In the shadow of apartheid

The Herald - Arts - - VISUAL ART - SARAH URWIN JONES William Ken­tridge and Vivi­enne Koor­land: Con­ver­sa­tions in Let­ters and Lines is at the Fruit­mar­ket Gallery, Ed­in­burgh un­til Fe­bru­ary 19. www.fruit­mar­ket.co.uk

THE HIS­TORY of apartheid, com­par­a­tively re­cently ended in South Africa, weighs heavy in the work of two of that coun­try’s fore­most artists, ex­hibit­ing at the Fruit­mar­ket. Born in the 1950s, both grew up un­der apartheid, both were po­lit­i­cally en­gaged. William Ken­tridge, the son of lawyers who rep­re­sented Nel­son Man­dela when he was first im­pris­oned and Vivi­enne Koor­land, who early on in her ca­reer il­lus­trated the Xhosa-lan­guage dock­work­ers’ news­pa­per ABASEBENZI (worker), met some 40 years ago at univer­sity, he study­ing po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, she art at Cape Town.

Since that first meet­ing they have “long done their work in dif­fer­ent ways, of­ten com­ing from the same source or out of the same ques­tions,” as Ken­tridge once said. This ex­hi­bi­tion, draw­ing to­gether mostly re­cent works that show the links be­tween the two artists and cu­rated by an­other univer­sity friend, Ta­mar Garb, is sober­ing and thought­pro­vok­ing but with an oc­ca­sional light­ness that only serves to un­der­line the po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties – past and present – which pro­voke the work.

Ken­tridge, who works in many me­dia, but is here largely rep­re­sented by the an­i­ma­tions for which he is so well known. Re­cent works in­clude Anatomy of Melan­choly (2012), Tango for Page turn­ing (2012) and Sec­ond Hand Read­ing (2013), but there are also mov­ing early works such as Felix in Ex­ile (1994).

In his “book” films, the an­i­ma­tion flicks ran­domly through the pages of a book or ledger as Ken­tridge’s beau­ti­ful ex­pres­sive char­coal fig­ures – he is a su­perb drafts­man – dance or run over the op­pos­ing leaves. Ken­tridge’s hand rubs away ap­plied whirls of paint from the ledgers to re­veal an im­age un­der­neath, sug­gest­ing both the at­tempts to take it all away, rub it away, “un­re­mem­ber”, but also the lay­ers of his­tory. He cleans up the mess in re­verse, peel­ing back the many ob­scur­ing sur­face lay­ers, but the mess sim­ply re­veals the thing hid­den un­der­neath.

Many images re­cur in these an­i­ma­tions, from a danc­ing woman to mega­phones, a string of barbed wire to a dead body, astro­nom­i­cal in­stru­ments to a run­ning busi­ness­man, like leit­mo­tifs for the 20th cen­tury, for the long shadow of his­tory.

Else­where, Ken­tridge’s luridly mu­si­cal Notes To­wards a Model Opera (2015) is a fast-mov­ing three screen in­stal­la­tion of agit-prop, of sur­real, point­less slo­gans made from in­flam­ma­tory words put to­gether as if by chance, and a woman en pointe, danc­ing del­i­cately with a gun and revo­lu­tion­ary red flags to tin-can jaunty mu­sic, like some gut­tural war spirit dressed-up as civ­i­liza­tion. Men stare at sand­wich-board plac­ards around their necks with slo­gans, be­mused, un­cer­tain. And then sud­denly they be­come the slo­gan, shout­ing it, im­pas­sioned. It is easy to get swept up in it, to blud­geon your own cul­ture, your own peo­ple, Ken­tridge seems to fleet­ingly sug­gest, as images of Mao, of Cas­tro, flit by on the screens.

Vivi­enne Koor­land’s work, less well known in this coun­try, is mounted on pan­els around the gallery, mon­u­men­tal in scale. It is her vast Pays In­connu which con­fronts the vis­i­tor as they en­ter the ground floor gallery, a re­work­ing of a hugely de­tailed 18th cen­tury map of South Africa made for King Louis XVI, de­pict­ing the jour­neys of ex­plorer and or­nithol­o­gist Fran­cois le Vail­lant. Koor­land’s “copy” is pro­duced on burlap sack­ing, laid out, stitched to­gether and painted with idyl­lic images of an­i­mals and ide­alised pas­toral images of peo­ples. Here and there, small pan­els are stitched on in patch­work fash­ion. In its non-speci­ficity, it has the air of a fan­tasy map, a map of some­where that doesn’t re­ally ex­ist. Here be gi­raffes or lions. Here be Nick, the artist’s dog. The map is as sub­jec­tive as the car­tog­ra­pher pro­duc­ing it. It con­trasts with an­other work some few paces away, the sim­ple yet dis­turb­ing dip­tych of SA Farm Map: Set­tle­ments and SA Farm Map: De­por­ta­tions (2008). Each con­tain a set of names mapped out on pan­els of burlap. The names are var­ied in the lat­ter, but the for­mer is nearly all Afrikaans, chart­ing the dis­place­ment of peo­ple from their land.

It is the im­por­tance of words as a fac­tor in both artists’ work that stands out. Ken­tridge prints mes­sages on the ex­ist­ing words in the books he uses for his an­i­ma­tions, from the ledgers of a South African gold mine, a sym­bol of cap­i­tal­ism and the op­pres­sive his­tory of apartheid, to the 17th cen­tury the­sis The Anatomy of Melan­choly.

Ken­tridge’s an­i­ma­tions fre­quently in­volve ob­jects mor­ph­ing into other things; a per­son car­ry­ing a heavy load spins on its axis to be­come a tree, dead bod­ies are cov­ered by pa­per to be­come part of the land­scape; a man run­ning along is shad­owed by ab­stact brush strokes run­ning on the verso, the dark shadow from which he can­not get away. Land­scape and his­tory are key. Words re­peat. “End with love.” “Un­hap­pen.” “Un­re­mem­ber.” But Ken­tridge’s work is the ac­tion of re­mem­ber­ing and of deal­ing with those mem­o­ries.

For Koor­land, too, art is a process of re­mem­ber­ing, of ques­tion­ing. Some­times she painstak­ingly paints out sto­ries or ac­counts, in­clud­ing a first-hand anony­mous typed ac­count from a fam­ily, per­haps some­where in Nazi Europe, per­haps else­where, in the months be­fore they and their neigh­bours are taken off on a trans­port. And Koor­land, too, paints on books, from book spine paint­ings to early “can­vases” made from book pages and newsprint. Ken­tridge and Koor­land record, just as the ledgers and books and ac­counts that they use in their work recorded. The com­men­tary comes in the lay­ers painted, an­i­mated and imag­ined, on top, and a his­tory of vi­o­lence, in­jus­tice and hu­man sor­row dances across the pages.

For Koor­land, art is a process of re­mem­ber­ing, of ques­tion­ing

The work of William Ken­tridge and Vivi­enne Koor­land is on dis­play at the Fruit­mar­ket Gallery, Ed­in­burgh, un­til Fe­bru­ary 19

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