MILWAUKEE — The current William Kentridge exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, More Sweetly Play the Dance, is an immersive 2015 installation: a 14-minute video loop projected on a series of eight screens, 130 feet long in total. The screens unfold like an accordion book, not quite aligning, leaving small gaps that create page breaks in the fluency of the projections.
An assortment of individuals migrate, immigrate, parade, or flee in a continuous procession reminiscent of the Parthenon frieze that wraps the entablature of the ancient Greek temple. To a honking brass band score, Kentridge’s subjects carry their symbolic belongings and burdens, be they a cart of rocks, an IV hookup, or a native plant. They chug along metaphorically toward some unknown destiny but invariably headed to the universal end game of death, clinking and clacking, dancing and weeping. In one section, a black man in a robe carries a large, hand-built wooden cage. We assume that this cage goes everywhere with him. What kind of imprisonment does it represent? Slavery, social and economic limitations, discrimination, domination, isolation?
As the man with his cage strides by in the dark hall, I rise to photograph him. How interesting that Kentridge, a white South African artist of Lithuanian Jewish heritage, envisioned the cage as the equivalent of a piece of luggage or a goat, something that we cannot leave behind. Maybe our cages are invisible to others, but we all live in them. Often these cages are culturally imposed but just as often they are of our own construction, built as a safe shelter, like the crate a dog snuggles into for security. My own enclosure is tethered by points in my daily routines, with 80% of my time spent in a 10-mile radius, almost exclusively white and middle class. I’m surprised by how long it has taken me to realize that the way I exist, intoxicated by liberal rhetoric and progressive by disposition, remains a partial illusion.
Growing up in a suburb, the imposition of thankfulness for a good life and nice neighbors seemed to hover behind ever trimmed shrub and back yard grill: “You are so lucky.” The Roundup herbicide my father squirted on individual dandelions was the secret toxin that allowed us to live on acre-sized homogeneous lots. The poison that nurtured a flawless lawn, carried an attitude that weeded out difference, leaving minorities or people of color in neglected, densely populated pockets of urban space. I grew up in a cage and I knew it. You could ride your bike freely but never get beyond the cul-de-sac. Kentridge’s marching brigade will never get “anywhere” either; they continue to fade and reappear in sad, perpetual service to what we carry and why, what we have and what we’ve had to leave behind.
After visiting the art museum with a friend in late June, we walk up Wisconsin Avenue, the city’s main downtown artery, to a scheduled nationwide protest against Trump’s border patrol policies, or ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement). A crowd of several hundred has gathered. Individuals of various ages carry signs and symbols of their political convictions, pushing strollers, tugging toddlers, waving banners and marching in front of the Federal Building. Down with Donald Trump. It is theater. I sense that attending rallies makes the protestors feel good about themselves. I feel like a poser, even though I care.
Two women have made jackets that look like Melania Trump’s army-style coat emblazoned with the phrase, “I really don’t care, do u?” Melania had “absent-mindedly” worn the $39 Zara jacket while on a trip to visit Texas shelters for migrant children. The protestors’ jackets offer a rebuttal: “We really do care, why don’t u?” The jackets represent an intersection of consumerism, fashion, internet fecundity, Twitter, protest, and the feminine body as sign and signifier, as well as the role of the individual to care and make that caring bold, visible, and witnessed by others.
The layers of reference feel as if they need to be ironed, folded, and organized in drawers so we can glimpse how much the world has changed. Perhaps this is what Kentridge does. He separates cultural and emotional human symbols and allows us to watch them parade by, one by one. The clerics, artists, madmen, those who skip and those who limp, those who lead and those who serve, the tillers, dancers, musicians, mourners, the triumphant and broken, the orators, the plowers, planters and slaves: all carry the weight of their existence with their gaits and postures pressed upon and re-oriented by civilization. The ICE protest is related to Kentridge’s amalgamation. But it has not been sorted, mediated, and re-presented as a poem.
We leave the crowd and head toward Starbucks to get a cold drink on this 95-degree day. I do not consider the irony that a Starbucks in Philadelphia was recently in the news when an employee called the police on two black patrons; or, even worse, that, in 2014, a black man named Dontre Hamilton was shot and killed by police in front of a Milwaukee Starbucks — just a few blocks away — for loitering. Although I am thinking about Kentridge’s cage and border control’s boundaries, I am too hot and woozy from my labor as an art connoisseur and protestor to note that Starbucks is a contested space.
On the way up the block, I unexpectedly see someone I know. It’s Derrick and he’s holding a sign advertising the Boston Store close-out sale. Boston Store is a major department store chain that filed bankruptcy this year, part of the Bon-Ton conglomerate. It had been a presence in the Midwest and around the country for a century, but it hasn’t been profitable since 2010.
Derrick looks like a William Kentridge character, a black man who carries his sign in this bloody heat, shuttling to and fro for minimum wage. His mini march animates the sinking of retail stores into the ocean of internet commerce. Shuffle shuffle, glug glug, there goes Boston Store, there goes Carson Pirie Scott. What once glittered with seasonal displays and pretty department store girls spraying perfume is now in disarray, as if college students returned home for the summer and dumped their stuff — the messy, last-gasp remnants of a century of polite, sociable capitalism.
“Hey Derrick, how are you?” I ask. We hug. It’s nice to run into a friend out here, and he is happy to see me. I know Derrick because he comes to a sketchbook class I run for underserved populations. He had been living in a shelter but recently moved to an apartment and enrolled in film production classes for the fall. He’s a good artist and a bright, charismatic personality. I sense he’s wrestling with a desire to return to his old haunts, to go back home to the neighborhood that got him in trouble in the first place. You can almost see the struggle in his eyes, just beyond the sparkle.
Derrick comments on how happy I look on this day, in my summer clothes and hat, and says, unexpectedly, that I often look stressed and a little troubled at class. “We all have our stuff,” he says, quietly. I am not aware that I look stressed. His comment bothers me. I wonder how he sees me. Who am I to Derrick? We created this program to address segregation, to take a measure of white privilege and put it to positive use. When Derrick makes this comment, he inverts the power structure. I am no longer seeing but seen, the object of the gaze. I wonder what it is like to have an outside gaze peer into one’s life and world — to have a colonial gaze assess and make assumptions, even with the best of intentions?
My friend and I go into Starbucks and sit in window seats drinking Arnold Palmers, watching the protestors disband and drift away. It never occurs to me to go buy Derrick a big icy drink while I’m in Starbucks. The thought does not cross my mind, as if our worlds part after our greeting and we fade back to separate planes of existence. I sip my iced tea and quietly dislike myself.
Kentridge, the consummate creator and eraser of things, empowers hesitancy in a dance of visibility and disappearance, embracing the fluid and elusive elements of life while providing a stage that orders and spotlights. His practice relies on the basic humility of charcoal and paper. A sketchbook drawing is as rough and tumble of a place as the stripped, scarred, raped South African landscapes Kentridge renders for his danse macabre.
One week later, I return to the art museum alone to watch the video again. A man treads by on the screen, holding a barely legible sign. It says, “The grammar of the wound.” Two hunched women strain to pull dead bodies, stiffened by rigor mortis, behind them. The man with the cage reappears. I notice this time that he is actually inside the cage, not carrying it by his side. The distinction feels important. He will remain entrapped; perhaps he was born entrapped. The final image is a dancer wearing ballet shoes, being pulled on a cart. Brandishing a rifle above her head, she twirls slowly like a sentinel, always looking, ready for a sneak assault.
William Kentridge: More Sweetly Play the Dance continues at the Milwaukee Art Museum (700 N. Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin) through August 19.