William Kentridge's animated films are filled with lush visual effects and profoundly ambivalent observations about politics and people who find themselves bound up in situations they neither created nor control. In the 1990s, Kentridge produced a series of films that introduced us to a dreamlike vision of post-apartheid South Africa and the characters who inhabit it. "Felix in Exile" (1993) tells the story of Felix, a fragile, vulnerable white man whose life mysteriously merges with that of Nandi, a black woman he sees in his mirror. "History of the Main Complaint" (1996) details the experiences of Soho Eckstein, a pinstripe-suited, cigar-smoking industrialist whose health seems as tenuous as the social order he inhabits.
In 1998, the Forum for Contemporary Art showcased both of those films, giving St. Louis a rare chance to see the work of this enormously influential, increasingly well-known artist from South Africa. Now the Forum weighs in with another film from Kentridge's series: The seven-minute "Weighing and Wanting" (1997) is being shown in a smallish projection room, with several of the charcoal-drawn stills from the film exhibited in the adjoining galleries.
The drawings are a welcome addition to the showing of the film. They bear witness to the unique, labor-intensive method that produces animation of unparalleled beauty and richness. Kentridge's films are composed of photographs of his charcoal drawings. Each drawing is built up and broken down by successive erasures and redrawings; the film is the result of the drawings' being photographed as they are transformed. The resulting animation carries none of the commercial cartoon's slickness. Instead, images morph gradually into other images, with vestiges of erasures and overdrawing echoing throughout.
In Kentridge's films, imagery is never still or complete but in a constant state of dreamlike flux. It is a perfectly modulated metaphor for his narratives, which recount lives and a country in perilous imbalance. Kentridge weaves metaphors of the turbulent history of South Africa and apartheid into the characters he portrays; we see the pain, the longing, the cruelty of one man, and through it we learn something about the soul of a country.
In "Weighing and Wanting," the man is Soho Eckstein, the industrialist, complete with his pinstriped suit, portly frame and balding head. Soho is more introspective in this film than in previous ones. The narrative sees him longing for contact, commiseration, even love, none of which he can seem to achieve.
Soho lives in a cold, antiseptic, International Style house, the kind that is found in the wealthy suburbs of Johannesburg. The clean, modulated architecture of the house is opposed to the unwieldy rock that commands Soho's attention and the underground caves that are the spaces of his fantasies. Somewhere in those caves, he dreams, is a woman. He holds her, caresses her, rests his head in her naked lap, but the relationship is shattered, and his life remains as barren as the South African landscape in which he finds himself, deserted, surrounded by industrial architecture, sadly and implausibly trying to contact that underground world through the medium of a teacup.
Soho's longing is never fulfilled, and the reason seems to have something to do with the film's title. It comes from the biblical story of the megalomaniac King Balthasar, who has a vision of a disembodied hand writing a message on the wall. Unable to decipher the writing, Balthasar calls on Daniel, who reads it for him: "You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting; your kingdom has come to an end." Balthasar is killed the same night.
It would be too easy to say that Kentridge's film accuses Soho -- and, indeed, South Africa itself -- of the same crime of hubris. Kentridge's works never make such clear-cut statements. His films are too dreamy and surreal to take any clearly defined political position. (As Kentridge himself has said, "I am interested in a political art -- an art [and a politics] in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.") In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, Kentridge remains an apt visual interpreter of South Africa. Kentridge's characters -- Felix, Nandi, Soho Eckstein -- embody all the contradiction, unfulfilled longing, dreams and nightmares that make up the history of their country.
William Kentridge's "Weighing and Wanting" continues at the Forum for Contemporary Art through March 18.