In 2002, South African artist William Kentridge was invited to create a new work for Documenta XI in Kassel, Germany. Kentridge (born 1955) responded with Zeno Writing, an 11-minute film montage that contemplates the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the eruption of World War I in 1914.
Taking Italo Svevo’s 1923 novel La coscienza di Zeno (The Confessions of Zeno) as his point of departure, Kentridge reframes Svevo’s narrative through five sequences. The novel purports to be the journal of Zeno, a troubled businessman in Trieste undergoing psychoanalysis. Tormented by his own aspirations and inhibitions, including his inability to give up smoking, Zeno is caught between action and inaction. At the same time, his crisis unfolds against the looming threat of war, concluding with Italy’s annexation of Trieste and Zeno’s final disillusionment. Zeno mirrored Kentridge's own fascination with “people stuck at the edge of a historical project about to implode, stuck waiting for the eruption to happen.”
With an original soundtrack by composer Kevin Volans, Zeno Writing is meticulously constructed using shadow puppets, archival film footage, and Kentridge's signature stop-action animation. The music is at first soft and slow, then builds to an operatic tempo, while images of domestic interiors, public parades, a caged leopard, and fountains give way to trench warfare, downed planes, sinking ships, and exploding bombs. At the close of the film, the viewer is left to consider lingering questions:
"Smoke, Ashes, Fable? Where are they all now? Perhaps they are no longer even fable."