‘William Kentridge: Weighing ... and Wanting’

William Kentridge's film 'Weighing ... and Wanting' re-examines the biblical tale of Belshazzar in post-apartheid South Africa

Arts Review

William Kentridge: Weighing … and Wanting

Austin Museum of Art – Downtown, through Nov. 5

"You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, for you have not humbled your heart before God, so your kingdom has come to an end."

Whether you view the Bible as history, as prophecy, or as fiction, you may have heard a story in it that reads, roughly, as follows: At a grand feast during the reign of Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, the work of one hand brought everything to a halt. Without body, without identity, this hand wrote the following words on one wall of the king's hall: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. Not knowing what the words meant and having no counselors who could decipher them, Belshazzar called in the Hebrew slave and prophet Daniel to interpret the enigma. According to Daniel's understanding, "This is the interpretation of the thing: Mene: God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Tekel: Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Peres [the singular of Upharsin]: Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians" (Daniel 5:26-28).

Drawing, literally, from the story of Daniel and Belshazzar, William Kentridge's film Weighing … and Wanting re-examines the legacy of Belshazzar's message in post-apartheid South Africa. While the political climate shared by Belshazzar's kingdom and apartheid-era South Africa is striking – in both, a ruling civilization relegates whole populations to subhuman status – Kentridge sets the scene of his film after the South African rule of oppression has been replaced by the ascent of the African National Congress. Left in the frame of apartheid's collapse is Kentridge's charcoal creation, Soho Eckstein, a former apartheid profiteer and businessman, contemplating the works of his own hand in the dissolution of love and in the building of industry.

In this, Kentridge carves a divide between his version of Belshazzar's story and that of the religious traditions which hold to it in various ways. His drawings situate Eckstein in a world shaped not by the omniscient and omnipotent God of the Jews, Muslims, and Christians who look to this story as sacred text, but by himself, adding to and erasing from 14 different charcoal drawings, then recording each change with stop-animation to create the film. The intimacy of the artist's process, developed and revealed through time, on paper, and, finally, on screen, reflects a social constructivist view of a world made as we go, scripted only just as we speak and staged with each step taken by us, as its characters. Yet at the same time, as the mesmerizing movement of charcoal lines and pastel shades across the screen reveals, there is again a disembodied hand in the frame. This time, however, the hand is not God's; it is Kentridge's.

Raised in apartheid South Africa, the son of a white, prominent anti-apartheid lawyer, Kentridge is explicit about the political ties in his work, even if his drawings and films never address apartheid directly. Intentionally or not, Kentridge's hand writes in more than the message of disapproval and defeat that its predecessor in Babylon did; it writes a message of regret, of indecision, of loss, and of extreme self-doubt in the character of Eckstein. As a man struggles to rethink his oppressive ambitions and their costs for his own life, love, and sense of direction, Kentridge's hand in the frame emerges only in the godlike creator stance of the artist and recedes in the breathing, sighing, sorrowful creature he creates.

As Kentridge has gained international attention for his drawings and films, many of his projects have been dismissed as nothing more than expressions of white guilt over apartheid. But a close look at this project shows it to be something decidedly more than that. It is a struggle to understand not only the guilt and terrors inflicted by a culture built on the subjugation of others but also the confusion of the subjugators themselves when their world crumbles, when their kingdom falls, and poignantly, when their writing is on the wall.

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William Kentridge, Weighing ... and Wanting, Austin Museum of Art – Downtown

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