From the Flat Surface to the Curved Mirror

Using variable media – taking on the form of tapestry and sculpture to performance, cinema, and stereoscopic imagery— Kentridge calculate(s) a not so obvious curve to create socially informed work that challenges the way we look.

In early October the Henry Art Gallery participated in a preview screening of Art21’s William Kentridge: Anything is Possible. To celebrate the upcoming release, the Henry invited local animator Tess Martin to teach an all-ages animation workshop, inspired by Kentridge’s work. The workshop allowed participants to explore the creative process behind modified base, a technique used by the artist in his many animated films. Following a brief introduction to the history of stop-motion, from flips books to Victorian parlor toys to Muybridge, workshop participants were asked to experiment with three mediums – charcoal/pastels, paint, and grain – to create a collaborative film.

Participants, mostly twenty-something adults, came from a variety of backgrounds including drawing, film, video, and digital animation. Pens and notebooks in hand, each brought with them a sense of eagerness and a variety of questions about the animation process. While many focused on the practicality of production, there were some participants who seemed more interested in the process of animation and what it means to animate an idea. This led to a later conversation around Kentridge’s use of animation, and his practice as a whole, as a tool for exposing the viewer to the act of seeing. Taking a cue from the film, one participant pointed out how Kentridge used found materials and familiar objects to create fantastical situations in which the viewer is made aware that they are looking and in-so-doing made aware that they have control of what they see and how they interpret it. This realization brought up an interesting correlation between this awareness of seeing and the socio-cultural context of much of Kentridge’s work.

In addition to his love of music and theatre, Kentridge was largely influenced by his personal history growing up in South Africa. His work uses elements of theatricality to explore themes of history, oppression, and social inequality in a way that calls into question the nonsensical nature of bigotry. Through a carefully crafted combination of humor, whimsy, and the absurd he is able to intimately address topics that might otherwise make audiences restless or uneasy. He does this not by masking the issue at hand but by creating a third space in which the viewer is better able to face the issue without reservation. In the tradition of many animators and artists before him, Kentridge has developed an uncanny ability to simultaneously call attention to both material and subject matter by creating a space for viewers to consider the act of seeing – getting just close enough to the subject to distort our discomfort and push us to make sense of what we are truly seeing, both literally and figuratively.

Art is often used as a means to convey material that is, for reasons of ill nature or physical impossibility, otherwise difficult to convey. Choosing to focus on the “universality of laughter “ over “the particularity of tears” allows Kentridge to communicate socially relevant subject matter in a way that is accessible. But what is it about animation that dissolves our natural tendency toward judgment? Why is it easier to confront a near facsimile of an idea rather than face it in the flesh? These questions were at the core of a discussion instigated by Seattle based artist and animator, Brita Johnson, during a performance this past summer hosted by the Vis-à-vis society, titled Why Cuteness? Why Failure? Why Now? During this performance Johnson, who taught a series of animation classes this past summer at The Henry, gave a lecture on the hypothesis of the uncanny valley and explored the relationship between the ideologically familiar and the conceptually foreign in animation.

The uncanny valley, was a term coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori in reference to Ernst Jentsch’s 1906 essay, On the Psychology of the Uncanny , in which the author explains the nature of the term uncanny, “Without a doubt, this word appears to express that someone to whom something ‘uncanny’ happens is not quite ‘at home’ or ‘at ease’ in the situation concerned, that the thing is or at least seems to be foreign to him. In brief, the word suggests that a lack of orientation is bound up with the impression of the uncanniness of a thing or incident.” Though often applied to the field of robotics, the hypothesis of the uncanny valley refers broadly to the inverse arc of cognitive dissonance that occupies that space between the real and surreal. The animated and the actual. The method and the material.

As a medium, stop-motion animation is method of deconstructing and reconstructing the reality it portrays, maintaining a dual sense of both the familiar and the foreign– allowing the viewer to critically assess both the content and context of the work without reservation. Though animation is only part of Kentridge’s practice, it is a rich example of his interest in, “Machines that tell you what it is to look, that make you aware of the process of seeing.” Kentridge’s machines and methodologies encourage us to be aware of how we construct the world through looking at it, and encourage us to consider “looking and seeing as being a metaphor for how we understand the world.”

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Play Art Loud! ArtBabble.org
I'm also a contributor to the Henry Art Gallery's Hankblog and editor/producer of the Gallery's ArtCasts.

I'm currently working as a Wallace Foundation Fellow with emp|sfm to foster a new network for the NorthWest all ages music & arts community. Its called The Sound Board and you should totally check it out.

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