Two film installations by William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance and Notes Toward a Model Opera, are currently on view at Marian Goodman Gallery and well worth a trek into midtown. Black-and-white animation drawn by hand and painstakingly constructed–so recognizable as the artist’s aesthetic–here gets a jolt of music, filmed actors, and, in the latter, color. The artist’s layered, complex approach to film here speaks to the broader sociopolitical contexts of migration and revolution.
Across a set of screens running the length of a room, disparate characters form a jangly, disconcerting procession in More Sweetly Play the Dance. Walking, dancing, limping, or strutting, these largely silhouetted forms brings a macabre energy to what resembles a funeral procession with the weird energy of a brass band propelling it. In addition to musicians, there are dancers in traditional African dress and people on medical drips. Kentridge’s trademark charcoal stop-motion animations form the backdrop for the silhouetted characters, who are like shadows on a forced march. The work functions not as a representation of a specific funeral as much as metaphor for the forces of migration. It feels apt to the current refugee crisis, and Kentridge, born in 1955 in Johannesburg to liberal Jewish parents who were active anti-apartheid attorneys, does not shy away from the sociopolitical. Indeed, meditations on subjects like apartheid in his native South Africa have appeared in his non-linear narratives with a beautiful obliqueness.
Notes Toward a Model Opera takes China’s cultural revolution as its subject matter, keying off of Madame Mao’s Eight Model Revolutionary Operas–what was allowed as popular entertainment in China during Mao’s reign. Kentridge reckons with the promise of this historical moment in China with a flurry of political slogans from the failed revolution, maps, and documentary photographs of deprivation against which figures proclaim, dance, or sing in the foreground. Images such as a bird drawn in charcoal flying across all three screens act as momentary pauses in this rush of imagery.
Notes Toward a Model Opera implicates a contemporary South Africa and revolution writ large in addition to China’s cultural revolution through a multivalent set of signs. The same dancer from More Sweetly Play the Dance, the noted South African ballerina Dada Masilo, appears here with a rifle in pointe shoes, dancing in front of maps with China characters and slogans in English. Her costume suggests a military uniform and her gestures suggests combat as much as ballet. Text and image, English and Chinese, live dancer and documentary photo, merge in and out to a changing soundtrack. The great promises of the revolution are presented as a cacophony of paper fragments and chants. Instead of complete, as Madame Mao made her operas, Kentridge’s work remains open-ended–only “Notes”–as if acknowledging the impossibility of ever completing the utopian project of cultural revolution.
The exhibition is on view at Marian Goodman gallery through February 20, 2016.