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Title: (un)Fixing the Eye : William Kentridge and the optics of witness
Author: Hennlich, Andrew Joseph
ISNI:       0000 0004 2703 1085
Awarding Body: University of Manchester
Current Institution: University of Manchester
Date of Award: 2011
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South African artist William Kentridge's (b. 1955) work frequently employs optical tools, such as the stereoscope, to highlight the contingency and instability of witness. These visual tools become metaphors for the process of historicization in post-apartheid South Africa. Kentridge is best known for his animations that are filmed by drawing with charcoal, photographing, erasing, redrawing and photographing again, leaving a palimpsest of previous traces on the paper's surface. Kentridge's prints, drawings, puppetry, theatrical projects and performances are also addressed in (un)Fixing the Eye. Kentridge's vast array of works narrates a history critical of the narrow and objective history of apartheid constructed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) official report. Furthermore, the metaphors suggested by Kentridge's optical tools undermine the ideology that apartheid is in the past. It suggests the necessity of colonial narratives as well as issues of class and materialism, within apartheid as traces that are very much part of the present. Each chapter of (un)Fixing the Eye uses a separate optical device to explore the narration of history in South Africa. To do so I draw from an eclectic group of thinkers: psychoanalytic models of melancholia and reparation, Jacques Derrida's work on forgiveness, Hayden White's theories of narrative and Jonathan Crary's work on optical tools and perception. Chapter one argues there is an ironic and impossible condition of forgiveness and truth in the TRC. Using Kentridge's Ubu Tells the Truth and its specific invocation of Dziga Vertov's realist 'kino-eye' and Alfred Jarry's brutal and absurd King Ubu as metaphors of absurdity and truth represented through the movie camera, this chapter argues that there is an impossibility of truth in the TRC. Chapter two reads Kentridge's Felix in Exile as a materialist response to the naturalized and a historical landscape tradition in South Africa. Felix's use of the theodolite and sextant as mapping and navigation tools highlights colonial mapping practices and the history of property ownership, particularly in the mining industry. In this way these optical tools link colonialism and mining alongside of the violence rendered in the film, unearthing a history of colonialism and class issues in apartheid narratives. Chapter three uses X-rays and CAT scans as metaphors for the testimony in the TRC, as both require an expert to decode and contextualize the testimony. Kentridge's films during the TRC use medical imaging technologies that are ambiguous and uncertain within the TRC's discourse of truth. Chapter four returns to the camera, this time as a colonial image in Namibia, arguing its usage in Black Box/Chambre Noir creates a melancholic relationship between Enlightenment Europe and colonial Africa. In this melancholia, Kentridge's history of the 20th century's first genocide in Namibia links a tremendous number of global histories. The focus in optical discourses, particularly the stereoscope is not new in Kentridge's work but (un)Fixing the Eye considers a number of tools that have not previously been a part of this optical work in Kentridge's art. It expands the political scope of Kentridge's work to include colonialism and class issues, insisting on their place in the current political landscape. Ultimately this project argues that Kentridge's work through a destabilized optical apparatus works both formally and allegorically as a way of conceiving of narrative and ideological critique in an expanded sense from the narrow confines set by the TRC.
Supervisor: Mavor, Carol Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: William Kentridge ; South Africa ; Apartheid ; Truth and Reconciliation Commission ; Namibia ; Optical toys ; Stereoscope ; Photography ; Witness