Saturday, 26 September 2009

William Kentridge

The History of the Main Complaint 1996
Drawings for Projection
Tate Modern, London
12 May 2000

I first came across the work of William Kentridge in 2000 when Tate Modern opened and I saw "The History of the Main Complaint". I recall few details, a shrouded hospital bed, the switches between an echo scan and the eyes seen in a rear view mirror, but do remember the pervading sadness and the subject matter dealing with "White South African" guilt.

The History of the Main Complaint (1996) is the sixth film in the series Drawings for Projection films, which 'star' Soho Eckstein (a wealthy mine owner) and Felix Teitlebaum (a sensitive downtrodden alter-ego to Soho) as their main characters.

The film begins with a scene of Eckstein in a hospital bed - waiting either for recovery, or death. The sound of a heartbeat heightens the tension and the feeling of some imminent doom within the viewer's consciousness.

Every significant image can be interpreted in a metaphorical way. According to Godby(1), Soho Eckstein's body becomes a metaphor for the divided and unreconciled South African state, while the group of doctors attending to the patient cannot reach agreement about the patient's diagnosis. Meanwhile, economic power is metaphorically illustrated by imagery of telephones, sonar machines, and other kinds of office equipment. But all these artefacts hark from period before his birth, evoking melancholic sense of a past era stripping them of their power. The patient remains ill, ailing and isolated. Kentridge uses this metaphor to highlight (by contrast) the importance of the truth and reconciliation process, which was (in one sense at least) a movement away from the imprisoning isolation of personal memory. By creating Soho as a self-portrait, Kentridge makes sure that he himself becomes part of this process that he sees as inevitable for all South Africans of good will.

Kentridge’s technique in producing his animations is to manipulate one image on a single piece of paper, removing and adding charcoal while the drawing progresses. As the moving image consists of 24 frames per second, the process is fluid and energetic. He photographs each drawing before erasing some part of it, and then draws again on the erased section before photographing that for the next frame - and so on. He always leaves traces of the previous drawing before adding the amendment. These remaining traces create an illusion of movement in the film when it is viewed in low light conditions, and are reminiscent of the visual effects created by old black-and-white films. So although there is no painting involved, his process has an element of evolving over time built into it, just like painting. Thus, instead of thousands of different drawings, he makes use of thousands of alterations to one single drawing. Seen as a film it evoked the feeling that it is impossible to remember everything, but it is equally impossible to totally forget. And in order to remember one must be able to forget. By allowing traces of imperfect erasure to remain visible in the images, time is amplified; 'before' and 'now' overlap and subjectivity is experienced as a passage, hovering in a zone between forgetting and remembering. The use of charcoal, the imperfection of the erasure, the shakiness of the camera all produce a film which emphasise the pervasive melancholy and desolation.

(1)Michael Godby, ‘William Kentridge’s History of the Main Complaint: Narrative, Memory, Truth’, in Sarah Nuttal and Carli Coetzee, Negotiating the Past: the Making of Memory in South Africa, Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1998

©blackdog 2009


  1. Yes, I heard of the South African artist William Kentridge as theatre producer (Mozart, Die Zauberflöte)..., "forgetting and remembering" are very impotant themes/problems, and, yes, this are also permanent themes and questions/ problems of our horrible German history, and it is no wonder that the artist is now dealing with this history, too! Your analysis is very careful, precise, and thoughtful- it may have been difficult to describe his complex- differenciated drawings-film-work- I find the drawing moving: the curtains of the forgetting and the lies which must be opened in order to find the truth, the Greeek word for truth "a-leteia" means the opposite of hiding = de-tecting of the hidden things! The drawing reminds me also of an hospital I saw in Beaune/France, the ill persnos lay in such cabins surrounded by curtains..., the depictured room recalls a sterile, unpersonal, cool looking room where patent's diagnosis could be held.

  2. Thank you Philine - I found it hard to write something descriptive about something I saw so long ago and had to borrow a lot from others. I do clearly remember my emotional response at the time though and thankfully kept a few notes despite being a bit of a novice at the time. This image has gained a particular significance for me since I saw the film but it was a truly melancholic experience even without my own associations.


  3. We know in German the metaphor "Vorhang des Vergessens" /curtain of forgetting- WK's theme: "how transient are the emotions, how short-term/ebbing away the memories"! - zu gr. a-letheia= truth cf. the philosophical question 'Heidegger and aletheia'("Unverborgenheit) - Lethe is also the river of forgetting the deads have been told in the Greek mythology to cross... !