William Kentridge

I am not me, the horse is not mine


Not on display

William Kentridge born 1955
Video, 8 projections, colour and sound (stereo)
Duration: 6min
Presented to Tate and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Wendy Fisher and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg and Cape Town 2011, accessioned 2015


I am not me, the horse is not mine is an installation of eight film projections by South African artist William Kentridge. The eight films, which are described as ‘fragments’, are all six minutes in duration and are played on a loop. The films were completed as part of the artist’s preparatory work for his 2010 production of Dmitry Shostakovich’s satirical opera The Nose (1928) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera is based on a short story of the same title by Russian author Nikolai Gogol from 1837, which tells of an official whose nose leaves his face and develops a life of its own. The individual films are titled ‘His Majesty Comrade Nose’, ‘Prayers of Apology’, ‘A Lifetime of Enthusiasm’, ‘Country Dances I (Shadow)’, ‘Country Dances II (Paper)’, ‘That Ridiculous Blank Space Again (A One-Minute Love Story)’, ‘Commissariat for Enlightenment’ and ‘The Horse is Not Mine’. They are accompanied by a soundtrack by composer Phillip Miller, who has collaborated with Kentridge since 1994.

Kentridge’s film installation takes as its starting point both Gogol’s short story and Shostakovich’s opera (which was a popular success but was suppressed shortly after its premiere). However, it also traces a more complex lineage. Gogol’s story was itself in part drawn from a section of Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (1759–67), which was itself influenced by Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1601). The artist has noted that all three authors share a sober absurdism and the use of the impossible and fantastic as a central narrative device, and that this absurdist tradition was adopted in twentieth-century Russian modernism (see Goodman Gallery 2008, p.7). The title of the installation, I am not me, the horse is not mine, is a Russian peasant saying used to deny guilt. It derives from a transcript of the plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in which the Bolshevik revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin (1888–1938) argues for his political and physical life. Bukharin was to perish in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936–8.

Kentridge uses these references to explore the formal inventiveness of the different strains of Russian modernism, including Soviet film from the 1920s and 1930s, and the calamitous end of the Russian avant-garde. Workshops with student actors in Johannesburg for the production of the Shostakovich opera furnished many of the silhouettes used in the films. On top of projections of these human figures, Kentridge superimposed paper cut-outs so as to establish links between the constructivism of such artists as El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and the earthy language of Armenian-born Arshile Gorky (c.1904–1948) and the Russian filmmakers. I am not me, the horse is not mine is conceived by Kentridge as ‘an elegy … for the formal artistic language that was crushed in the 1930s and for the possibility of human transformation that so many hoped for and believed in, in the revolution’ (quoted in Goodman Gallery 2008, p.9).

‘His Majesty Comrade Nose’ is a combination of film and animation showing the artist himself in his studio, but with a large scale cut-out nose superimposed over his head and shoulders. He climbs and falls down a flight of stairs in endless repetition, like a game of snakes and ladders, as a metaphor for social or political climbing. ‘Prayers of Apology’ is a text-based film that shows the transcript from three stages of Bukharin’s demise. The first is taken from a meeting of the Central Committee in 1932, when suspicion against him was first raised; the second text comes from a Central Committee meeting in 1937, and the third is an excerpt from a letter Bukharin wrote to Stalin from prison in which he begs for mercy. ‘A Lifetime of Enthusiasm’ uses a combination of real footage and animation to focus on the marches and parades that dominated Stalin’s rule. Kentridge constructs a perpetual procession featuring symbols of the Soviet era and the Russian avant-garde, including a group pulling a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Tower on a cart (the Tower was envisioned in 1920 as a constructivist monument to the Communist Third International but was never built). The film addresses the need for, and power of, political belief, as well as the ambivalences of living under authoritarian regimes, oscillating between irreverence and enthusiasm, opposition and support.

‘Country Dances I (Shadow)’ and ‘Country Dances II (Paper)’ both show a figure dancing. The first is a live action piece involving a double image of a dancer and his shadow with the light at an oblique angle so as to achieve an exaggerated effect akin to animation. The second, also based on a shadow dance, employs torn or cut paper fragments from a Russian encyclopaedia against a black ground. Similarly, ‘That Ridiculous Blank Space Again (A One-Minute Love Story)’ is an animation composed of paper fragments that tells a short love story. This film brings together a range of influences, from Russian writer Daniil Kharms (1905–1942) to the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930), the constructivists and Shostakovich. The figures, themselves based on actors in a Bauhaus Theatre production of 1925, periodically disintegrate and reconnect in a play of attraction and violence.

‘Commissariat for Enlightenment’ returns to the character of the nose, this time as a surrogate and parody for both Stalin and his audiences, who were expected to applaud the leader for long periods of time (the artist has referred to a recording of a speech by Stalin in which the first twenty minutes consists only of applause; see Goodman Gallery 2008, p.41). In this film, the nose is also intended to be simultaneously Shostakovich playing the piano and the people’s commissar for music who denounced him. The raw footage for this piece has many sources, including Russian film archives, French and American films made in the late 1920s, and a few seconds from Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1928), which was made the same year as Shostakovich’s The Nose. In the final film ‘fragment’, ‘The Horse is Not Mine’, the nose acquires a horse. This also derives from a variety of sources: the statue of the Bronze Horseman in St Petersburg that symbolises the city, images of horses from Soviet depictions of Stalin and other heroes, anti-heroic images of horses that stem from Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante, and the cart-horse Boxer, which represented suffering workers in George Orwell’s allegorical novel Animal Farm (1945).

Kentridge is one of the most prominent and versatile South African artists and has achieved international recognition for his complex animated films based on charcoal drawings and collages. He has also produced works in a variety of other media, including prints, books, collage, sculpture and painting, as well as theatre and opera.

Further reading
William Kentridge: I am not me, the horse is not mine, exhibition catalogue, Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg 2008.

Tanya Barson
May 2011

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