Assistant Director for Engagement
Tang Teaching Museum
South African artist William Kentridge’s 2012–2013 stop-motion animation Tango for Page Turning begins with a shot of an antique book. A hand enters into the frame and flips to the half-title page, which reads, A DICTIONARY OF APPLIED CHEMISTRY VOL. I. The hand turns to the title page and we see a cutout reading “PARTICULAR COLLISIONS” superimposed on the book’s title, already suggesting that the dance between viewer/reader and dictionary will be heavily mediated. The hand turns two more pages, but until the end of the work’s nearly three-minute running time, the pages—adorned with Kentridge’s charcoal drawings, paint, and text fragments—turn themselves, advancing so quickly that, like viewing a flip book, we see the illusion of movement.
A depiction of Dada Masilo, a South African dancer, choreographer, and one of Kentridge’s artistic collaborators, side steps onto and then off of the left page. Kentridge’s self-portrait enters onto the right page; he extends his hand to a figureless left page. A black horse trots along as text fragments flash across its body. Splotches and shapes, only occasionally representational in nature, appear on a page, then move, and ultimately disappear. Some sequences are repeated, some only appear once. All of these fragments might seem chaotic and dizzying if the piece wasn’t so elegantly choreographed and set to Philip Miller’s stuttering score, itself composed from fragments.(1) Despite its nonlinear structure, we might consider the work’s climax as the particular collision that takes place when Masilo and Kentridge dance onto opposite pages simultaneously and jump into each other, exploding into black splotches that at points reassemble into various parts of our horse. But that is only one of many collisions.
Kentridge points to “fragmentation and reassembly”(2) as a metaphor for how we can make sense of the world. It’s also a useful way to understand the artistic process of creating as well as the action in Tango. Early in the piece, fragmented text cutouts reading, UNDO, UNSAY, UNSAVE, UNREMEMBER, and UNHAPPEN dance atop the turning pages. While the video is not overtly political, it’s hard not to read it while thinking of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa, the focus of much of his other work. If we turn back the pages, can we remake the past and change the future?