Dadaism in William Kentridge

The absurd, the paradox and humour are some of the links between the work of the South African artist and the Dada movement.

Drawing for the film Other Faces, 2011. William Kentridge | Charcoal and pencil on paper collage with ledger paper collage, 72 x 79 cm | Courtesy of the artist

Drawing for the film Other Faces, 2011. William Kentridge | Charcoal and pencil on paper collage with ledger paper collage, 72 x 79 cm | Courtesy of the artist

The artistic corpus of South African creator William Kentridge is crossed by a strong Dadaist influence. Reverberating in his work are surrealist echoes that accentuate the irrationality of conflict and war, the injustice of oppression and the obstinacy of memory. The political weight of his work reflects a society loaded with violence and the absurd, where the demented logic of apartheid connects with Dadaist eccentricity. Collage, vaudeville and discourse fragmentation or rupture are the resources that he shares with the most transgressive movement of the 20th century.

Since breaking out onto the international art scene in the late 1980s with Drawings for Projection, Kentridge has been known as much for his charcoal drawings as for his multidisciplinary installations and performances in which he combines image, sound, music and theatre elements, as well as for his work as art director for opera and theatre. But if there is one element that defines the artistic career of William Kentridge, it is collage, because of his way of organically interweaving artistic creation and historical narration, the deconstruction of the story and the use of different disciplines and techniques.

His charcoal drawings, imperfect and provisional, replicate the true nature of a brutalised society, the contradictions and injustice that surround him. Fragmentary and incomplete, in both their execution and their narrative sense, the fast strokes in thick charcoal shy away from any notion of naturalism. This lack of determination is a conscious rejection towards the closed formula, narrative and formal alike. A happy incoherence that reaches out to the Dadaist language that Kentridge has always recognised as his own.

The work of Kentridge wavers between “ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and uncertain endings”. His way of approaching the creation of a work is from the unconscious and the non-planned. The idea emerges from an image or a dream, thence its non-linear poetic nature, its free and hypnotic narration and its neo-expressionist patina that appeals to a collective subconscious that transcends the South African conflict. Drawings for Projection emerges in a quasi-accidental way, at the height of the state of exception, the result of the boycott and the endemic violence of the system.

Returning to collage, for Kentridge this has been a vehicle for articulating the sensation of conflict pursued by his themes. A language that serves him to draw together history (South African and general history) and the history of art, above all with the movements of the early 20th century. His works are an exploration of the human condition that overcomes cultural barriers, in which history is understood not as a linear narration but as a concatenation of events that each affect each other. An assembly where the political appears as a fundamental issue, but that tends towards the ambiguous, the fragmentary and the partisan. Dadaist language becomes a key element for understanding and describing the absurd and disjointed nature of reality and trying to create a narrative based on something completely irrational and incomprehensible. Language creates sense, it enables us to understand the world and ourselves. The extravagant Dadaist poetic traces the limits of the discourse and discovers the ability of revealing the lack of coherence in the historic narrative and in the language itself.

Streets of the City, 2009. William Kentridge and The Stephens Tapestry Studio | Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg

Streets of the City, 2009. William Kentridge and The Stephens Tapestry Studio | Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg

Perhaps the best definition of Dadaism was offered by Greil Marcus in his incommensurable Lipstick Traces (Harvard University Press, 1989): Dadaism was “a joke finally settling into encyclopaedias”. Born in neutral Switzerland at the height of the First World War, in the Cabaret Voltaire hand in hand with Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, Dada was a head-on attack on traditions artistic and political alike that spread around the world like a “virgin microbe”, as noted by the similarly Dadaist Tristan Tzara.

According to Jed Rasula, Dada amounted to a sort of “cultural guerrilla warfare, breaking out in the midst of a catastrophic, official war, the officiousness and obtuseness of which galvanized the soon-to-be Dadaists in the first place”. Ezra Pound understood that “in a world gone haywire it made no sense to profess impartiality” (Jed Rasula, Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century, Basic Books, 2015) and, despite it being the Dadaists who were lumbered with the nihilists label instead of the real instigators and executors of violence, the artistic expression emerging from petit cabaret was the only way to react against the madness of the Great War.

The importance of Dadaism in the work of William Kentridge has been fundamental. Dada represents a hierarchical rupture between the arts, aesthetics, and politics. Kentridge rapidly adopted his artistic lexicon, based on the paradox, absurdity, and humour. The unpredictability of his work and the process of creation, where the image emerges without any preconceived idea, as well as his formal language with a crude aesthetic that tends towards disconnection and the absurd, are fundamental points of union with the movement.

There are numerous works that are traversed by this eccentric influence. One of his first theatrical experiences was the performance/video installation I Am Not Me, The Horse is Not Mine (2008), which emerged as a preparatory work for the adaptation of the opera by Shostakovich The Nose, based on a tale by Nikolai Gogol, and which Kentridge would take to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 2010. Kentridge converts the story of Kovalyov, a civil servant in tsarist Russia, who wakes up one day without a nose, into an exploration of the irrational in literature and art. A story where human dignity is scorned and the absurd becomes “the only way of discovering the collapse of logic and rationality”.

In Lulu (2016), the adaptation of the work by Alban Berg for the English National Opera which he directs in collaboration with composer Philip Miller, Kentridge includes his characteristic and expressive charcoal drawings but the human voice also has a strong presence as a performative element; a mixture of “Dada and a cabaret performance”.

However, the most direct and blatant influence can be appreciated in two of his most recent works. Firstly, Ursonate, the performance curated by South Africa Pavilion Without Walls for Performa 17 in Harlem Parish (New York, 2017) and, secondly, The Head and the Load, his major installation at the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern (London, 2018).

William Kentridge. The Head & the Load | 14-18 NOW
William Kentridge. The Head & the Load | 14-18 NOW

Ursonate (‘Sonata primigenial’) was written by Kurt Schwitters between 1922 and 1932. Schwitters, a German Dadaist, composed this poem based on snorts, whistling, trills, warbles, odd phonemes, and incomprehensible sounds. Kentridge discovered the Dadaists in 1970 through the book by Hans Richter Dada: Art and Anti-Art (Thames & Hudson, 1965). The social and political climate of South Africa in that period was charged with violence, oppression, and an inequality so extreme that it underlined the injustice: a system based on racial segregation where the where the nonsensical ended up forming part of everyday life. The impetuous gestures and twisted logic of Dada seemed to fit in perfectly as an expression of political criticism.

For his performance in New York, Kentridge used his skill as an actor to capture the audience’s attention, which he shared with a repertoire of unconnected sounds and emphatic gestures lacking meaning. “If one listens to the gap between political discourse today and the world it is trying to describe,” said the artist to ARTNews, “then one understands that not making sense rather than the non-sense of Ursonate is about the work we do, either benevolently or malevolently, in trying to make meaning of words and tying language to the world”. A reflection that also alludes to a specific moment in the history of South African post-apartheid reconciliation, in which the construction of a new language was essential for the creation of a new reality.

The dynamic reading is accompanied by a high-speed montage of images with his characteristic charcoal strokes, fragments of pages taken from encyclopaedias, narrative portions that evoke the Soweto revolt in 1976, characters and objects that march and even a caricature of the artist himself. All of this referring to the Dadaist aesthetic deconstruction and the irrationality that functions here as a key to understanding the world and that defines the limits of the rational.

Many of the elements that he used for Ursonate are clearly reflected in The Head and the Load, possibly his most ambitious work. This piece – part installation and part theatrical production – combines music, dance, projections, mechanised sculptures and shadow play to create a large-scale epic landscape that commemorates the two million Africans massacred in the First World War by their colonial masters; the history of men, women and children who took part in the war as bearers, treated not far short of animals by the British, French and German armies.

Here Kentridge uses language as a “vehicle of incoherence” which raises the visibility, together with the lack of communication, of the main paradoxes of the colonial question.

In this tragicomic collage of artistic disciplines, texts are recited in various European languages and also in Swazi and Zulu, creating a polyphony on occasions unintelligible that immerses the audience in a state of perplexity and disconcertment, similar to that inspired by Ursonate. Another essential element of this piece that comes from the Dadaist language is the use of friezes in motion or marching, either of objects or of characters. In this case they are figures and actors with large loads on their heads that project giant shadows on a background of animated charcoal drawings. The processions also appear in Drawings for Projection or in More Sweetly Play the Dance by way of a macabre dance that acts in contraposition to the heroic military parades. These processions are provisional and incomplete, formed by diverse and ordinary people, characters in the margins that form part of history as a non-hegemonic narrative, which is created in the peripheries, fragmented, and dismembered like a collage, like a Dadaist vaudeville.

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Dadaism in William Kentridge