William Kentridge Safer Tropics 1999

Artwork details

Artist
Title
Safer Tropics
Date 1999
Medium Etching, aquatint and crayon on printed paper
Dimensions Image: 216 x 292 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Purchased 2001
Reference
P78565
View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Summary

Sleeping on Glass is a portfolio of six etchings printed in an edition of sixty, of which this is number nineteen. It was printed and published by Caversham Press in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa in collaboration with the artist. Like Kentridge’s series of lithographs Untitled (Baedecker Portfolio) 1999 (Tate P78560-2), the etchings were created by the chine collé or India proof method. This involves simultaneously printing on and mounting a thin sheet of paper onto a sturdier backing paper. The images in this series have been etched onto double page spreads from a selection of old books, with the result that every print in the edition is unique. Each double page is set onto white wove backing paper in a rectangular depression created by the impression of the etching plate. The title of each image has been added by hand in red crayon capital letters. The contents of these backing pages have subtle ironic resonances with the images and words superimposed on them. Four images in the portfolio have been etched onto pages taken from an old book on engineering. Panic/ Picnic is printed on pages headed ‘Principles of Electronics’ and ‘Oscillators’, Safer Tropics on pages headed ‘Practical Structural Design’, Terminal Hurt/ Terminal Longing is printed over pages headed ‘Structural Engineering’ and ‘Beams’ and This is How the Tree Breaks over pages headed ‘Structural Engineering’ and ‘Masonry and Masonry Structures’. Staying Home has been printed on pages taken from a Latin text by Virgil. Its double pages are headed P. Virgili Maronis.

Adaptability/ Compliance/ Silence is printed on pages from an old notebook written in German, probably dating from the end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century. The ornate, regular handwriting is in dark brown ink with marginal annotations in red. A drawing of two naked women sitting on chairs seen from the side has been etched over the handwriting. The figures are virtually identical. The words ‘adaptability’ and ‘compliance’ have been written under each woman. ‘Silence’ has been added below them in the centre of the page. Panic/ Picnic is also a double image, in this case of two almost identical teacups. They sit on a common surface, ‘panic’ written above one and ‘picnic’ written above the other. The juxtaposition of these two words is a trope common to Kentridge’s work. While playing on the computer he noticed the similarity of such pairs of words as ‘amnesty’ and ‘amnesia’, ‘give’ and ‘forgive’, ‘panic’ and ‘picnic’. Using them together, in his films and drawings, he points to the complexity of the relationship between them, their differences and similarities. Terminal Hurt Terminal Longing and This is How the Tree Breaks both depict trees, printed onto the central spinal section of their double pages, and seem to refer to each other. The tree in This is How the Tree Breaks is whole and unbroken. The tree in Terminal Hurt/ Terminal Longing appears to be the same tree. It has been rent in two down the centre leaving a large empty space while its branches droop on either side over the pairs of title words ‘terminal hurt’ and ‘terminal longing’ on either side of its trunk. Staying Home depicts an ordered garden comprising spindly trees standing in well groomed box hedge enclosures. Behind them the horizon is hidden by dense foliage. Safer Tropics contains a drawing of the desolate landscape frequently appearing in Kentridge’s animated films. It is derived from the abandoned mine dumps outside his native city Johannesburg. Turquoise and blue watercolour have been added to denote water. The significance of this landscape is its difference from the landscapes depicted in European art and colonial fantasies about Africa.

Kentridge is an accomplished print-maker, having taught etching for two years at the Johannesburg Art Foundation (1978-80) after attending classes as a student there (1976-8). He has made prints in workshops in many countries. Although he is known principally for his series of animated films titled Drawings for Projection (1989-99), created from series of charcoal drawings, Kentridge was making prints for some years before he began working in film. He believes that the charcoal drawings used in his films evolved directly from his print-making activities. His recent prints are often distillations of subjects treated in his films. The prints in the portfolio Sleeping on Glass are closely related to the imagery of the film of the same title which Kentridge made in the same year. Sleeping is a recurring motif in Kentridge’s work, used as a metaphor for a state of self-imposed blissful ignorance in which the outside world may be forgotten as the sleeper closes himself off into his internal world. This notion, coupled with the fragility and transparency of glass, evokes a dangerous situation leading to a painful, if not actually destructive, moment of awakening and recognition. In Kentridge’s work this image derives from the condition of the white South African psyche during the apartheid era (1948-94) when it deliberately ignored the human rights abuses perpetuated by the nation’s political system. His etching Sleeper – Red 1997 (Tate P78231) depicts a naked sleeping white man against a red background.

Further reading:
Neal Benezra, Staci Boris, Dan Cameron, William Kentridge, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York 2001, p.35, reproduced (colour) pp.134-5
Dan Cameron, Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, J.M. Coetzee, William Kentridge, London 1999
Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, William Kentridge, exhibition catalogue, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1998

Elizabeth Manchester
January 2002

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