The dramatic tensions that characterized the years of apartheid in South Africa, together with the contradictions that have marked the difficult course of reconciliation, are the contexts within which many of William Kentridge’s works originate. Since 1989 the artist has been creating animated short films, featuring in particular two characters, Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum. Invented figures, the characteristics of each represent the artist’s commentary on the reality that surrounds him. While the former is a white entrepreneur whose life describes a trajectory of success and then failure, Teitlebaum, a sensitive man, can be identified as Kentridge’s alter ego. Using his own technique, the artist creates his works in video by always drawing, erasing and re-drawing on a very small number of paper sheets, filming and editing the various phases into sequences. The centrality entrusted to the act of erasing alludes to the amnesia regarding injustices that, according to Kentridge, afflict contemporary humankind. This existential suffering is expressed in later works by the artist’s inclusion of documentary sequences that, by being alternated with drawings, possess strong self-critical value. In addition to digital videos and 16-millimeter and 35-millimeter films, Kentridge’s large body of work includes drawings, engravings, sculptures, tapestries, bronzes, and works for theater. The variety of techniques corresponds to the scope of Kentridge’s interests and, at the same time, to his declared lack of certainty, responding to the profound political and social changes currently underway.
In 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, 2003, Kentridge turns the video camera on himself, describing moments of investigation, doubt, and creative fervor. The work is an homage to the famous French filmmaker, and to his role in the definition of the artist as a “magician,” capable of arousing amazement and wonder. Invisible Mending, Balancing Act, Tabula rasa I, Tabula rasa II (Good Housekeeping), Moveable Assets, Auto-Didact, and Feats of Prestidigitation are the projections that make up the installation. All the filming is set in the artist’s studio—a reference to the centrality of the atelier in the context of Méliès’s production. The description of the creative process is staged by making ample use of the reversal technique, on the basis of which the images are projected in the opposite direction from the one in which they were filmed.
Journey to the Moon and Day for Night, both dated 2003, originate from the same material of the Fragments and are often shown together with them. In the former, Kentridge intentionally quotes the famous film by Méliès, inspired by the eponymous book by Jules Verne. Drawing upon his personal props, Kentridge focuses the action on the transformations of a coffee cup and the unexpected ability of a coffee pot to fly like a spaceship. The video is accompanied by music by Philip Miller. In Day for Night, the artist is inspired by an actual invasion of ants that occurred in his studio. Choosing them as unwitting actors, Kentridge decides to follow the exploits of the tiny insects while they wander over his work. Using small amounts of sugar, he traces outlines on his sheets of paper and films the row of insects as they follow its path. The inversion indicated in the title refers to the upheaval of the positive and negative of the images. This procedure transforms the white of the paper into a black sky and the ants into white pinprick points that are similar to galaxies and constellations.