Phillip Chen

Cor Locus / The Hatpin Peril
Relief Etching, Diptych, 31" X 46"

Phillip Chen and William Kentridge: Powers of Recall

Working from Des Moines and Johannesburg respectively, Phillip Chen and William Kentridge create bodies of work that evoke and explore personal, familial, and national histories through printmaking. They each draw on many of the same facets of the medium: its exceptional capacity to be distributed and dispersed; its potential to convey narrative; and its propensity for adding and erasing, for testing. The artists have both focused on printmaking throughout their careers, and have both used the medium to address historical trauma and memory. First and foremost, they investigate the ways in which narratives—from brief moments to trans-generational sagas—can be conveyed through objects and images. Each is informed by a specific background, which acts both as a catalyst for work about that history and also as inspiration for the ways in which other, seemingly unrelated issues can be addressed. For Chen, who was born to Chinese immigrants in Chicago, it is the history of Chinese migrants to America, who since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its aftermath, have faced challenges of exclusion, denial of citizenship, and marginalization. Kentridge, the son of two anti-apartheid lawyers of Jewish-Lithuanian descent, also deals with issues of migration and exile in his own family’s history, but more prominently confronts the story of apartheid and the ravages of colonial power in South Africa, where he was born and continues to live and work. The ways in which these artists deploy the technical and cultural capabilities of printmaking in their efforts to complicate and, in some ways, personalize the cultural and political past sheds light on both the artworks in this exhibition and on the potential of printmaking in today’s world. In addition, each artist’s mobilization of darkness in his work serves to re-complicate the given story, offering, instead of clarity, ambiguity and multiplicity of vision. The work of Phillip Chen and William Kentridge poses questions about history and narrative, insisting on memory as an ever-occurring process; for them, to remember the past means to read its traces, to be imaginative and attentive, and to construct and re-construct its stories.
The ability to portray and then disseminate narrative ideas is a historically practical facet of printmaking, but no less important in the work of Chen and Kentridge. The traditional format of printmaking is the series—a group of prints issued together and connected by a shared idea, story, or event. Through this structure a narrative can emerge, whether through several prints following a sequential plot or via works offering a less linear account of some story or concept. About himself and Kentridge, Phillip Chen writes, " From our respective peripheral geographic and cultural locations, both Kentridge and I found in printmaking a place to stand, from which to forward our judgment and imagination. We both work independently against prevailing art world predilections that disfavor narrative and metaphor, integrating apprehensions of the broad sweep of history with individual internal reckonings.” While complex narrative may be difficult to convey or outmoded in other media, in printmaking it is nurtured, almost naturally-occurring in series. Chen and Kentridge are both able to mobilize this tendency of the medium, mirroring the formats of history—stories, narratives, sequences, and events—in the work itself.
In turn, series are often issued in editions: multiples of the same set of prints. The ability to produce a set of identical images which can be dispersed to a number of destinations is often identified as an important facet of activist or political printmaking; the distribution of editions connects prints to a broader audience, to share information and to circulate imagery more widely than other media. The prints of Chen and Kentridge should not necessarily be classified as “activist,” though they do engage many of the issues of current activist art—citizenship, collective memory, politically-charged trauma—and so may still benefit from this idea of multiplicity and distribution. Setting any activist agendas aside, this idea of political engagement stemming from print distribution helps to highlight issues hinted at and quietly suggested in the work of Chen and Kentridge. In addition to serving as a connector to broad audiences, print’s capacity for distribution also lends itself to the participatory and ever-shifting process of collective remembering. Susan Stewart writes, “Such disseminated images…can be a way of making the fleeting experience of historical events permanent through collective memory and collective aspirations. Something of this public audience haunts the private viewing of any print, as something private about the maker haunts the public display of any work of art.” This link between print dissemination and collective memory and active participation will be elaborated on later; for now our focus is on the way in which the format of printmaking—with its traditional ties to series and distribution—helps the viewer locate politically- and culturally-charged narratives in the work of Chen and Kentridge.
For Chen, issues emerge through metaphor and symbolism, rather than through explicit messaging. The artist’s work centers on notions of vision, language, and cross-cultural dynamics in historic narratives, with emphasis on how objects and graphic images can signify these stories. Chen’s practice is informed by his own view into his family’s multi-generational experience of political and cultural exclusion; among other subjects, he mobilizes specific objects representative of significant moments and experiences in Chinese American history, rendering them at once both highly personal and also as universal windows into the brutality of the Exclusion era. While Chen’s work is not immediately recognizable as politically active, its context—among historical uses of printmaking for political ends—may help make that engagement more visible, and the patterning of objects which appear in the prints becomes more apparent when seen in series.
Chen’s prints portray a constellation of personal and ancestral objects, which commingle with his drawn images to reveal links between the objective past and our remembrance of it. Extraction, for example, contains a number of objects arranged in the format of a mathematical division problem, a line of descent traced through divisors, dividends, and quotients: a small ceramic pavilion; a hand-held mirror; a drawing, as though by a child; and a rock. Each item ties back to some memory or piece of history, and they are brought together here in a format that fosters unexpected links among them. The rock, which Chen found in Michigan, relates to historic scholarly contemplation of stones and pictorial elements found in natural materials. The ceramic pavilion is an object from Chen’s childhood—he remembers watering the houseplants, which held these pavilions on their soil, with his mother—but also represents a larger cultural history: an antique model of a Chinese architectural type, the pavilion served, in Chen’s youth, as one way he could connect to his cultural heritage.
Five Hands’ initial inspiration came from wall text Chen saw at a museum: curators had been investigating an old religious statue when they found that it was hollow. When they opened the portal at the bottom of the vessel, they found a hand-written account of a paint brush. Tied to the brush were strings, each having been held and controlled by a different member of the community. In his print, Chen uses an image of a brush brought to the United States by his father, who upon leaving China purchased and packed “scholars’ equipment”—brushes, books, and calligraphy tools. He transported these items to Chicago, retaining that category of cultural goods in his trans-Pacific move. Chen’s inclusion of his own father’s brush demonstrates the personal realities of immigration, while his encounter with the older vessel at a museum opens the work to expanded shared experiences and multiple authorship spanning centuries and continents. The idea of multiple authorship—and perhaps its partner idea of active and participatory remembrance—is symbolized by the white strings fastened to the brushes, which in turn trail thick, painterly lines across the sheet as if processing and aligning the tugs of their controllers in a single mark.
Printmaking’s necessitation of multiple participants in the production process illuminates the broad patterns of collaboration in Chen’s work, though in the prints, the idea of collaboration is mediated through time and place as Chen combines disparate sources. As Judith Hecker writes “Prints are often discussed as an ancillary practice for artists, the medium itself overlooked or misunderstood because of its collaborative requirements (a master printer and dedicated publisher are typically involved) and its status as an editioned art form. But in the contemporary period… prints are an integral, if unsung, force in many artists' activities. Such artists embrace the technical eccentricities of prints, the opportunity to learn from craftsmen, and the capacity for broad dissemination, all of which push innovation in their work overall.” In addition to the teamwork needed to actually produce the prints, it is as if Chen is collaborating with those in his ancestry and in history—his father who brought the brush from China, the artisans who made the religious vessel—in the creation of this work. Like the multiplicity of the print medium, Chen’s inclusion of influences and images from people across time and geography, like the ceramic pavilion symbolizing both Chinese architecture and memories of his mother, dismantles accepted historical categories and offers a multiplicity of vision instead.
Kentridge’s work is perhaps closer to an art of activism or resistance, though he too mobilizes metaphor in place of clear calls to action. Early in his career, Kentridge participated in anti-apartheid protests and made posters for a political theater in his hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa. In the 1990s, he produced and directed the play Ubu and the Truth Commission (written by Jane Taylor). The play was a critical response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a court-like body assembled in South Africa following the end of apartheid that was tasked with holding hearings in which the stories from both victims and perpetrators of apartheid-era laws were heard and recorded. Not all of Kentridge’s work is so clearly linked to specific political events, though the idea of witness testimony—and the documentation of that testimony—is a theme that runs through the whole of the artist’s career. The suite of three photogravures titled Scribe, 2011, depict the artist in the position of the scribe, drawing medium in hand. The character of the scribe was incorporated into Kentridge’s oeuvre in 2010, when he presented the exhibition Carnets d’Egypte (Egyptian Sketchbooks) at the Louvre. For the show, the artist produced 16 short films to be shown in the museum’s Egyptian Collection wing; some of the images made as part of the project were of the scribe.
In the 2011 trio of photogravures, the scribe engages notions of documentation and recording; beginnings of a potential collective memory that represents multiple voices, truth, and justice. These pictures are not straightforward: Kentridge’s play with shadows, and the white lines trailing and tangling messily across the page, suggest an instability of vision and an insistence on sketchy, ambiguous imagery rather than some conclusive object. Instead of offering an explicit political message, Kentridge’s work often serves a stricter archival purpose, functioning as witness and record, a way of combatting the cultural amnesia that occurs following the end of a historical event of period, such as South African apartheid. Judith Hecker remarks that “This idea is fundamental to Kentridge's work in all mediums, but the retaining of history is perhaps carried out best by printmaking, due to its amenability to thematic bodies of work and to broad dissemination.”
The subject and title of Scribe help locate the prints in a place of political witness and documentation. The layers, traces, and shadows visible in the works amplify these issues, setting forward a notion of memory built on layers of archive and imagery. Andreas Huyssen remarks that Kentridge “tried to sidestep the binary opposition of perpetrators and victims that dominated the hearings of the TRC. Instead Kentridge focuses on fellow travelers, beneficiaries, and personal responsibility for colonialism and apartheid. A process of memory as recognition is set in motion, which resists the all-too-common evasions and forgetfulness.” Like Chen, Kentridge draws on both the experience of the individual and on the context of the larger society in his development of a collective remembering and conjuring of the past. He uses subject matter as a means of achieving this kind of complicated narrative, which reflects the tangled process of memory production; the scribe, though not explicitly tied to the South African situation, is one example of allowing for such complexities through metaphor. Huyssen goes on, “To claim that Kentridge's art is not ‘about' apartheid is both right and wrong. Right only if ‘about’ is to refer to mimetic forms of representation or documentarism.... It is realism of recognition, not of resemblance.” Rather than producing concrete images of political situations, directly representing traumatic pasts, Kentridge mobilizes certain facets of the printmaking process—the ways in which works are drawn and printed, and the ways that traces and marks can be left behind—to mirror the memory process Huyssen outlines; memory as recognition, as something personal, something participatory. Through moments of recognition, the viewer completes the circuit, remembering again what they see in the image.
For both Chen and Kentridge printmaking is a process of working through, of testing out. The idea of the medium as experimental or improvisational could be surprising—printmaking requires an artist to think in reverse, working with complex tools and chemicals on a matrix from which he prints over and over, adding and removing marks each time in an effort to work toward an ideal picture. Though the process is elaborate, and therefore ostensibly less conducive to improvisation, in some ways its many steps provide ever more chances to try. Chen remarks that “Artmaking is a matter of productively knowing and not knowing; printmaking is a testing of ideas, a proposition corresponding to the piloting of a hypothesis that is proven under press pressure. Indeed, printmaking is a kind of thinking and acting through the creation of images.” For Chen, this notion of printmaking as a means of thinking-through springs somewhat from its physical process. He continues, “The significance of physical engagements with printmaking processes, coupled with conceptualization, cannot be overstated—the cyclical interplay of objectification and reflection, the temporal acceleration and delays that exemplify the varying pace of thought includes stoppages that allow for the sudden intervention of divergent ideas.” Again, this openness to interruptions and divergent ideas mirrors a conception of history and memory that is organic and ever-changing, not linear or set in stone.
Among other strategies, Chen reflects this notion of time, stoppages, and divergent ideas in printmaking through his process, which begins with both the collection of physical objects and with the sketching out of drawn elements (Chen works by the adage, “If I can think it, I can draw it”). He draws many overlapping images in ink on sheets of tracing paper, testing which designs work best together and with the photographic elements that are to come. Once these elements are chosen, Chen re-draws them on a single sheet of tracing paper; this black line drawing will, eventually, become the light-colored linear elements of the finished print. He then layers the tracing paper with the photographic negative, the image of the physical object or objects that are found and collected for the print. These layers are exposed via a high intensity light source to a zinc metal plate coated with a light sensitive emulsion; during the exposure areas of the plate struck by light harden and become acid resistant, while areas that are protected from the light—by the black line drawing and the photographic negative image—remain soft. These soft emulsion areas are washed away from the plate under chemical development, revealing areas of pure metal. These areas are then etched in an acid bath.
The prints are made by rolling black ink onto the surface of the plate; the etched portions, or the drawn lines and photographic image, are not reached by the ink roller. The final works consist of a black background—the ink from the plate—with imagery and line work visible as un-inked paper, the only portions of light paper showing through the blackness. The play between photographic negatives, dark backgrounds, and white lines correlates with the projection of light and shadow and with ideas of knowing and not knowing, the possibility of further knowledge—perhaps truth, or memory, or historical fact—lying behind the ink. Though the final steps of this process—the etching into metal via an acid bath, for instance—seem permanent and exact, there is plenty of room for testing and trial in the earlier stages, during which Chen tries and retries various configurations of drawings and photographs. This notion of improvisation is perhaps rooted in Chen’s use of photographic elements; while he does, of course, choose which objects to photograph and include, these objects have appearances and histories all their own, with which Chen must contend in his incorporation of them into the print.
The objects are varied and often come from across time periods and places, prompting Chen to grapple with ahistorical elements in each print. Chen’s use of objects allows for “stoppages” in the process; they help reveal Chen’s work as a complication of standard timelines and histories. In Flower Water, for instance, he incorporates objects representing historic Chinese American labor. Symbols of gold mining, restaurant work, and laundry appear in the print through images of a pickaxe, a teapot, and a knife, among others. These objects are framed by a hoop skirt, adding a reference to gendered labor.. One can almost imagine Chen with these objects; the process of thinking-through occurs in his work not only in the actions of printmaking, but also in the artist’s practice of gathering, selecting, and arranging the physical items to compose the print. In The Edge of Difference, Chen engages specific African ceremonies during which participants wear carved helmets, hats, and crowns in Western style. Though the headpieces closely resemble the Western attire they are modeled after, they are slightly different and serve to mock and undermine colonial power in a space of critical differentiation that Homi Bhabha called the “edge of difference.” Again, Chen presents work that challenges linear historical narratives, this time with subject matter that purposefully confuses geographies and their power.
Kentridge’s printmaking process also complicates notions of linear time and memory, and his prints similarly act as kinds of pauses or frozen moments, inviting the viewer to find further instances of instability and temporal confusions within them. Kentridge’s prints work as interruptions or suspensions of time especially when seen in relation to his films; alongside the moving image, the prints offer pauses, as if slowing down to offer a closer look to the viewer. Aside from their functioning as respite from the films and linear time, though, Kentridge’s prints also question historical experience and typical conceptions of memory, as well as notions of testing and development, through the etching process. In many of Kentridge’s works on paper, traces are left on the page, remnants of his working process. For the artist, etching functions as a kind of palimpsest—an ancient tablet or parchment on which an original writing has been effaced to make room for subsequent text or images, but of which traces remain. For Kentridge, etching is well-suited for recording the building up or transforming of an image, as each state or proof made in the process represents another layer, another moment in time.
These traces and remnants serve a few functions in Kentridge’s printmaking. One meaning of the word trace is to make a direct mark, to copy an image by drawing over its lines on a superimposed piece of transparent paper. This notion of drawing layers atop layers, of making a mark over a pre-existing image, of course engages the palimpsest. Andreas Huyssen writes, about Kentridge’s prints,
Here the shadow is the preserved trace of the erasure, a stain or a barely visible outline of bodies, buildings, objects that point to the respectively preceding version of the drawing. The medium of drawing becomes palimpsest in the drawings themselves and then again in their cinematic motion. Continuous metamorphosis of things, faces, and landscapes is the guiding principle in the progression of drawing. Erasure, effacement, and wiping out turn into the material manifestations of the very structure of memory. What remains in the movement of time is the trace.

Thinking of Kentridge’s traces as part of a process of continuous metamorphosis, we find that they symbolize a collective memory that is cumulative, ever-changing, built in layers.
This definition of “trace” also brings to mind the idea of improvisation and lack of full control; reflecting the structure of political memory itself, Kentridge’s prints are subject to erasure, addition, and change. Within these steps lie lapses of control; Kentridge remarks, “There's a separation from the gestural mark of your hand to what you get on the sheet of paper... There's something in the drawing's going through the process of invisibility under the press and coming out… which is a difference. It is a moment of separation between making and seeing the image, which is important.” This gap that Kentridge finds in the etching process is perhaps similar to the way in which Chen’s use of physical objects invites multiple authorships and some degree of lessened control over the print’s outcome and meanings. Another meaning of the word trace is a mark that has been left behind, a vestige. Through the visibility of traces, the past remains materially present in Kentridge’s prints, even if only through slight stains and shadows. These marks, and the layers of process and material they represent, mirror the format of the palimpsest and allow the viewer to reflect on details from different time periods, much like the images found in Chen’s prints. The presence of the trace suggests a certain kind of memory or residue from the past; but the act of erasure that these marks point to also becomes a metaphor for the instability and absences inherent to historical memory. Thus, the binary of remembrance versus forgetting is replaced by the existence of both the traces and the erasures they signify; in other words, by a chronicle of adding and subtracting, a final image that bears both preservation and effacement.
The ways in which Chen and Kentridge mobilize the technical facets of printmaking—processes of revision and collaboration, the visibility of marks and stains left on the page—help to reveal memory as a process of remembering, a kind of palimpsest that relies on individuals to layer and build. The presence of darkness and shadows in each artist’s work reinforces this notion of memory as processual and layered, and instead of offering clear critique or response to their respective situations, invites the viewer to enter the confusion and ambiguity of locating truth in cultural and political histories.
For Kentridge, shadows provide a ground for ambiguity and questioning. In Scribe, the shadows mainly fall behind the image of the artist himself; in other works, like the Stereoscopic Photogravures, 2007, the intensifying darkness at the back of the box-like spaces depicted in the prints evoke shadow. In these works, shadows have pedagogic value: rather than claiming to reveal a truth or to offer enlightenment, the dark areas remind us of what is unspoken and prompt us to reflect on how we look at and see things. Shadows and darkness invite viewers of Kentridge’s work to look more closely, to not take for granted what they see, and to observe images with parts that are not, at first, clearly recognizable. Kentridge suggests that one may see more in darkness than in light; in a 2001 lecture from Harvard’s Norton Lectures titled “In Praise of Shadows,” he evoked Plato’s cave parable, questioning whether the notion of moving from the darkness of the shadow world to the light of philosophical understanding could work the other way. He remarked, “Can it work in reverse—someone blinded or bewildered by the brightness of the sun, unable to look at it, familiar with the everyday world and the surface, choosing to descend (not just for relief, but also for elucidation) to the world of shadows?... My interest in Plato is twofold: for his prescient description of our world of cinema—his description of a world of people bound to reality as mediated through a screen feels very contemporary—and, more particularly, in defense of shadows and what they can teach us about enlightenment.”
What can shadows teach us about enlightenment? For one, they can demonstrate how the most obvious or visible parts of a story—the figures and objects in the foregrounds of the Sterescopic Photogravures, for instance—do not constitute the entire narrative. Rather, the darkness at the back of the image’s space reminds us that there is probably more to the story which has yet to be uncovered. In his lectures at Harvard, Kentridge remarked, “It's in the very limitation and leanness of shadows that we learn. In the gaps, in the leaps we have to make to complete an image, and in this we perform the generative act of constructing an image... The very leanness of the illusion pushes us to complete the recognition and this prompts us into the very awareness of the activity itself. Recognizing in this activity our agency in seeing, our agency in apprehending the world.”
Though Chen’s prints may not engage quite so literally with shadows, they do echo the conception of shadow as something which promotes reflection on sight and the ambiguity between light—and “enlightenment”—and darkness. Chen’s work Career Mystic, for instance, began one day when Chen was condition-checking a painting in his home and the artwork suddenly fell forward, smashing a ceramic pot in its path. He photographed the scene, including the now visible inside of the pot, which had previously been imperceptible in the vessel’s interior darkness. Later, when incorporating an image of the broken pot into a print, Chen decided to also include a picture of a lamp; the lamp, a seemingly animated industrial form on the left-hand side of the picture, is the same lamp used to illuminate an artist book by Kentridge in an earlier exhibition. On the right side of the picture is a kind of supernatural projection from the lamp by way of the pot. The title, Career Mystic, are Moliere’s words from Tartuffe; Chen explains, “The charlatan is called out, his ‘magic’ nothing more than a mix of cultural processes. If the picture seems to ‘speak for itself,’ the artist, rather than a spiritual conjurer, has been an adept ventriloquist.”
The presence of light source and projection in Chen’s work invite the viewer to consider what might be illuminated with even more light, and transforms the dark background of the print, as well as that of many of his other works, from simple black voids to expanses of mystery and possibility. Kentridge’s shadows, too, might also be seen as expanses of possibility. Looking at these prints together, we wonder what we can see, and what we can know. The artists have subverted much of what we take for granted—sight, memory, history—and invited us to look at the world with questions, uncertainties, and interest.

Lydia Mullin
Curatorial Assistant, Painting and Sculpture,
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY