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William Kentridge @ SFMOMA

If anyone doubts the importance of William Kentridge, “Five Themes,” a sprawling exhibition at SFMOMA through May 31, establishes him as one of the most profound artists working today.  During his 30-year career, the South African artist has created and directed operas, designed sets, cast bronze sculpture, animated shadow puppets and worked as an actor; and he channels that experience into films that grab at the subconscious and don’t let go. This is one the strongest shows the museum has ever mounted.  

Untitled Artist and Model Drawing
Drawing is the core of Kentridge’s art. He does it prolifically and obsessively, but not always with commanding distinction – at least not in the works that he erases and re-works for his films. Most of the 48 (mostly charcoal) drawings on view here have the feel of the quickly rendered studies, which in fact they are. His best drawings, the one viewers are likely to really savor, are his self-portraits. They appear in various guises, the strongest of which invert artist-model relationships in a powerful Expressionist style. 
Kentridge’s real power, though, derives from the way he combines drawing and stagecraft in stop-animation films that deal with the unfinished business of the 20th century: namely, humanity’s unchecked record of racist violence and cruelty. If Freud and Marx loom large, Kentridge tells us it’s because we don’t understand our own psyches, nor have we figured out a way to equitably divide the world’s riches so that war stops being the planet’s most reliable growth industry. 
Ubu and the Procession
Yes, there’s some grim and unsettling stuff in this show – like the human rights abuses depicted in films like “Ubu and the Procession,” one of several Kentridge takes on Apartheid based on Alfred Jarry’s 1888 satiric play “Ubu Roi” about a deranged despot. But such images are tempered by so much playfulness and graphic inventiveness that we rarely experience anything horrific for a sustained period. Kentridge turns hand-drawn images into surrealist-inspired films that unfold like dreams, accompanied by Philip Miller‘s extraordinary original music.
Central to everything Kentridge does is the idea of moral relativity — that good and evil stand at opposite ends of a slippery continuum. That notion, when applied to artistic decision-making, means no work of art is ever finished. To demonstrate, Kentridge runs nine projections simultaneously on the walls of a large installation called “The Artist in the Studio”. In it, drawings animate, mutate and self destruct; a spilled cup of coffee morphs into an abstract painting; an animate cloth wipes ink off paper like a magnet attracting iron fillings; and the artist (on film) engages in feats of telekinesis. This light-hearted and hilarious opening act positions Kentridge, somewhat hyperbolically, as a wizard. But it’s no exaggeration: Each of the four “themes” that follows is epic in scope and massively inventive in technique and presentation. 
Scenes from Ubu Tells the Truth
“Shadow Procession” begins with a parade of puppets whose silhouetted infirmities and burdens recall every migration of nomads and refugees in human history. It sets the tone for the companion film, “Ubu Tells the Truth,” whose protagonist, Ubu, (looking pretty much like Jarry’s original woodcut) becomes a hideous composite of Mussolini, Adi Amin and Mr. Potato Head. He gesticulates psychotically and shape-shifts into forms that stand in for the repressive tools of Apartheid: a surveillance camera, a machine gun, a helicopter and a rotating (Dali-like) eyeball. These forms are intercut with news footage of police quelling demonstrations and stop-animation drawings of brutality– all set to a global soundtrack (Hawaiian, Cajun, delta blues, township jive, Afro-beat) that injects an incessant rhythm and a necessary tragicomic counterpoint to the visuals. In the final sequence, when the camera backs away from a skyscraper to reveal scenes of abuse in each of the building’s windows, state-sponsored terror isn’t an abstract idea; it’s a palpable fact.
While Kentridge is painfully aware of the havoc wreaked by ideologies that have run amok, he’s also attracted to the utopian visions that accompanied them, specifically those of the Russian avant-garde before Stalin crushed it. In “Learning From the Absurd: The Nose,” a series of films loosely based around Nikolai Gogol’s story about a St. Petersburg official who loses his nose to a higher-ranking apparatchik, he fills the walls with

A Lifetime of Enthusiam — from The Nose

propagandistic graphics that gleefully dance before our eyes, asserting the optimism of the movement. Red-tinged, collaged and geometrically sharp-edged, they feel fresh and revolutionary even now. In contrast, documentary footage of Russian workers marching in a parade and a projection of dialog from the interrogation of Nikolai Bukharin by the Communist Party’s Central Committee cast a pall: the parade because we know how so many workers’ lives ended; the “trial” because it demonstrates how the Soviet system extinguished the souls of even its most loyal lieutenants. As for the nose itself, the most telling sequence has Kentridge climbing (and repeatedly falling down) a staircase wearing an outsized nose over his head like a giant mask. It’s a Sisyphean metaphor for the thwarted aspirations of any number of failed states.

The Nose
If this sounds unrelentingly bleak, it’s not. At least not the way Kentridge presents it. With eight projections running simultaneously, you can walk around the room and assemble the fragments however you like. Or, you can stand in one spot and watch any film from beginning to end. Kentridge may throw down a gauntlet of sorts with weighty, historic material, but he never manipulates conclusions; the very lack of structure in these films compels viewers to build their own narratives. 
The two most innovative examples of this are the two “theatre boxes” he created as studies for his staging of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. The storyline, which is only hinted at, seems almost beside the point; it’s the melding of animated drawing and computer-assisted “choreography” that makes these presentations compelling. Modeled on the layering of bellows in an old view camera, each
Country Dances
box consists of painted “columns” onto which film is projected from both front and rear. This creates a receding perspective and the illusion of multiple scrims hanging at varying depths. Add in mechanical shadow puppets that enter and exit from the sides of the “stage” (as they do in “Black Box”) and you have, well, a lot of moving parts through which the racial politics of South Africa (and the rest of the continent) play out. But these are not polemics. Kentridge mixes in so much abstract imagery that the presentations quickly migrate into a poetic, dream-like realm from which it’s hard to awaken. 
"Theater Boxes" — The Magic Flute
Somewhat ironically, it’s Kentridge’s earliest, least technologically complex series of animated drawings, “Thick Time: Soho and Felix,” that proves to be the most dream-like — and the most emotionally charged. These nine films, which run serially, concern two characters: Soho Eckstein, a greedy industrialist with a troubled conscience, a crumbling empire and a wayward wife, and Felix Teitlebaum, a homeless aesthete who longs for and eventually becomes Mrs. Eckstein’s lover. Against a backdrop of environmental degradation and popular unrest, Soho’s health and wealth vanish and — contrary to expectation — we feel his pain. We feel it because of Kentridge’s technique. He presents an image, modifies it, wipes it away, and then replaces it with something else to suggest in a pure and very literal form, the fluid nature of thought, memory, feeling and life itself – all in granular, textured forms that dissolve, one-into-another, like melting snowflakes.
Scenes from Thick Time: Soho and Felix
Many people left “Thick Time” and the other installations with moist eyes, and not because they fell for cheap sentimentality, but because the films replicate and stimulate the workings of the unconscious mind, allowing us to associate images and events according to our needs. That they make such pointed statements through what is essentially a loose, improvisational process is a testament to the artist’s consummate skill and vision. 
The overall effect is like drinking straight from a bottle. You may leave a little wobbly, but you’re better off for having done so. 
Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, “The Nose,” directed by William Kentridge, opens March 5, 2010 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Watch William Kentridge videos on youtube.



One Response to “William Kentridge @ SFMOMA”

  1. DeWitt Cheng says:

    Nice piece, David! The Kentridge show’s intellectual and moral intricacies are well served by your perceptive, graceful and informative writing.

    However, I take a less favorable view of the show, for what it’s worth, while agreeing that it is absolutely mandatory viewing. The refugee film and the bronzes were simply amazing, granted, and worth another trip to SFMOMA, but the film trickery in the other videos was a bit too much of a Cocteau rerun for my taste, “Blood of a Poet” plus fourscore and ten. Mixing surrealism and politics is a high-risk esthetic gamble. When it works, it’s magnificent (e.g., Goya’s Caprichos and Disparates; Sue Coe); when it doesn’t, when the visual imagination and the moral sense are not in synch, the surrealism debases the nightmare of history into perverse entertainment (e.g., the nauseous/noxious mixture of fairy tales and Nazi sadism in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or the silly blasphemy of certain surrealists or performance artists). It seems to me that Kentridge falls into the trap of over-estheticizing, of being a bit too arty, when a little more journalism/history would anchor the work to reality (as in Heartfield, who found exact visual analogues for political crises). In addition, many of Kentridge’s drawings/prints are unsatisfying as static images, suggesting, unsurprisingly, stills from films, but not particularly definitive or memorable slices of that artform. Does anyone remember these as striking images, rather than as embodied strategies?

    On the other hand, in this promiscuous media age with its historical amnesia, who can complain if WK manages to keep Jarry, Gogol and Bukharin culturally alive?


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