Domination isn’t simple. The law does not ensure compliance, nor does a nuclear arsenal guarantee a calm and docile population. Power demands more. It needs deeper roots, soil more hospitable to its coercive ends. Countless revolutions testify to the ephemerality of fear—to reach a more stable form of autocracy, power must pursue methods of control that go beyond sheer violence. It must create a new world entirely governed by itself; it must control the very words we use. Political theorist Hannah Arendt claimed that “the greatest enemy of authority…is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.”[1] She was right: contempt and laughter show the failure of power to obliterate every language other than its own.

European colonialists, faced with the task of subduing South Africa’s indigenous population, found two intertwined tools essential for domination: science and religion. As religious studies scholar David Chidester argues, scholars and missionaries played intimate roles in colonization.[2] At first they refused to admit the land’s prior inhabitants had any religion at all—they were merely primitive, savage, “irrational, capricious, and lazy.”[3] This knowledge was used to justify brutal tactics of settlement and theft. Once the frontiers closed, observers manipulated and redefined native religious traditions. South African practitioners found themselves trapped within intellectual frameworks of faith that accounted only for a narrowly defined devotion.


The shadow tells us something otherwise inaccessible.


South African artist William Kentridge, in The Refusal of Time, currently showing at the Institute for Contemporary Art, tells a parallel story. Yet here religion does not discipline or conquer. In this case, science, that which measures, regulates, and creates time, joins in the quest for domination.

A series of drawings crowd the entrance to the exhibit. In each image questions of science and control confront the viewer. We see a phonograph flanking a deserted waterfall; the quick charcoal lines suggest maps and diagrams. The explorer’s tools reduce a flowing, changing landscape to a static geography. On another wall we find dark shadows cut on newsprint. The paper—densely packed with numbers, words, figures, measurements—recalls not only the urge to record and calculate, but also the role of print in creating shared communities.[4] We read the same morning paper; we feel we belong to the same nation. And those who find themselves outside of this printed conversation—those shadows—they are not like us.

The shadows, contorted and out of place, shiver in the foreground. They point to an absence, something lost, but also a curious remnant. The shadow tells us something otherwise inaccessible. In the “limitations and leanness of shadows” we see our own “agency in apprehending the world,” in completing an otherwise stark and lonely scene.[5]

The shadows reappear in The Refusal of Time. They close the roughly thirty-minute feature; a procession of musicians—rhythmic but loose—gives way to a solemn line of transient bodies. They carry instruments of science, time, and hygiene. They are eventually consumed by a wild darkness, and the sounds—projected by speakers set up throughout the exhibit space—soon give way to an eerie silence.


One vision proves particularly striking. A silhouette of wooden parts moving in time with a ticking clock, it resembles a body and a cross.


This silence testifies to the utter destruction Kentridge lays at the feet of colonialism and modernism, each an industrial understandings of time. We watch as a hand moves through a torn and weary book—on each page an instance of revolt and resistance. Yet these moments of hope fade before a strict regimentation. A voice narrates a year minute by minute, metronomes mark a perpetual rhythm, a pen sketches diagrams of time and space. A man sticks lines onto a figure of the earth in a laboratory filled with clocks.

Scholars have noted the use of time as a tool of repression; in a sense, its connection to industrial modernity seems obvious.[6] In The Refusal of Time, Kentridge echoes these sentiments. But he also goes further. He lends such an abstract notion a disturbing physicality: a large machine, a reference to early French efforts to regulate time, sits at the center of the exhibit space, surrounded on all sides by speakers and projections. Its levers sway rhythmically as the projected images hurry onwards. One vision proves particularly striking. A silhouette of wooden parts moving in time with a ticking clock, it resembles a body and a cross.

With The Refusal of Time, Kentridge makes an essential statement. He draws our attention to the way ideas—systems of thought, things we take for granted—work to oppress and silence. He reminds us that all ways of thinking, whether we call them science or religion, intersect and often support unjust regimes. Yet by transforming this experience, by using sight and sound as ways of highlighting the restrictions of modern time, he also offers us hope that we too, whether by contempt or by laughter, may refuse to take part.

The Refusal of Time runs through May 4 at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.

Lewis West is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.


[1] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, 1970), 45.

[2] David Chidester, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996).

[3] Chidester, Savage Systems, 16.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities:Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006).

[5] William Kentridge, First Norton Lecture, “Drawing Lesson 1: In Praise of Shadows,” Harvard University, 20 March 2012. Quoted in Andreas Huyssen, The Shadow Play as Medium of Memory: William Kentridge Nalini Malani (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 2013), 25.

[6] For example, Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

Image from Flickr via anubisabyss


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