William Kentridge: Five Themes at MoMA

You will have heard, or will read upon entering, that William Kentridge: Five Themes shows the South African artist dealing with themes of apartheid prominently in his work. This bland statement hardly explains or does justice to the artist’s poetic and humane explorations of aparthied in South Africa, nor does it encompass his whole oervre. The sobering themes in his work are mediated through dreamy moments that are compelling without being overwhelming.

The beginning two themes show the explorations of apartheid that the artist is renowned for, as well as the dexterity with which he turns the most basic video techniques into a moving storyline. The first two videos show the use of silhouettes traveling across a landscape, immediately recalling Kara Walker’s work, with its similar content based upon slavery in the US, to mind. Kentridge’s work is not angry or jarring, but requited resigned and saddened by history, as his figures plod on.

“I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing–the contingent way that images arrive in the work–lies some kind of model of how we live our lives. The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world.”

Video, with its demands for narrative, sound, and movement, is complex and the artist handles it with an apparent simplicity and hand-made feel that if touching. The artist works in black charcoal on white paper, smudging his way from one drawing to the next to create an illusion of movement. This time consuming process constantly shows a trace of what was, which becomes emotionally affecting and markedly individual. Sparse color and apt music lends a poignancy to the troubled episodes of the protagonists. Rather than slick production techniques, the humble use of video technology lends authenticity and personalization to the images.

Kentridge is like a lyric short story writer, with a Surrealist touch and Absurdist undertone. The video series that follows the characters of Soho Eckstein, Mrs. Eckstien, and Felix Teitlebaum through South African life in the last years of apartheid put a human face on a larger suffering. Symbolic details of fish and telephones gain meaning as you proceed through the projection rooms. The artist refuse to plan his storylines, relying on the spontaneity of the process to see him through, and that saves him from being pedantic or overly pointed. Instead, there is a flow of ideas that seem like a dream of consciousness, a consciousness of guilt and overwhelming pain and struggle. The lonely, melancholy atmosphere is utterly absorbing as the charcoal marks on the page flow and burst in emotional turmoil.

The artist at his best in his animations, but less so in the drawings he makes them from. The drawings on the whole are unmoving, and less skilled than his work in action. Glancing at them on your way into the darkened theatres is enough. Then take a seat and get comfortable, for this work is not meant to be rushed.

The middle room, the third theme is the studio, shows a series of seven ongoing film fragments on all sides. Take a seat on the bench and be prepared to swivel your head for a good look. These short videos feature Kentridge himself in the starring role as artist hero and conjurer. At their best they are touching studies of the creative process, and at their worst, convey an image of Kentridge as a magician performing cheap tricks like playing the film backwards.

“Walking, thinking, stalking the image, Many of the hours spent in the studio are hours of walking, pacing back and forth across the space gathering the energy, the clarity to make the first mark…It is as if before the work can begin (the visible, finished work of the drawing, film, or sculpture) a different, invisible work must be done.”

The final two sections are dedicated to theatrical performances he has designed. The first is the Black Box that Kentridge derived from the stage set he did for a production of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. If the preceding room gave the impression of the artist’s wizardry, then this confirms it. In a darkened room on the hour, a miniature stage on a box with moving doors and objects acting in tandem with projected light and cutouts, the tale of magic and dominance is clearly unfolding under a master’s hand. It is engrossing, even if the mechanics never quite fade into the suspension of disbelief. The last room is designated to his work designing The Nose for the Metropolitan Opera, and here, much as with Kentridge’s drawings, one feels the remains are just that: remainders of what might indeed be a spectacular visual feast in action. I wish I had the chance to see it.

On view at MoMA through May 17. If you cannot visit the museum, YouTube has an excellent selection of the artist’s films and there are two interview with the artist here and here. Kentridge was also a focus of Art:21’s Season Five Episode Compassion.

3 thoughts on “William Kentridge: Five Themes at MoMA

  1. This was one of the most moving shows I have seen in a while, thank you for covering it. I had to immediately show my husband the videos on utube, which unfortunately didn’t have the same impact. Great review, thanks.

  2. Thanks JafaBrit!

    I agree it was an excellent show all around–I like them on YouTube a lot, but yes, watching the videos full screen with good sound is affecting.

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