William Kentridge is an inescapably South African artist, born in Johannesburg in 1955 during the apartheid era. His parents, both attorneys, represented some of those marginalised by the racist regime of segregation implemented by the National Party in 1948, and finally defeated in 1994 with the election of celebrated African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela as President. This history casts a long shadow over his work, as it does with so many other facets of life in South Africa, and commentators have pointed out that a broad understand of the nation’s complicated (and often traumatic) history is something of a prerequisite for understanding much of his practice.
While this certainly feels true of the works that make up Thick Time, the retrospective of recent multi-media installation currently showing at Whitechapel Gallery in London, arguably as important is a grounding in 20th Century art and film history. Kentridge is known for a series of recurring motifs and figures, something which has evolved out of a unique approach which encompasses drawing, film, animation, stage and set design, sculpture and performance among other things. Moving through the installations on display across both levels of the gallery, his signature aesthetics can be overwhelming at times, while the moving image components in particular reveal a deep affinity and appreciation for early 20th Century cinema in both technique and presentation.
On the ground floor of the space, the exhibition opens with the mammoth The Refusal of Time. Incorporating five screens, a large central kinetic sculptural piece and smaller sculptural elements, the installation also boasts a dynamic multi-channel soundtrack composed by Philip Miller. Adding bellicose horns alongside other orchestral flourishes and sung/spoken word segments, the piece is one of several collaborations with Miller throughout the exhibition. Figures dance and move across the screens, while texts and pages of books flip as if turned by invisible hands. In a theme revisited elsewhere in Thick Time, the pace and repercussions of technological development are explored here in terms both advanced human understanding, but also human loss. Arguably one of the most memorable moments in the whole show is the transformation of one body of figures from dancing carnival band to downtrodden refugees. Much of the action takes place either in labs or studios, hinting at a kind of performative element that moves beyond the simple object being created into a wider antagonism of process; questions of the how and why permeate, and perhaps most pressingly of all, at what cost?
Beyond this first installation towards the back of the downstairs gallery space the curator has installed a series of Kentridge’s Tapestries, made in collaboration with Stephen’s Tapestry Studios in Diepsloot, Johannesburg. The figure of the horse is one of the artist’s most striking recurrent motifs and in these massive pieces they are juxtaposed against old maps, simultaneously evoking notions of nomadic story telling and colonial histories of expansion. The horses bring to mind the statues found in capital cities all over Europe, the rider atop usually a King or conquering military figure, while the tapestries are cleverly linked here to a library containing a selection of Kentridge’s artist books, exhibition catalogues and monographs. The combination of the woven maps, the statues and the long reading desks recall the old libraries and halls where much of the world was drawn and redrawn by European powers, emphasising the political critique at the heart of the artist’s work.
In a small room past the Tapestry Library is the short film Second-Hand Reading, created by repurposing a Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and several other texts as canvases, and then drawing over the top of them. The artist appears as a slowly pacing figure; hands in pockets, head down, meditative. The familiar tree and bird patterns, horns and other figures all move in and out of the film, while Neo Muyanga’s gorgeous score pulsates slowly beneath the action. In hindsight, the film offers perhaps the most contemplative moment in the whole exhibition, the throb of the images creating a mood that echoes the artist’s slow, reflective stride. The political elements found elsewhere in Thick Time are by no means absent however. Slogans appear like manifesto headings; ‘Let the Drama Begin at the End,’ ‘End with Love,’ while the drawings slowly fade and morph throughout.
Upstairs, Right Into Her Arms is the exhibition’s strongest nod to Kentridge’s work with puppetry, theatre and set design, and in particular his work with Opera. The sculpture combines moving panels, text and video projections made during workshops for a production of Alban Berg’s Lulu in 2015, alongside a soundtrack which features Ursonate by Dada artist Kurt Schwitters and compositional work from Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg (Berg’s contemporaries from Austria). The basis of so much of the work is steeped in early 20th Century European modernism, yet the moving image component brings in familiar South African elements through costuming and movement.
The seven screen film work 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès is combined with a pair of stand-alone films, Day For Night and Journey To The Moon (the latter a reference to Méliès’ ‘A Trip to the Moon from 1902). Here, a slightly dizzying cornucopia of Kentridge’s motifs and familiar visual elements all appear in a kind of vast symphony. The horns which appear in almost every other room feature, as do stovetop coffee pots (one actually serves as the rocket which heads to the moon). Charcoal and ink flourishes, repurposed books slowly torn apart in reverse, and recurring film techniques like stop-motion and animation are also utilised. In the accompanying text, reference is made to the performative legacy of artists like Jackson Pollock and Bruce Nauman, whose movements in their studios merge with the laboratories and engine rooms found in the central installation downstairs. The site of production and enactments of technological development are all at play here, reinforced by Kentridge’s own performative activities in his studio. His wife Anne Stanwix also cameos in Journey to the Moon, playing the archetypal studio nude and muse, never acknowledged by the artist but inescapably present. The creative process qua process is under examination, with multiple microscopes probing the different but interconnected workings of the site of production. Meanwhile Philip Miller’s soundtrack mirrors the live piano music which used to accompany silent films in their heyday, again adding further performative elements.
The final installation work, entitled O Sentimental Machine, brings much of the underlying political commentary in Kentridge’s other work to the fore. One of the five screens features the exiled Soviet politician Leon Trotsky delivering a speech, comically mimicked by the artist (resplendent with a fake Trotsky goatee) on another screen as he dictates his manifesto to a studious but seemingly overworked secretary. On the other panels, hallmarks of industrial development like typewriters and cameras slowly sink beneath rising waters, crucial touchstones of 20th Century development becoming ‘history’ (with all loaded significations implicit) before our very eyes. The ubiquitous horn motif serves here as both director’s and politician’s megaphone. The link between these mechanical advancements and the political turmoil of the times is pervasive in Kentridge’s installations, and here the artist hones in on these observations explicitly.
Thick Time is a difficult show to write about, not least of all because the incredibly intricate and visually stunning installations are but a snapshot of what for the artist has been a long and multifaceted career. This is not a retrospective of Kentridge, so much as a curated selection from a particular (and recent) part of his diverse oeuvre. The gallery makes a point of informing visitors of the immersive nature of the exhibition, advising them to leave at least one hour and thirty minutes to fully experience the show. In hindsight, that would be at a minimum. The sheer depth of his aesthetic approach and the sometimes subtle political references to his homeland can make it difficult to really access everything that there is to experience in these works, but this is by no means a criticism of the work or the artist. Rather it’s a necessary acknowledgement that William Kentridge’s work is a multi-layered exploration of the technological and the political, the lyrical and the geographic, the historical and the contemporary. To really understand what is happening here, inevitably it’s going to take some time.
By Will Gresson