Week 2 Readings: Kentridge/Kleist

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"In Praise of Shadows"
William Kentridge
Introduction to exhibition catalog "In Praise of Shadows"
PDF here.

"On the Marionette Theatre"
Heinrich von Kleist, Thomas G. Neumiller
The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 16, No. 3, The "Puppet" Issue (Sep., 1972), pp. 22-26
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1144768
PDF here.

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I read both Kleist’s and Kentridge’s essays as a discussion between romanticism, classicism, affect and effect. In On the Marionette Theater, the narrator sides with notions of the human touch while Herr C. sees the puppet as something that lacks consciousness and self-doubt, therefore having the ability to achieve ultimate perfection. Kentridge seems to take the stand that the effect is needed to create the illusion, and the affect results from our ability to recognize the meaning of the shadow.

Both authors also touch on how a puppet is operated and how this task can easily become completely mechanized. Kleist writes, “Furthermore, he stated his belief that this final trace of the intellect could eventually be removed from the marionettes, so that their dance could pass entirely over into the world of the mechanical and be operated by means of a handle…” Kentridge also approaches this notion of puppeteering, yet seems to focus equally both on how to achieve the effect and how that effect is further interpreted. “When operating a puppet, it does not help to have a Stanislavskian approach, conjuring up psychological memories, reliving them, as a way to operate a shadow-puppet. A series of practical questions, angles to the camera and light, finding an imagined horizon, working through a series of what appear to be technical considerations to arrive at a meaning which is recognized.”

I enjoy Kentridge’s description of the relationship between seeing and knowing, especially in regards to shadows. He writes about our ability as visual beings to see illusion, understand what it really is, and recognize it as something else. That, to me, makes the magic of puppetry. Although we know that something may just be paper, cardboard and string, it can so readily and easily come to life with a gesture and personality of its own. Additionally, I believe that the presence of the puppeteer and their ability to emotionally “mirror” that of the puppet plays just as important of a role as the movement of the puppet.

hello all-
i read the marionette piece first. i can't stop thinking about how the puppets were described as being free from physical weakness, and thus only affected by the laws of nature.
it is as if the puppeteer's movements, through the strings, are expressed more purely by his machine.
what i get out of it is that our machines must be built to perform predictably and consistently- expression does not come from uncontrolled action but rather it is the result of human input to the machine, being manipulated by the laws of nature.
the kentridge piece deals with a topic i have been mulling over for a while- that is, shadow and its relationship to identity. if a show is made entirely of shadow, the positive/negative view becomes reality, because the audience is not given any more information. we would be dazzled to see the true objects creating the shadows after the show, and we would know those things more truthfully. conversely, in the modern age, we are not looking for ways to complicate the truth, but rather to show it more simply and basically.
kentridge explains how seeing an apple's shadow is enough to know the object is an apple, but it tells us very little about its condition. for this reason, we may be more inclined to see more clearly the actions of the apple, or the shadow, because we are not able to be caught up in its outward appearance. this allows for a much more concentrated and uncluttered expression of ideas. i believe this retrogression of the expression of knowledge is not just possible, but also necessary.

In the Kentridge piece, I really connected with the passage in which he describes doing a performance while wearing a neutral mask. He discovered that there was a “difference between what one thought one was expressing and what the body showed. ... A rational description would be imperfect and arrived at with difficulty. Recognition is immediate and effortless. It describes a different kind of knowledge. ... It understands that the relationship between seeing and knowing is not simple.” The reason I connect so strongly with these ideas is that I have recently been very aware of the animal that I am; in fact, it is arguable that how I (as a human, as we all do) interact in this world comes more from my body than my mind. I’m not a dualist, however – that is to say that I make no clean-cut separation between the mind and the body. From my perspective, the mind is a part of the body. But because our concepts of “self” and our constructions of “reality” reside in our minds, we discount the body as a mere tool, but not the location of the “self.” I have recently become very aware that who I am is a body, is an animal in this world, and I don’t know this “me” very well at all!

But then again, maybe this animal that we are is not “knowable.” Or, as Kentridge says, it is a different kind of knowledge, and that perhaps our bodies “know” things we aren’t privy to via our conscious minds. Maybe this is the sort of knowledge he refers to when he says, “Looking at shadows is always finding something we already know.” This is something I’d like to explore much further.

The von Kleist article also relates to this idea of a certain type of “knowledge” outside of the conscious mind. What I get from his discussion is that he believes there is a higher form of “grace” that is only possible when the conscious mind is transcended to the “organic” world – what I understand to mean the “animal” world, the world of the body. This can take the form of an interaction with another type of animal (the bear), or with an inanimate object that is made animate through our own bodies (the marionette). I seem to be wrestling with the ideas in the von Kleist piece a little more than I am with the Kentridge piece, but will continue to consider them both.

In reading both articles, it is evident that Kentridge is presenting the perspective of the audience, or whoever might be on the opposite side of the curtain, while Kleist discusses the master or puppet maker and control. What I found most interesting about Kleist's piece was the associations between dancers' center of gravity to puppets and how one should handle a puppet. Also the difference between the two, where one is completely dependent on gravity, the other is entirely unaffected by it and dependent on its master to do all of the work. I think that this is an interesting way of looking at human beings in general, and thinking about movement and how one might operate him or herself as opposed to thinking about mechanics or puppetry or kinetics in relation to the body, which is something I've been thinking about a lot recently (bodily movement and control, or lack thereof).
Kentridge references Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," which is about influence and experience through learning. What might happen if the prisoners were to "look behind the curtain," so to say. He goes further to reference the apple and its shadow and say that a shadow does not show the dimension of the object itself. He also talks about children and their way of seeing things. It is with this innocent eye that the prisoners could experience the shadows in the cave without knowing of anything outside of it. I often feel as though art can become cynical, or rather artists can become cynical and therefore the work can turn this way. It is important to remain close to the inner child sometimes, as serious work can often become too heavy or loaded. I've recently been told to take my work to a group of children and see the different avenues they might find to explore it. Of course I've never thought of it, but as Kentridge explains, "If we had started the other way, this would have been impossible." Maybe a child's innocent eye can help us to simplify things.

I’m not a dancer, but Herr C.’s thoughts on dance and puppetry made sense. Particularly his conjecture that the mechanical movement of puppetry should serve as a model for dancers, that there is a grace to be learned from the mechanical apparatus. Puppets perfect their dance by obeying the simple law of gravity. All outer behavior reflects the center gravity of movement. This idea of a center lends itself to both a physical and metaphysical discussion: Limbs as “dead, pure pendulums following the simple law of gravity,” and the appearance of affectation “when the soul (vis motrix) locates itself at any point other than the center of gravity.”

While reading through this passage, Whirling Dervishes came to mind:


The “different kind of knowledge” Kentridge describes,that we use when we look at shadows appeals to me. I’ve never considered details of appearance—“texture, surface, facial expression”—as obstructions to my understanding of the thing that appears. I’m slightly uncertain of his words: “Understanding the world not through individual psychology is often appropriate and stronger.” Although my guess is that he speaks again of shadow as a simple and direct means of expression, I would appreciate a finer definition of the term “psychology” (emotions, attitudes, preconceptions?) before he so readily dismisses it as unnecessary. I assume that our individual psychology is always at work when we perceive things, regardless of the stimulus, whether a simple shadow or more complex photograph, whether the effect is immediate or requires time—is our immediate understanding of a thing any different from what we make of it after a moment to think?

william kentridge's article and his way of articulating the precept to be always mediating made great sense to me and for the first time, i was able to appreciate the necessity to stay away from literality more than as a mere rule of thumb to gain any credibility in the arts world. also his description of the creative process as "an oscillation between openness and recognition" is extremely beautiful.

i think i may have some confusions about von Kleist's article. parts of the main premise can be read as "consciousness is a distraction from perfection", however, isn't it also an essential part of personality? what if we prefer personality to perfection? for instance in movement, certain school or form of dance may be jonesing for limbs to function as nothing more than a pendulum around the center of gravity while others may treasure the soul locating in the elbow. especially because for the very same action, my soul may locate in my elbow while yours locate in your pelvis or better yet submandibular salivary glands and that can lead to many interesting possibilities. dance and movement is very powerful as it reminds us we are more than our minds, but we are also more than a quest for that perfect (and hence of course super simple) essence of whatever we are searching for. as distracting as it may be, i like me some layers of complexity herr von kleist.

having said that, i should also admit that there is this special quality of consciousness yielding to the body and that often helps one realize ranges, potentials, abilities that they were not even aware before. however, still the most interesting movements emerge from playing back and forth in that fluidity between the particular consciousness of mind and peculiar "consciousness" that only belongs to body.

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