The World Overlooked: William Kentridge’s Receiver
Receiver, an artist’s book featuring poems by Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska and images by William Kentridge, investigates what it means to be human through a complex stratigraphy of image and text. It poses and transposes questions about our shared experience in ways that speak to the problems facing the individual and the complexities shared by the group. It charts the imagination and the circuits it travels, and at the same time it explores the universe and our relative place within it. The work gestures to the profundity of what we don’t know while drolly celebrating the human ability, perhaps even need, to forget. Szymborska’s grim humor has been compared to Samuel Beckett, and in this Kentridge has found a kindred spirit. If a work of art can have a thesis, Receiver’s is this: our heavily circumscribed planes of existence may be pockmarked with minor frustrations and gutted with major tragedy, but, for now at least, humanity appears alone in the universe, and the stars are winking only at us.
Receiver jumbles post-modern tropes (anachronistic juxtapositions; palimpsest; signifiers whose referents seem continually to shift; and fascination with the ruin) while nodding to centuries-old book making traditions. The frontispiece features a rotary telephone and an antique chemistry ring stand—both receivers in different senses of the word. These objects are placed against a landscape rendered in photogravure, an outmoded form of photomechanical reproduction used in publishing during the mid-19th-century, and then manipulated through various etching techniques. As the pages turn, the references to various forms of communication thicken and occasionally overlap—Kentridge depicts birds, wireless radios, film equipment, and electrical wires, sometimes as actual objects, sometimes through two-dimensional surrogates. The title poem, which introduces the theme of individual experience that dominates the first half of the text, describes a sequence of dreams. Here, the structure of the poem also makes the logic of Kentridge’s images explicit. Each relies on parallel construction—that is, repetition and subtle transposition of words, forms, and ideas. Six of the poem’s seven verses begin with the phrase “I dream,” and the meter mimics the feeling of being rocked to sleep, agitated by a dream, quieted, and then gently roused again. A succession of images follows the poem, one of which features a figure, ostensibly the artist, asleep in a bed. A striding figure hovers above him, perhaps an incubus, or perhaps an allusion to the freedom dreams bestow.
If “Receiver” alludes to the importance of dreams as creative, political, and spiritual acts, the subsequent poem, “Four A. M.,” instead tackles sleeplessness. This is among the first in a series of reversals and expansions of scope and subject matter that structure Receiver as a whole. “Four A. M.” is a rather congenial poem about insomnia, an uncongenial subject. “No one feels fine at four a.m.,” it is the “hour of thirty-year-olds,” the poet expounds glibly. The subsequent image, an explosive flurry of drypoint and etched lines and specs, conveys graphically the feeling of harassment expressed in the poem. The next poem, “In Praise of Dreams,” reiterates the possibilities that dreaming affords and thereby returns to the thematic of the title poem.
Several images located towards the center of the work depict the artist’s studio, sometimes with the artist himself at work within, littered with the props and sketches that reappear throughout the plates. The studio is an interior world, and a place of imagination where dreams can take concrete form through the medium of art. The studio also represents a point of projection, particularly for Kentridge, who works routinely with film. It is a venue where reality is captured and transmitted in reconstituted forms, and its image serves as a hinge between Receiver’s first and second movements, between dream life and real life, and between the individual and the wider world. Printed in paper so transparent that you can see the birds-eye view of the studio behind the text, “Reality Demands” explores the figments of everyday life that now obscure famous battle sites, from Actium to Verdun. “Perhaps all fields are battlefields,” the poem speculates, whether we are aware of them or not. The lines that begin the third stanza, “There is so much Everything / that Nothing is hidden quite nicely” capture Receiver’s ambivalent materialism while also speculating on the nature and function of the crowded studio itself - it is a place where one can cover, if not quite fill, the lacunae produced by history, memory, and loss.
The final two poems in the work, “The Ball” and “Under One Small Star,” continue on the theme of shared experience. This time, however, rather than focusing on our failures, they explore consolation and acceptance. They suggest that humanity, flawed as it is, is unique. Our dreams are ours alone, and our capacity for cruelty and kindness exist side by side. The images capture, while never directly illustrating, the paradoxes explored in the texts. Black and white spirals mimicking the constellations and heavenly spheres occupy the backgrounds of the accompanying plates, gesturing to the universe without. In one image, a nondescript human figure appears to skip along the page while the rudimentary outline of a bottle hovers nearby, as if answering the penultimate poem’s call to “act like very special guests of honor / at the district firemen’s ball." Variations of the word “calibrate” are etched into several accompanying plates. A near homonym of the word “celebrate,” the word refers on the one hand to the scientific and technological implications of the book’s title. At the same time, it captures the spirit of the work, connoting adaptation and understanding towards heavenly and human bodies alike.
A cynical reader might interpret Receiver as a defense of middle-class, white, artistic privilege. After all, the line “I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.” does enshrine a point of view predicated on freedom from the more exhausting routines of industrial society. Neither Kentridge nor Szymborska, however, are strangers to difficulty. Both grew up under repressive political systems, namely apartheid-era South Africa and Communist-controlled Poland. As you will recall, the poet acknowledged her own moments of sleeplessness from the start. Tempered as their appreciation might be, “This terrifying world is not devoid of charms, / of the mornings / that make waking up worthwhile.” For those who are willing to acknowledge humanity’s complicity with failure, Receiver is both an ode and elegy to life in the most expansive sense.