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"Trauma in the Box":
Press Reactions to William Kentridge’s Installation Black Box/Chambre Noire at the Deutsche Guggenheim

At the Deutsche Guggenheim, "Black Box/Chambre Noire", the installation created by the South African artist William Kentridge, has been meeting with controversial response. It’s no wonder, because Kentridge has directed his attention to a repressed chapter of colonial rule during the era of Wilhelm II: the German massacre on the Herero tribe in German Southwest Africa, today Namibia, during which the tribe was almost completely exterminated in 1904. "Black Box/Chambre Noire" combines the possibilities of drawing, animation, photography, film, opera, and theater to investigate the difficulties in the representation of a historical trauma. Yet how does the artist convey his complex political message?

"But the Herero people must leave this land. If they refuse, I will force them with the Groot Rohr [canon]. Any Herero found within the German borders armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will accept no more women or children, but will send them back to their people or have them shot." These are the words General Lieutenant Lothar von Trotha, acting under the orders of Emperor Wilhelm II, used in 1904 to initiate the genocide on the Herero tribe; Markus Woeller cites them at the beginning of his critical exhibition review in the taz. One hundred years after the Herero uprising, which was brutally suppressed, German Foreign Aid Advisor Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul might have asked for forgiveness, but black Africa’s past does not play much of a role in the German collective memory, as Woeller contends. The fact that Kentridge’s installation will not do much to change this is due, in his opinion, to an overload of quotes and techniques in Kentridge’s miniature theater, the Black Box: "Unfortunately, Kentridge does not […] succeed at turning the darkroom into a place of illumination. In Black Box/Chambre Noire, form and content collide in a clumsy way. In what starts out as an investigation into the Herero massacre, theatrical performance and decontextualized opera arias are blown up into an-all-too respectable desire to make art. A mechanical sculpture ballet and fragments of documentary material, nostalgic colonial decor and computer-generated projection technique reduce the images endlessly." In using drawing to imitate original documents, pages of historical books, old-style handwriting, and Dadaist collages, Kentridge creates a "complacent retro style." In his opinion, "the project Black Box/Chambre Noire gets too tied up in aesthetic frills. Yet it was supposed to recover the black box of human catastrophe and evaluate it."

This demand for a didactic analysis of historical events contrasts with the admiration felt by other critics for Kentridge’s complex aesthetic strategies. While Michael Althen interviews Kentridge on the boundaries between art and cinema for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Elke Buhr from the Frankfurter Rundschau calls his installation "a box full of trap doors": "in William Kentridge’s work, everything is always in flux: each image is a process, a sequence of thoughts, a superimposition of many ideas and contexts. And the Black Box, his latest work created on commission for the Deutsche Guggenheim, is a wonderful little machine that gives room to each of these planes in his work." According to Buhr, the story his mechanical figures and film projections tell are neither linear nor clear; probably, they are more the history of Europe than of Africa: "The rhinoceros is dancing with a small, seemingly alive machine that looks like a cross between a megaphone and a desk lamp, carrying a large sign with the Freudian term Trauerarbeit (work of mourning) around with it. In the end, it will make a reckless leap above it all – the consolation is in the movement, in the simple miracle of the image transforming out of its own self."

Yet it’s precisely these basic gestures that do not suffice for Nicola Kuhn from the Tagesspiegel . Kentridge’s installation is a "poetic review," and particularly in relation to his investigation of South Africa’s history of apartheid, the commissioned work in Deutsche Bank’s "own home gallery" is somewhat "piquant." The result is an "attempt at a highly complex coming to terms with the past, yet it was expressed artistically in such a roundabout manner that no one could have seriously taken exception to it." One would have to know much more about the violent suppression of the Herero uprising from 1904 or be familiar with Kentridge’s stage design for Mozart’s Magic Flute and the political references to the exhibition site Berlin, where the colonial division of Africa was agreed upon in 1884 as part of the West Africa Conference. In this sense, Kuhn contends that Kentridge’s images are never truly moving. Only the documentary footage of a rhinoceros hunt at the beginning of the century succeeded in unsettling her: "In what was otherwise a nostalgic series of images, this real brutality was frightening. The Black Box would have to show sharper images to work."

If one believes Marin Majica’s exhibition review "The Trauma in the Box," then Nicola Kuhn is right, because Kentridge’s work at the Deutsche Guggenheim is chiefly one thing for the critic of the Berliner Zeitung: "bizarrely beautiful… a puppet theater with animated film images of charcoal drawings projected onto the rear wall – a light box with mechanical figures buzzing through it as though pulled by the hands of ghosts." Kentridge’s "machine" postulates a cause for the "Herero catastrophe" – "the purely technical reasoning of the industrial and colonial age," whose inhumanity the author sees as an "Anti-Enlightenment" that ultimately culminated in the Nazi era. For Vasco Boenisch, who reviewed Black Box for the art magazine Monopol , Kentridge creates a "playing room in which the threads of meaning carry straight through human civilization, from the enlightenment motif in Plato’s cave allegory right up to the perversion of the same during the Christianization of Africa."

According to Gabriele Walde, however, this would have worked better with the help of additional information. While she notes in the Berliner Morgenpost that the scenarios Kentridge has created are moving and powerful, she also criticizes that a "few facts" would have "done the installation good." To her mind, this does not necessarily imply a demand for more unequivocal images: "Whoever invites the brilliant draftsman with his inexhaustible urge for experimentation knows from the onset that everything is possible, that nothing is established once and for all. A surreal world of images in constant flux. In Kentridge’s work, the images dance; the wild charcoal lines seem unbridled. But one also knows that Kentridge is never interested in the lightness of being, even if his poetic and deceptively vague animated films, drawings, and puppet games might seem so at first sight – for him, it’s a matter of addressing the past in manner that is in truth hard as a rock."

For Barbara Wiegand, as well, Kentridge’s work has "almost nothing of an animated film," as she notes in her commentary for Deutschlandradio: "Kentridge repeatedly refers in his installation directly to this German history in Africa – endless lists of the dead are projected onto the walls of the stage, the bones of the victims are measured – just as it really occurred at the time, in the name of research." In this sense, Kentridge’s approach to the past leaves behind "evidence that cannot be extinguished": "He shows this by intentionally leaving traces of erasures in the drawings used for the animations. Thus, what happened yesterday is still present today on this stage in the Deutsche Guggenheim Museum. And the mourning work proclaimed at the beginning of the piece retains a hold on the viewer long after one has left this fascinating theater."