The current William Kentridge exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, “More Sweetly Play the Dance,” is a 14 minute video loop projected on a series of eight screens, 110 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 mostly black 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 brassy honking band score, Kentridge’s subjects carry their symbolic belongings and burdens – be it a cart of rocks, an IV hookup or a native plant. They chug along metaphorically toward some unknown destiny but invariably toward 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 know 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 of the museum, without thinking I jump up to photograph him. How interesting that Kentridge thought of the cage as the equivalent of a piece of luggage or a goat, something that must come along on the journey, that we cannot leave behind. Maybe our cages are invisible to others, but we all live in them. Often these cages are of our own construction, built as a kind of safe shelter, similar to the crate a dog will snuggle into for security. My own enclosure is tethered by points in my daily routines, with 80 percent of my time spent in a 10-mile radius, almost exclusively white and middle class. I’m surprised 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.” And truthfully, unlike your parents, you are lucky! You weren’t raised in the Great Depression and you didn’t serve (or die) in a war. You are white and middle class. Nonetheless, you feel cheated. No one wants to live in a fenced pen. 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 fading and reappearing in a sad forever service that reminds us to be aware of what we carry and why, of what we have and what we’ve needed to leave behind.
After visiting the art museum, my friend and I 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 Custom Enforcement). A crowd of several hundred has gathered. Individuals of various ages hold signs and symbols of their political conviction, 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 the rallies makes the protesters feel good about themselves. I felt like a poser, even though I cared.
Two women have made jackets that look like Melania Trump’s army-styled coat that read “I really don’t care, do u?” Melania had absentmindedly wore the $39 Zara jacket while visiting Texas shelters for migrant children. The protestors’ jackets offer a rebuttal: “We really do care, why don’t u?” This intersection of consumerism, fashion, internet fecundity, Twitter, protest, the feminine body as signpost and signifier, the role of the individual “to care” and make that caring bold, visible, seen – sloshes forward. 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 the human forces, both cultural and emotional, turns them into 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 dancers, music makers, mourners, the triumphant and broken, the orators, the plowers, planters and slaves: All carry symbols of bearing as their gaits and postures are pressed upon and re-oriented by civilization. The ICE protest is not dissimilar from Kentridge’s amalgamation. But it has not been sorted, mediated and re-served as a poem.
We leave the crowd and head toward Starbucks to get something cold on this 95 degree day. I do not consider the irony that Starbucks was recently in the news for calling the police on two black patrons in Philadelphia. Even worse, in front of a Milwaukee Starbucks, only a few blocks away, in 2014, a black man named Dontre Hamilton was shot and killed by police for loitering. Even though 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 protester to have the mental space 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 that filed bankruptcy this year, part of the Bon Ton conglomerate. It had been a presence for 100 years, but not 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. Derrick’s 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 now has the look of college students tossing their stuff – messy remnants of a century of polite sociable capitalism – something you did with your mom and then had lunch.
“Hey Derrick, how are you?” I ask. We hug. It’s nice to run into a friend out here. He is happy to see me. I know Derrick because he comes to a sketchbook class we run for underserved populations. He had been living in a shelter but recently moved to an apartment and would be taking classes in film production in the fall. He’s a good artist as well as a bright, likable personality. I sense he’s wrestling with a desire to return to his old haunts. 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 at class, a little troubled. “We all have our stuff,” he says, quietly.
I am not aware that I look stressed. His comment bothers me. I wonder what he sees of me. Who am I to Derrick? We created this program to address segregation, to take a scoop of white privilege and put it to use. When Derrick makes this comment, I realize he inverts the power structure. I am no longer the looker but the seen, the looked-at. What is it like to have “outsiders” peer in (the colonial gaze), to assess and make assumptions, even with the best of intentions?
We go into Starbucks and sit in window seats drinking Arnold Palmers and watch the protesters disband and drift away. It never occurs to me to go into Starbucks and buy Derrick a big icy drink. The thought does not cross my mind, as if his world and mine parted after our greeting, fading back to separate planes of existence. I sip my iced tea and quietly dislike myself.
Kentridge, the consummate drawer and eraser of things, empowers hesitancy in a dance of visibility and disappearance, embracing the fluid and elusive while also providing a stage that orders and spotlights. His practice never veers from the elemental humility of charcoal and paper. By nature, it shuns the anxieties of finish. A drawing or a sketchbook is as dusty of a place as the stripped, scared, raped South African landscapes Kentridge renders to parade his Danse Macabre.
One week later, I return alone to the art museum 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 stiff dead bodies behind them. The man with the cage re-appears. I notice that he is actually inside the cage not carrying it to his side. The distinction feels important. He will remain trapped. Perhaps he was born trapped. The final image is a dancer wearing ballet toe 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.