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The Troubles of

the Neck


In 2016, the creative director of New York’s Park Avenue Armory, Pierre
Audi, ushered William Kentridge into the Armory’s 3,000-foot-long Drill Hall to
propose a new project. Kentridge, fresh from Triumphs and Laments, his 2016 shad-
ow procession along 550 meters of the banks of the Tiber River, must have had
three lemons cross his face. A vertical spine down the length of the Drill Hall
would create a vast panorama, the backdrop for his choreographic and orchestral
portrayal of the massive conscription of Africans into the colonial armies fighting
in World War I—a panorama necessarily enacted in Boer English, German,
French, Italian, and Swahili—to be known as The Head & the Load.
How to create the chaotic scene of an army at war? Kentridge formulates two
ways: the mechanization of the human body into surging weapons and the layering
of figures into the density of troops. Corporal mechanization is achieved by live,
whirling bodies bent into the openings of metallic protrusions, like the conic
speakers of gramophone players. Such mechanization has long been a trope with-
in modern art. We only have to think of Picabia’s mechanomorphs: Stieglitz as a
camera; Haviland as a desk lamp; and the little American Girl as a spark plug.
Around the time of Guernica, Picasso turned to the metal readymade to industrial-
ize his constructed bodies with colanders, automobiles, gas masks, and bicycle
seats for heads. The use of mechanical heads for the dancing legs and torsos of the
opera’s introductory figures transforms them into the muzzles and handles of
weapons. Layering then coagulates the bodies into the surge of troop movement.
The whirling bodies are soon seen against the projection of videos onto the spine-
like, panoramic backdrop, each body set within turning disks: phonograph
records or revolving spools of movie cameras. (As with other of his operas, such as
the Met’s production of The Nose, Kentridge handles the scenic décor through pro-
jected videos, some focusing details, others fanning over the thousands of feet of
panorama—some of it blank; some of it graphic.)
Fanning into a continuous line, the bodies become the forward march of
troops rotating into broad swathes of projected, black line—arrows conducting the
parade’s march. Behind the line spatters emerge: the explosive interruptions
along their advance. Fire soon consumes the whole backdrop, scattering the field
into a dust of fragments: the disintegration of the ether into the crumble of era-

OCTOBER 167, Winter 2019, pp. 171–175. © 2019 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
William Kentridge. Drawing for a panorama
screen for The Head & the Load. 2018.
Kentridge. Drawing for a panorama screen
for The Head & the Load (detail). 2018.
The Troubles of the Neck 175

sure marks and the shattering into crystals of photographic emulsion. Kentridge is
driven again and again to “figure-forth” his own medium, which is the progressive
drawing and erasure of the animated body and the consideration of the filmic
medium, often composed as a succession of frames.
Act I of The Head and the Load is a compilation of such self-reference. But
enough of pedantic narrative—feeble in the face of this operatic urgency!
The opera layers sound as well as form; the South African composer Philip
Miller scores the static of gunfire, the wail of woodwinds, and the plaint and
lament of African folk song into pointillist surges of melody that rattle the space
of the panorama into breathless melodic eruption. Choral interludes punctuate
the score as a quintet emotively renders “God Save the King”—the blades of a
film spool fanning across the projection of the head, among others, of Martin
Luther King.
Soldiers need boots. They need names. They need graves. The Africans
impressed into the labor of transporting weapons and matériel across a continent
had none. Marching pairs of boots become the rattling grid of a projection of
mechanamorphic torsos. The wrenching panorama of destruction and pain ends
with the exquisite arias of Meyerbeer’s opera l’Africaine sung under projected
drawings of native African birds. Under this dirge pass the missing graves: names,
causes of death, and places of burial. Anonymity cancelled at last.

Kentridge. The Head & the Load. 2018.