Anamorphosis: Puppetry, Animation, and Automation in William Kentridge
English Department Lecture by Prof. Mark Sanders, New York University
The South African artist William Kentridge is best known for his beautiful short animated films, beginning with Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989). These stop-motion animated films are based on charcoal drawings. Because the finished films retain the smudges and erasures typical of drawing in charcoal, commentary has viewed them as engaging critically with tendencies toward automation, specifically in animated film, and in newer art forms dependent on digital media. This important commentary has emphasized the work of the hand in the activity of drawing. But Kentridge’s collaborations, over twenty-five years, with the Handspring Puppet Company (best known for its production, War Horse), suggest that puppetry is central to the way in which his art engages with processes of automation. These projects directly gave raise to Kentridge’s Shadow Procession (1999), and subsequent similar films. Puppetry, of course, has addressed automation in capitalist modernity for more than two hundred years. When puppetry is placed at the center of Kentridge’s work, and attention paid to its links with experiments in anamorphic perspective, the extent to which drawing by hand evades automation also comes into question. Moving from these observations about medium and form, I suggest, briefly, how Kentridge’s work can be seen as addressing a history of automation in South Africa.
Educated in South Africa and the United States, Mark Sanders specializes in African literatures, literary theory, and interdisciplinary approaches to literature, law, and philosophy. He is the author of Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid (Duke UP, 2002), which analyzes the problem of complicity confronted during the apartheid era by South African intellectuals, and proposes a theory of intellectual responsibility. Among his other works are Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Live Theory (Continuum, 2006), and Ambiguities of Witnessing: Law and Literature in the Time of a Truth Commission (Stanford UP, 2007), an interdisciplinary analysis of testimony given before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body that investigated human rights abuses committed during the apartheid era. His most recent book is Learning Zulu: A Secret History of Language in South Africa (Princeton UP, 2016), an account, framed by his own endeavors to learn the language, of the psychopolitics of over a century of attempts by non-native speakers to learn Zulu. His interests range widely, with published essays on Primo Levi, Franz Kafka, J.M. Coetzee, Thomas Pynchon, Marlene van Niekerk, Antjie Krog, Frank Smith, and Vanessa Place, and translations from the Afrikaans of essays by N.P. van Wyk Louw. He has held a number of major fellowships, including the American Council of Learned Societies ACLS/SSRC/NEH International and Area Studies Fellowship, the American Council of Learned Societies Charles A. Ryskamp research fellowship, and the George Watson fellowship at the University of Queensland, Australia.
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