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William Kentridge's Weighing ... and Wanting

by Wilson Lee

Weighing ... and Wanting, 1997-98. Collection of Michael and Brenda Sandler, courtesy: Art Gallery of Ontario

The morality of white South Africans is confounding. And no one knows this better than 45-year-old white South African artist William Kentridge. His exhibition of charcoal drawings and video, Weighing ... and Wanting (1997-98), explores every angle of morality's complicated terrain, including its related components: guilt, responsibility, self-interest, and sacrifice.

Weighing ... and Wanting is Kentridge's seventh video in an ongoing series, and like his past works, it is animated as a narrative from a series of charcoal drawings. The protagonist is Soho Eckstein, a fictional character who inhabits the artist's moral universe. The drawings and video depict Soho Eckstein in various stages of anguish, and chronicling the shifting morality of white South Africans as they move from the past into an uncertain future.
In Weighing ... and Wanting, Soho Eckstein, a Jewish real estate tycoon, begins to emerge from his greed-induced state of denial and awaken spiritually to acknowledge the role he and his race have played in constructing Apartheid. Set against the stark landscape of Johannesburg, which epitomizes the obscene juxtapositions of Apartheid, Soho Eckstein moves through a montage of scenes alternating between the banality of suburbia to the raped landscape of Johannesburg's depleted gold mines. In turn, Soho Eckstein is depicted as contemplative, guilt-ridden, disturbed, and ultimately conflicted between doing what is right and what is profitable.
Nothing sums up his conflict better than the simple and poignant question, "In whose lap do I lie?" The self-questioning echo appears against a hydro tower grid. Wearing his trademark dark pin-striped suit, Soho Eckstein stands before this haunting apparition. His hunched shoulders are the only allusions of the moral battle raging in his conscience.
Kentridge's drawings explore the cost of human suffering that remains the legacy of Apartheid against the parallel world of affluence it continues to support. Weighing ... and Wanting then, at its most basic level, simply asks the classic Faustian question, what is your soul worth?
Soho Eckstein is seen asking this question rather literally in one of Kentridge's sketches, which shows Soho Eckstein sitting at a table in his suburban living room, and weighing what is likely gold or diamonds on a small scale. Heavy-set, bald, brows furrowed, the tycoon contemplates a rock in his hand. He appears to be examining it and about to weigh it. The living room he sits in also speaks to a peculiar truth about evil, that is, its banality. It is innocuous and suburban. The walls are bland and the furniture is typical. In demystifying the literal context of such moral anguish, Weighing ... and Wanting compels the viewer to relate, making resistance futile and leaving any rationalizations echoing off the walls of our conscience.
The inner voice of guilt and memory is a constant theme. Kentridge uses the brain as a metaphor to explore that tension between what we see, what we deny, and what we know to be right and truthful. Four drawings depicting cross-sections of Soho Eckstein's brain approach remembering and forgetting as essential elements of evil. In one, an industrial plant excavates the surface, digging for wealth and, metaphorically, digging for morality. In another, red and white lines intersect the brain, perhaps searching for linkages between the different components of the brain where memory, guilt, and truth respectively lie.
Kentridge also explores the voice of conscience in a series of prints showing Soho Eckstein listening intently into a teacup. That image repeats itself in other sketches. In one, for example, he stands before a hydro tower on a desolate landscape with his ear to a teacup. Beneath him is the wealth of South Africa's gold and diamonds. The echo in the cup, presumably, is that of Soho Eckstein's inner voice, asking once again, "In whose lap do I lie?"
The video juxtaposes these images in a compelling moving symphony. The teacup, broken, comes together to be whole again. The weighing scale teeters, with the teacup on one end and the rock on the other end. Soho Eckstein lies on the ground clutching the rock, his breathing shallow. He enters a crematorium. A large rock and a decapitated head sit forlornly on the ground. A naked woman kneeling underground rises. Hydro towers collapse and morph into a naked woman sitting. She pats Soho Eckstein's head in a pathetic gesture. It's all set to a haunting and lyrical soundtrack.
The scope of morality that is explored in Weighing ... and Wanting encompasses a universe that extends far beyond South Africa. Soho Eckstein's Jewishness questions the right of past victims to become perpetrators. And though he is a white South African, the universality of Kentridge's exploration into morality applies to even South African blacks, coloureds, and Indians, many of whom worked for and benefitted in their own ways from Apartheid. Kentridge also forces those outside of South Africa to question the role the international community played in perpetuating Apartheid for so long, and its ongoing role in an economic system that remains essentially racialized.
In a post-tragedy context, guilt is stratified. There is the guilt of the perpetrator, the guilt of the witness, and then there is the guilt of the survivor. Perhaps that is what is most evil about evil - that nobody is left with clean hands, and nobody is entitled to a clear conscience. Everybody is implicated. That is what makes Weighing ... and Wanting so compelling.
William Kentridge: Weighing ... and Wanting originated from the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

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