artist's book, Book Reviews

William Kentridge – Everyone Their Own Projector

I bought a book at the New York Art Book Fair. Well, truth be told, I bought several books, but I’m going to start with this one, William Kentridge’s Everyone Their Own Projector. (I’ll cover some of the other books in later posts). If you don’t know Kentridge’s work, he is a remarkable artist from South Africa whose animated drawings define their own genre of art-making. Using stop-motion techniques and charcoal drawing, Kentridge draws, erases, draws, erases, photographing each stage in the metamorphosis of his black and white charcoal stories. The results are lyrically beautiful, conceptually melancholic, politically complex films where the passage of time and the narrative’s history become persistently inscribed in the erasures on the page.

Cover of Everyone Their Own Projector

But back to Kentridge’s recently published artist’s book. Though best known for his charcoal animations, Kentridge was a printmaker before venturing into film and he has continued his practice of etching and lithographic printing even while working on his animations.  I don’t know if this is his first foray into the codex book format but if so, his films have taught him well how to use the rhythms of the pages to draw out his story.

The book explores the human proclivity to shape the world through the lens of our perceptions, using collages of torn books to literally draw the ground for the images on the page.  The images alternate between a meta-dialog on the artistic agenda itself—reproducing  quick ink sketches of famous works of art (primarily depictions of females), a visual representation of written language with its characteristic patterns of words and sentences, and finally a riff on Gogol’s story of The Nose. These themes intertwine, visually crossing in and out of each other’s borders. The staccato lines of a text become lines on a face, become the spaces between a nude that has been cut apart in a venetian-blind-like collage. The historical procession of well-known paintings of women become the setting for the Nose as he makes his foray into the world independent from his face and owner.  Images appear and reappear transformed, creating visual echos as the book progresses.  This is book-making as it ought to be done.  Dense. Beautiful. Evocative. Intelligent. And all with an acute awareness of the construction – the book as a construction of a story, the story as a construction of life, life as a construction of our minds.  Everyone their own projector.

As one of the pages declares, “what lies in store/what lies in wait/what lies asleep,” the book explores themes of potency and foreshadowing. Kentridge uncovers unexpected meanings hidden within the torn up texts that ground the collages through juxtaposition and defamiliarization. Images appear without context, foreshadowing the fuller role they will eventually develop within the narrative as we come to understand their part. These are just a sampling of the ways in which literary devices are reinterpreted through a visual vocabulary.

The placement of images and their repetition, take advantage of the book’s codex structure.  Page spreads sometimes act as mirrors, each side reflecting a slightly different version of the reality of an image.  Or similar images reappear, situated on the same side of a page, using the same visual placement, triggering the brain to experience an instant recognition of the familiar, but always with some difference.  Sometimes these are done sequentially, one after another, providing a sense of progression, or variations on a theme.  Other times the reoccurence is spread out over time, appearing many pages later, calling on memory to draw the correspondence.

If you have never seen Kentridge’s work, try a little exploring on youtube which seems to have some low-quality versions of several of his films.  Better yet, get your hands on Drawing the Passing which is a documentary of his film-making practices and includes clips from his work. Or one of the new CDs/DVDs that David Krut Publishing makes available.  David Krut  is also the distributor for Everyone Their Own Projector as well as many books about Kentridge.  (p.s. don’t be surprised at the prices – they are in South African Rands!)