A major exhibition of the renowned South African artist currently at the Whitechapel gallery London features his work from 2003 to the present. The show comprises of six audio visual installations but it is impossible to see them as separate entities given the overall immersive nature of the show and the recurring themes and motifs.
The first of these is ‘The refusal of time’ (2012) a thirty minute meditation on time, relativity and fate. A curious wooden structure of breathing bellows, based on 19th century attempts to measure time, is pumping and cranking in the centre of the space. The surrounding screens carry a dance of flickering projections, collaged animations and film footage. Giant megaphones frequently appear in his installations and here they are blasting out an apocalyptic soundtrack composed by Philip Miller. The tick of the metronome, amongst the discarded maps and clocks, sets the rhythm for the show. But this in not an even, repetitive rhythm that guides us through the rooms with ease as we are constantly left disorientated.
He is covering a lot of ground in these installations – time, fate, desire, cosmology as well as revolutionary politics and colonialism.
A study visit with a group of OCA students raised more questions than answers. The responses ranged from bewilderment to fascination but the desire to unravel was overwhelming. Was this gratuitous sensory overload? No, there is clearly a message here and threads that connect the narratives. Some of which are political – as a white, Jewish south African whose parents were anti-apartheid lawyers, Kentridge has often referred to the political upheaval of his country through memory of experience.
But there is also a playful aspect and he is not afraid of humour, allowing his early training in mime and theatre to add a bit of slapstick alongside Dada-esque absurdity. A recent work ‘Right into her arms’ (2016) consists of a model theatre with projected images of live performers wearing frilly tutu’s and paper masks. This flirtation with the absurd does have a dark undercurrent but it is obvious that Kentridge has a joyful relationship with the possibilities of the theatrical.
In discussing his working practice, Kentridge explains ‘It’s really about the expansion and contraction of time in the studio, the world comes into the studio, it gets taken apart and worked on and then gets sent back out into the world.’ It is this pushing and pulling of time, as if on elastic that makes it difficult to pin down this narrative while at the same time making it compelling.
There is one quiet room in the show which contains some of his book works alongside the densely layered tapestries based on Shostakovich’s opera ‘The nose’. I spoke to two students here who were enjoying this haven of peace amongst the cacophony of sounds and images. They commented on the importance of his graphic skills and ability to draw with such sensitivity and how his drawings are embedded in the animations and projections. Indeed the artist himself refers to his films as ‘drawings for projection’. This awareness of the integrity of the hand drawn line has led to an intimacy that prevents these ambitious pieces of work from being coldly slick or detached. There is a charming analogue aspect, lyrical in places. This is particularly evident in his film ‘second hand reading’ where he transforms the oxford english dictionary into a flip-book of animated imagery in Indian ink.
Elsewhere, in the gallery we are led on a voyage to the moon, invited into Leon Trotsky’s office and confronted with the complexities of desire in early French cinema. If you find ourselves in London this winter, I recommend you to take this journey through time and space that can be found at the Whitechapel gallery until January 15 2017.
The refusal of time (2012)
Right into her arms (2016)
Second hand reading (2013)