The problem of evil is traditionally thought of as a problem for believers. It’s supposed to be up to the religious to figure out how to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient god with the existence of evil in the world. But the problem of evil doesn’t go away if you take a secular view of ethics, it just changes form. It becomes a question of how to maintain faith in humanity, rather than faith in a deity. It becomes a question about the rationality of optimism, of hope, of joy. It becomes a question about our collective social responsibility, rather than whether the gods have forsaken us.
Whether you prefer the religious or the secular argument, the central premise remains: that the long march of history has always been weighed down by the existence of human atrocity. And it’s this image that first greets visitors to the mammoth William Kentridge retrospective “Five Themes” at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Kentridge’s film Shadow Procession depicts a seemingly endless progression of characters loaded with possessions, marching endlessly onward, bent over double by their burden. The animation was made in 1999, in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s investigation of apartheid in Kentridge’s native South Africa. Kentridge has referred to the South African apartheid experience as the “exemplary moral tale of the late twentieth century”; for a time, the outside world was very taken by South Africa’s “moral fairy story”. But of course, it’s easy for people to love morality when it’s simple.
If you’re an artist from a background where the evils of humanity are in the foreground, then it’s probably only a matter of time before you are forced to contemplate the social responsibility of the artist. Kentridge does not deny that he is a political artist. However, for all this politicising, there’s nothing didactic about Kentridge. In an interview with Mark Rosenthal, the curator of “Five Themes”, Kentridge spoke about the importance of ambiguity in his films: “the greater the space for uncertainty, the closer [the films] could get to how South Africa felt for me.” His polemic is, in fact, more of an antipolemic, arguing against authoritarianism or centralised visions in favour of a plurality of viewpoints. True to this, his works often give agency to the individual. Solo viewing and listening devices such as stereoscopes, telescopes, cameras, telephones and mirrors make frequent appearances, either as motifs within the films or, as the actual means of viewing them. (The exquisitely accomplished What Will Come (2007) is a rotating anamorphic projection that forms recognisable images when seen via a cylindrical mirror.) For Kentridge, constructing meaning is an inherently personal task, and he draws our attention to each and every stage of it.
There are times when the things that you don’t have define you more than the things you do have. Kentridge’s works, whilst reflecting on a history of violence and atrocity, more than anything else reflect on loss – loss as a tangible, substantive and physical presence, as opposed to an absence. At around the same time that Kentridge wrote the words “her absence filled the world”, the poet W.S. Merwin described loss in his poem Separation, and Merwin’s beautiful metaphor could well be describing the experience of “Five Themes”:
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle
Everything I do is stitched with its colour.
"William Kentridge: Five Themes" at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
Exhibition dates 8 March - 27 May 2012, open daily 10am – 6pm