When tourists visit Washington, D.C, and walk past the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art, many young children, no doubt, haven't the faintest idea what the NGA's Claes Oldenburg sculpture represents. It is, in fact, an enormous typewriter eraser -- an old technology that isn't part of the vocabulary of the generation growing up with iPads and Twitter.
It shouldn't have to be this way, but sometimes it takes going into a museum or gallery to get reacquainted with technologies of the past. Visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago will find two exhibits -- both conveniently located side-by-side on the fourth floor -- that focus heavily on the typewriter: William Kentridge and Akram Zaatari (both through May 5, 2013).
The overwhelming majority of the 11-minute-48-second film Tomorrow everything will be alright (2010) by Zaatari, who was born in Lebanon in 1966, consists of a view of a typewriter. But form the very start, it's clear that there's been a collapse of time. "Hello sexy. ... hello u," begins the script, which viewers quickly learn is a series of text messages (or IMs) arranged typewriter-wise.
It's easy to grow impatient waiting for a type of writing, which ought to be rapid fire, to come through on the painfully slow typewriter. But viewers who take the time to absorb the film -- which is well worth it -- follow a conversation between two men who are former lovers. The written dialogue is coy, erotic at times, and ultimately probably optimistic.
Zaatari, a cofounder of the Arab Image Foundation, shot the footage in the late 1990s, "during a time of uncertainty in Lebanon," according to the MCA site.
The other exhibit features collages, charcoal and pastel drawings, and two animated films -- History of the Main Complaint (1996) and Felix in Exile (1994) -- by Jewish, South African artist William Kentridge.
Those themes surface in his two brilliant films (which are closer to creatively-choreographed moving slideshows of charcoal drawings) on exhibit at MCA Chicago. Felix Teitlebaum, one of the heroes of the 8-minute-43-second film, looks a lot like the artist, observes many of the horrors of apartheid in a surreal sequence that sees artwork come alive and corpses turn into the landscape.
(For those seeking more information about Felix, there seems to be a dispute about how to spell the latter name. MCA Chicago, the Jewish Daily Forward, TIME, and San Francisco Chronicle opt for "Teitlebaum," while Britannica and the Jewish Museum spell it "Teitelbaum.")
Soho Eckstein, a business man who is the anti-hero of History of the Main Complaint, spends most of the film being treated by an increasingly large group of doctors in a hospital. As he lies in the hospital bed -- wearing his businessman's uniform, a pinstripe suit -- Eckstein's mind wanders to apartheid atrocities. At times, his organs become various tools, such as a typewriter and an ink blotter.
That's a very different invocation of the typewriter than Zaatari's, but there's at least one major overlap. Most typewriter -- and computer -- users probably think they are imposing their will on their device. They may occasionally shake their fists at the tool, which is supposed to make things easier, when the keys jam, or the computer crashes. But through Kentridge's and Zaatari's lenses, one can begin to get more of a sense of the ways that typewriters (and similar communications tools) shape their users. Perhaps the matter of who is controlling whom is a bit more of a two-way street.