By Ben Messih
I was first introduced to the work of South African artist William Kentridge in 2008 at the 16th Biennale of Sydney. Kentridge’s works, I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008; installation of eight film fragments, DVCAM, HDV transferred to video) and What will come (has already come) (2007; steel table, cylindrical steel mirror, 35mm animated film transferred to video) were exhibited in the beautifully derelict Cockatoo Island. These installations – amongst Kentridge’s most accomplished to date – had a profound impact on me: technically masterful, poignant, satirical and insightful. The language of Kentridge moved me as I had never been moved by a work of art before. Subsequently, four years after first falling in love with his political, poetic synthesis I found myself at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) to revisit his work in the acclaimed major traveling retrospective William Kentridge: Five Themes.
ACMI’s incarnation of Five Themes represents the eighth manifestation of the internationally traveled 2009 exhibition – a joint production of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Norton Museum of Art, Florida. The exhibition, a brave undertaking by curator Mark Rosenthal, examines the prolific career of William Kentridge between 1979 and 2008, fragmenting it into five easily digested tangential themes: ‘Ubu and the procession’, ‘Soho and Felix’, ‘The Artist in the studio’, ‘The Magic flute’ and finally, ‘The Nose’.
I found myself promptly submerged in the first of the five themes: ‘Ubu and the Procession’ and, considering the tremendous aspirations of the exhibition, I was thankful there was no mucking around. Kentridge uses this body of work to examine the events and consequences of South Africa’s 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which existed to give light to the human rights violations under Apartheid, the events of which run as an undercurrent throughout Kentridge’s entire oeuvre. As such, ‘Ubu and the Procession’ can be seen as a logical launching point into Five Themes. ‘Ubu and the Procession’ is confrontational, diverse, and powerfully moving. Through works such as Shadow Procession (1999; 35mm animated film transferred to video) and Portage (2000; collage on book pages), we are instantly exposed to Kentridge’s penchant for the theatrical and his passion for social justice through a developed exploration of colonial oppression, dispossession and the human condition.
Kentridge’s second thematic drive, ‘Soho and Felix’, primarily takes shape in the praised Nine drawings for projection (1989 -2003; 35mm and 16mm animated film transferred to video) - a fragmented narrative examining life in Apartheid South Africa through the eyes of the fictional characters Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum. Soho and Felix are juxtaposed characters; each other’s alter egos; each a reflection of the artist’s self- perception; each cast in the artist’s own image. Eight large-scale charcoal production drawings line the walls, providing a glimpse into Kentridge’s labour-intensive animation process.
‘The Artist in the Studio’ represents William Kentridge at his most self-reflective. This fragment of his practice depicts Kentridge examining the processes that culminate in the production of his work. In Seven Fragments for George Méliès (2003; installation of seven film fragments, 35mm and 16mm animated film transferred to video) [fig.2], Kentridge pays homage to one of his major cinematic influences in a series of cleverly manipulated films produced exclusively in his studio. Kentridge has reversed the process of his production in these works by placing the emphasis on his practice of construction. The films are presented with the support of an excellent array of prints and drawings that enhance our understanding of the relationship between the artist and his studio.
Just as gallery fatigue starts to set in, we are led to Kentridge’s exploration of Mozart’s 1791 opera The Magic Flute. The theatrette is set up with the Preparing the Flute (2005; model theatre with drawings, 35mm animated film transferred to video) and Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005; model theatre with drawings, mechanical puppets, 35mm animated film transferred to video) installations set across the room from each other with Learning the Flute (2003; 35mm animated film transferred to video and projected on blackboard) mediating the two large model theatres. ‘The Magic Flute’ is intelligently formalised and represents the most inventively curated environment in the exhibition – instantly slapping the viewer out of any dawning visual-induced coma. The sequential progression of projections forces the audience to shift their viewpoint throughout the nearly hour-long experience in which Kentridge adopts the opera as a means to explore the dualities of light and dark, positive and negative, and good and evil.
‘The Nose’, Kentridge’s most recent body of work included in Five Themes, suitably closes the exhibition. The works act as a theatrical exploration of the short story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol (1835-36) and the play of the same name by Dmitri Shostakovich (1927-28). Kentridge has used ‘The Nose’ as a vehicle to examine the short lived Russian Constructivist movement, which was crushed under Stalinist Russia. Culminating with the extraordinary I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) [fig.3], ‘The Nose’ throws back to Kentridge’s earlier work in his use of the procession motif and his interlacing of animation and live action footage. Kentridge describes the work as an ‘elegy… both for the formal artistic language that was crushed in the 1930s and for the possibilities of human transformation that so many hoped for and believed in during the revolution’. Thus, a profound conceptual parallel is drawn to his personal experiences in Post-Apartheid South Africa.
Spatially, Five Themes takes form in ACMI’s gallery one – an isolated corridor-like space several levels below the bustling foyer of the Federation Square institution. A title projection of an awkwardly candid Kentridge pacing around his studio greets patrons before they descend to the serene, spotlit space below. Five theatrette rooms are strategically positioned along the elongated, weaving space, each housing projections pertaining to their respective theme.
Ten audio-guide hotspots are marked throughout the show, a fact that I was reminded of constantly as the elderly couple keeping pace with me evidently forgot to bring their headphones. A tastefully designed – but suspiciously well-written – ‘Follow the Nose’ kids trail is sporadically spread throughout the show, designed to engage children with interpretations from sixth-grade students. Credits at the end of each projection tie Kentridge to the cinematic art form and act as signifiers of a new fragment within the projected film series.
William Kentridge’s bleak colour palette of smudged greys, intensely contrasted black and white and sparsely used, yet highly charged hints of red and blue pastel is intelligently presented against the soft grey walls of the space. The almost total lack of seating throughout the general exhibition space – the exception being a large rotund lounge in front of the monumental Drawing for Il Sole 24 Ore [World walking] (2007; charcoal, gouache, pastel, and coloured pencil on paper) [fig.4]- gives the exhibition a notable sense of flow and aids in placing the curatorial emphasis on the works presented in the five unlit theatrette rooms.
The thematic structure of Five Themes prepares us to best understand the depth, ingenuity and complexity of William Kentridge’s practice. In successfully classifying the artist’s work into five primary categories – or fragments – we are positioned to observe that Kentridge, much like his multidisciplinary predecessor Pablo Picasso, never truly abandons a theme. Instead he allows it to run as an undercurrent, occasionally resurfacing years later; perhaps further developed as in the works of ‘The Artist in the Studio’, or as another chapter in an unfolding narrative, as exemplified in ‘Soho and Felix’.
In Five Themes’ thematic categorisation, Rosenthal negates the need for a precise chronological hang, creating the ideal zones to contemplate Kentridge’s obsession with these five complexly interwoven yet simultaneously distinct narratives. Recurring motifs such as a dancing black cat, a rhinoceros and, notably, the procession form bridges between the work, enable connections to be easily drawn.
For me, the brilliance of the thematically grouped hang is best manifested in the powerfully affecting Nine Drawings for Projection (1989-2003), a series of nine short animations totaling just over an hour which form the nucleus of Kentridge’s ‘Soho and Felix’ exploration. Having previously viewed the final film in this series, Tide Table (2003; 35mm animated film transferred to video), in isolation as part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ contemporary collection, I was struck by how much better prepared I was to comprehend Kentridge’s motives when viewing the film here as a striking conclusion to the ‘Soho and Felix’ series. Tide Table depicts Soho, previously the conscienceless businessman profiting from the suffering of his fellow South Africans under Apartheid, begin a process of consideration or reflection. Soho does not achieve a resolute breakthrough as there is no metamorphosis. However, he becomes a metaphor for a South Africa still attempting to come to terms with its horrific and ugly past.
The exhibition successfully synthesises Kentridge’s juxtaposition of playful and serious, it speaks a language which enables the audience to best digest the arrestingly powerful, often difficult subject matter tackled by the artist, yet never risks simplifying the work. The beautiful, often whimsical soundscapes that accompany Kentridge’s projections diffuse through the surrounding rooms, contextualising and strengthening the prints, drawings and sculptural pieces on display whilst beckoning us into the almost sacred spaces of the theatrettes.
I realised on leaving Five Themes, a journey lasting nearly five hours, that I had been keeping pace with an elderly couple, a young family and a teenage couple out for a Sunday date, and was immediately struck by the exhibition’s success in this regard. What a joy it was to be able to actually stop and engage with the work and witness others doing the same. I recalled my experiences at recent ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, herded from room to room after a momentary glance at the works until finally being deposited into the gift shop. I am thankful that this experience was not trivialised, as appears to be the current trend amongst many major cultural institutions. ACMI’s superb treatment of the exhibition is to be commended.
Despite its tremendous strengths, including the technical brilliance demonstrated, the immense scope of the themes explored, the refined presentation and sensitivity instilled in the work by Rosenthal and the ACMI, on leaving Five Themes, I couldn’t ignore a niggling feeling of simply wanting more from the exhibition.
On reflection of the otherwise successful thematic curation, I came to realise that the passing of time has meant that the premise of William Kentridge: Five Themes is in itself problematic. No recent work is presented in Five Themes and no suggestions are given for what the prolific artist has been up to since the exhibition’s inception in 2009.
Has Kentridge continued to work within these fragments or has he explored new themes? Has the artist’s recent work been shunned to preserve Rosenthal’s curatorial integrity, to maximise the exhibition’s marketability, or to prolong the commercial lifespan of the accompanying catalogue? Why should exhibitions remain motionless when the world around them is perpetually changing, when artists are still creating?
Perhaps the more pressing question to ask is whether or not these issues of context and relevance should overshadow an otherwise superbly crafted and curated exhibition? Are Rosenthal, Kentridge and the ACMI asking us to take the exhibition for what it is, a snapshot of a career’s work taken in 2009? Is this a fair question to ask of us? Or do we as the audience deserve more from our curators, our artists, our institutions?
The work contained within William Kentridge: Five Themes is undoubtedly amazing. Kentridge is masterful in his incredible ability to explore universal experiences through deeply personal narratives. The nature of Kentridge’s practice, synthesising experiences and emotions at the core of the human condition enriches his work with a timeless quality. The same, however cannot be said of the fragmented curatorial hang, which at a time had perfectly supported the work of Kentridge, now threatens to weigh it down in static irrelevance.
William Kentridge: Five Themes is on at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne until Sunday May 27, 2012.
References and further reading
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 2012, ACMI
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 2012, William Kentridge Five Themes
Basualdo, C., 2008. William Kentridge: Tapestries (Philadelphia Museum of Art), Yale University Press, Connecticut.
Cameron, D., 1999. William Kentridge, Phaidon Press, London.
Edelman, M., 1996. From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Gogol, N., MacAndrew A. (translator), 1961. The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories: The Nose; The Carriage; The Overcoat; Tara Bulba, Signet, New York.
Hausman, C., 1989. Metaphor and Art: Interactionism and Reference in the verbal and non-verbal arts, Cambridge University Press, New York.
Hecker, J., 2010. William Kentridge: Trace. Prints from the Museum of Modern Art’, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Herwitz, D., 2003. Race and Reconciliation: Essays from the New South Africa, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota.
Jacob, M.J., Grabner, M, 2010. The Studio Reader: On the Spaces of Artists, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Kentridge, W., Bernadac, M., 2011. Carnets D’Egypte, Editions Dilecta/Editions du Musee du Louvre, Paris.
Kentridge, W., 2011. Lexicon, ASAP, San Diego.
Kentridge, W., Galison, P., 2011. The Refusal of Time: 100 Notes: 100 Thoughts:
Documenta Series 009, Hatje Cantz.
Marschall, S., 2000. A Postcolonial Reading of Mural Art in South Africa, Critical Arts: South-North
Cultural and Media Studies. Volume 14, Issue 2. pp. 96-121
Marschall, S., 1999. The Impact of the two Johannesburg Biennales (1995 and 1997) On the Formation of a New South African Art, Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies. Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 119-137
O’Doherty, B., 2007. Studio and Cube: On the Relationship Between Where Art is Made and Where it is Displayed, Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, FORuM Project, Princeton Architectural Press.
PBS, 2010. Art21 Presents William Kentridge: Anything is Possible, Duration: 60 minutes.
Rosenthal, M. [ed], 2009. William Kentridge Five Themes, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Norton Museum of Art in Association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
Rumma, L., 2011. William Kentridge: Streets of the City, Mondadori Electa, Milan.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2009. William Kentridge Five Themes
Solomon, C., 1989. Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, Knopf, New York.
Williamson, S., 2009. South African Art Now, HarperCollins, New York.
[Figure 1] William Kentridge, portrait by Van der Merwe.
[Figure 2] William Kentridge, Invisible Mending (still), from 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, 2003; 35mm and 16mm animated film transferred to video, 1:20 min.; Collection of the artist, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg; © 2010 William Kentridge; photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.
[Figure 3] William Kentridge, A Lifetime of Enthusiasm (still), from the installation I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008; Eight-channel video projection, DVCAM and HDV transferred to video, 6:01 min.; Collection of the artist, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg; © 2010 William Kentridge; photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.
[Figure 4] William Kentridge, Drawing for II Sole 24 Ore [World Walking], 2007; Charcoal, gouache, pastel, and colored pencil on paper; 84 x 59 in. (213.5 x 150 cm); Collection of the artist, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg; © 2010 William Kentridge; photo: courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York .
 William Kentridge, 2009.William Kentridge: Five Themes, p 205
Tags: 2012, 3MBS, ACMI, Animation, Apartheid, Artwrite, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Avant Card, Ben Messih, Biennale of Sydney, BoS, Charcoal, Dmitri Shostakovich, Drawings, Federation Square, Five Themes, George Méliès, K5, Mark Rosenthal, Master of Art Administration, Melbourne, Melbourne Airport, Nikolai Gogol, Post-Apartheid, SAHT9112, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, SFMoMA, Soho and Felix, South Africa, State Government of Victoria, The Age, The Artist in the studio, the Magic Flute, The Monthly, The Norton Museum of Art, The Nose, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ubu and the Procession, University of New South Wales, UNSW, William Kentridge, Writing for Different Cultures