – composer of the film music to Black Box/Chambre Noire –discovered in Namibia has been closely woven into the work. Thus, the composition integrates Herero laments and praise songs and traditional Namibian bow music with fragments from the arias of Mozart’s Magic Flute, played in 1937 by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.

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

Thus, Black Box/Chambre Noire investigates the difficulties involved in representing historical traumata. The reconstruction of events and people from the perspective of a certain time, a certain location, and a certain politics are called into question. Kentridge’s metaphoric investigation in the “Black Box” addresses the themes of flexibility, fixation, and future that arise in the research of the past. Thus, the work resists a conclusion; simplifying constructions of history operating with opposites such as past and present, victim and perpetrator, spectacle and spectator are called into question.

William Kentridge, Black Box/ Chambre Noire, Edition 33

William Kentridge: Black Box/Chambre Noire was curated by Maria-Christina Villaseñor, Associate Curator for Film and Media Arts at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. A bound catalogue in English and German has been published to accompany the exhibition and includes an essay by the curator as well as additional contributions by the artist. It costs 34 Euros. In addition, William Kentridge developed the edition Black Box/Chambre Noire – Deutsche Guggenheim’s edition No. 33 – which consists of a historical replica of a stereoscopic viewer and eight stereoscopic photographs. The images, taken by John Hodgkiss and William Kentridge, show scenes of the installation and of Kentridge’s studio during the work on Black Box/Chambre Noire. In a limited signed edition of 100 + XX a.p. copies, this edition can be bought exclusively in the Museum Shop for the price of 380 Euros.

William Kentridge, Stage setting, Performance 9 Drawings for Projection,
©Deutsche Guggenheim and William Kentridge

The exhibition will be accompanied by an extensive program of lectures, films, music, and a children’s program. On Saturday, October 29 at 4 p.m., William Kentridge will be speaking about his new work in an artist’s talk at the Deutsche Guggenheim. Free guided tours take place daily at 6 p.m.; the museum’s well-known lunch lectures take place Wednesdays at 1 p.m. and the Sunday theme talks at 11:30 a.m.

There will be a special highlight on December 2nd and 4th 2005: after a successful start in Johannesburg, Zurich, and an open air in Central Park in New York, the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin is showing the German premiere of the extraordinary live music performance Journey to the Moon & 9 Drawings for Projection. Kentridge’s film works 9 Drawings for Projection from his “Soho Eckstein” series as well as Journey to the Moon will be presented together with a live performance of the original film music. Composed by Philip Miller, the music will be performed by the Archimia Quartett with Vincenzo Pasquariello on the piano in the Atrium of Deutsche Bank in a co-production between Art Logic, Johannesburg, and Change Performing Arts, Milan.

The exhibition is open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursdays to 10 p.m. Mondays free admission.

Translation: Andrea Scrima