William Kentridge: Revelling In The Theatre Of Time

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William Kentridge: Revelling In The Theatre Of Time
November 15, 2016
O Sentimental Machine 2015 CREDIT: COURTESY WILLIAM KENTRIDGE, MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, GOODMAN GALLERY AND LIA RUMMA GALLERY

 

Leading South African artist William Kentridge's exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is a dazzlingly immersive, carnivalesque experience of film, sculpture, drawings, sound and animation that grapples with vast ideas of time, space, humanity and history while being utterly irresistible to audiences of all ages and inclinations. It may encompass the Russian Revolution, Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the operas of Shostakovich but this is also a show that revels in theatre and spectacle and is an ideal one to bring the kids to. 

The Refusal of Time with collaboration of Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison CREDIT: COURTESY WILLIAM KENTRIDGE, MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, GOODMAN GALLERY AND LIA RUMMA GALLERY
 

The overall title is Thick Time and time, its nature and passing, always a preoccupation for Kentridge, is one of the main themes. The Refusal of Time is a room-filling audio-visual installation in which a bizarre wooden 'breathing machine' is surrounded by a flood of collaged images, brush-stroke animation and live-action footage projected across five screens. Giant megaphones mounted on tripods blast out a sound track of speech and music as metronomes tick and a parade of silhouetted figures process and dance around the walls.

The Refusal of Time with collaboration of Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison, 2012 CREDIT: COURTESY WILLIAM KENTRIDGE, MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, GOODMAN GALLERY AND LIA RUMMA GALLERY

 

"It's really about the expansion and contraction of time in the studio," the artist says. "The world comes into the studio, it gets taken apart and worked on and then gets sent back out into the world." He also adds that although string theory, black holes and cosmology all form part of the mind boggling mix, he is more concerned with "the use of metaphors of science rather than the science itself...the metaphors science uses are always deeply about human conditions."

 

The son of leading anti-apartheid lawyers (his father defended Nelson Mandela and represented the family of Steve Biko), the 61-year-old Kentridge first attracted international attention in the early Nineties with an important series of allegorical animations which examined his native South Africa's political upheavals filtered through his own personal memories, stories and experiences.

The Nose (with Strawberries) 2012 Tapestry weave with embroidery CREDIT: COURTESY WILLIAM KENTRIDGE, MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, GOODMAN GALLERY AND LIA RUMMA GALLERY

 

Kentridge is still based in Johannesburg and believes that growing up as a white, Jewish South African with parents who were at the heart of the struggle against apartheid gave him a belief in "mixed traditions, in societies made up of very different impulses, of the fundamental instability of the world rather than its stability and of the central point of the absurd."

 

All of the above are strongly evident in the Whitechapel show, especially the love of the absurd, which pops up throughout, especially in his most recent work, Right into her Arms (2016). Here a miniature model theatre contains projected images, drawings and props, beaming out like a magic lantern that channels the spirit of Dada and breathes cheeky life into the most inanimate of objects - even two pieces of wood become outrageous flirts. 

The Refusal of Time with collaboration of Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison CREDIT: COURTESY WILLIAM KENTRIDGE, MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, GOODMAN GALLERY AND LIA RUMMA GALLERY

 

His early films also established Kentridge's trademark stop-motion method based on the repeated making, erasing and then remaking of expressionist charcoal drawings, whilst preserving every addition and erasure. Significantly he still calls his films "drawings for projection", and while Kentridge may now have branched out into multifarious media, drawing still remains at the core of everything he does. 

 

His brilliant graphic talent links all the different elements of this exhibition: whether in the mural-scale tapestries based on Shostakovich's opera The Nose; the woman's figure blocked out in masking tape on the steps leading to the upper galleries, or in the drawings made directly onto the pages of an old Oxford dictionary which appear and then vanish like fleeting ideas in a small, spellbinding cinematic flip-book called Second Hand Reading (2013).

Second Hand Reading 2013 Flipbook film from drawings on single pages of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary CREDIT: COURTESY WILLIAM KENTRIDGE, MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, GOODMAN GALLERY AND LIA RUMMA GALLERY

 

As well as studying politics and then fine art in Johannesburg, Kentridge was also a student of mime and theatre with Jacques Lecoq in Paris in the early Eighties. (He recently said that he learned more about drawing from studying human movement and physical theatre than he did from any art lessons.) He continues to work in theatre and opera and this week saw the opening at the English National Opera of his brilliant interpretation of Alban Berg's classic early 20th century opera Lulu which Kentridge both directed and designed. 

Lulu at the English National Opera CREDIT: CATHERINE ASHMORE

 

Here, in the brilliant costumes, props and sets which include projected film, more drawings and animation, his multilayered approach and love of European Modernism Expressionism, Dada and silent film are all given full throttle. Few artists excel in the theatre as well as in the gallery, and I strongly recommend that you catch both modes of this exceptional artist if you can. 

 

William Kentridge: Thick Time is at Whitechapel Gallery until 15 January. Lulu is at the London Coliseum until 19 November 

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