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.
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.
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?