William Kentridge: Last Days in San Francisco

By LIZ HAGER

Only two more viewing days remain before “William Kentridge: Five Themes” at SFMoMA moves on to its next venue.

It has taken me 6 weeks and 4 viewings of the show to feel as if I’ve even begun to appreciate this artist’s profound and wondrous imagination. It’s not that Kendridge’s work is hard to access; it’s that there is so very much to absorb. (The performances of The Magic Flute and Black Box, not to be missed under any circumstances, require 50 minutes alone.) More important, because Kentridge deals with non-trivial topics—tyranny, suffering, our notions of the heroic, seeing and perceiving the world, the destructiveness of modernity—it’s necessary to dive deeper into the work than one session permits.  Though the process of discovery takes time, ultimately reaching ever-deeper layers of meaning in this show has been supremely nourishing to the soul. This is art of the best kind; it has caused me to think about not only how the world is, but how it could be.

Kentridge’s exquisite drawings are ends in themselves, rather than means to an end in another medium.  Charcoal (the burnt stick so emblematic of Africa), black gouache and ink are his dominant tools. Black & white fits his subject matter well, and not just in terms of darkness and light, evil and hope. In their use, one sees an evocation of apartheid, a topic which has inhabited Kentridge’s artistic life for decades. Or the apposition of everything (black) with the reflection of everything (white), which speaks to the nature of perception, another Kentridge’s signature themes.

True, the drawings are exceptional works in their own right. But theater is embedded in Kentridge’s DNA, so it’s films and theatrical pieces that really make this exhibition sing. (Kentridge refers to his film as “drawings in four dimensions.”) Most of them are conceived as cells for his animated films or projections for his performed pieces.  Kentridge has no allegiance to the work; drawings are constantly erased and images re-invented. It’s a refreshing departure from the contemporary practice of holding every scribble sacred. (Picasso famously said: “Who am I to destroy what God’s gift has allowed me to create?”)

The emotional content of the installations covers broad ground. On the one hand, merriment is much in evidence (amidst angst) in the films of Kentridge at work that run in endless loops in the room designated “Artist in the Studio.” Papers fly through the air with the greatest of ease; creator melds seamlessly with his drawing; landscapes fall to the bottom of the page in heaps; the artist tries to leave his studio on a voyage to the moon. These films are simple (though not simplistic) and mesmerizing. We meditate on the joys and tribulations of making art.

On the other hand, Black Box is a dense and disturbing darkness. The artist has conjured up a multi-media interpretation of the German conquest and subjugation of present-day Namibia. Paired with The Magic Flute installation, Black Box is the dark side of the Enlightenment; it brings to life the 19th century Euro-centric (racist) view of non-Europeans as undeveloped in need of colonial oversight. It’s a view that hasn’t entirely disappeared from the world.

Elegant mechanized figures perform their lament to animation and music. If you have been through the rest of the exhibition before arriving at Black Box, many of the characters and images here will be reassuringly familiar. They are Kentridge’s icons, windows into his complex cosmos.

Though the subject matter is dark, Black Box is not all darkness. There’s a small measure of comfort in the hand-drawn animation; against the backdrop of anonymous history, the artist (an individual) is ever present.  Further, in its execution Black Box evokes what modern eyes have come to see in silent movies, a naiveté all but occluded by 20th c. technology—edited sound, special effects and computer animation.

Kentridge

William Kentridge, What Will Come (has already come), 2007,  steel table, cylindrical steel mirror, 35mm animated film transferred to video, 8:40 min, 41 1/4 x 48 x 48″ (courtesy Norton Museum of Art).

What Will Come (has already come) contains its own thematic darkness. Kentridge conceived it as a response to the Italian Fascist invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), a conflict notable for the failure of the League of Nations to protect member state Ethiopia against aggression, the Italian’s illegal use of mustard gas, and the Ethiopians’ opposition despite the most primitive munitions (including spears). Though about a specific conflict, this piece recreates the horror of every war.

Animated drawings have been projected from the ceiling onto a circular disk. The first images emerge from drafted primordial soup. As the disk picks up speed, images fly around its core: birds morph into planes, figures explode only to be reconstituted in the next revolution, a gas mask floats above the ground like an elephant dirigible. The cyclical nature of the projection is reinforced by the title, and one is reminded of George Santayana’s oft-quoted phrase: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In an inventive twist, the drawings are anamorphic—that is, they appear in a conventional manner only when viewed through the mirrored cylinder in the middle of the disk. The anamorphic technique, which dates back to the 16th century and has been widely used in motion picture lenses, has long been an interest of Kentridge’s, playing as it does into his fascination with machines and our modes of seeing. The two image planes, conventional and distorted, make the viewing experience chaotic. That’s only fitting for this subject matter.

“William Kentridge: Five Themes” is the most exciting display of imagination in recent memory.  Do not delay, run to MoMA before Sunday’s close.

From San Francisco, “Five Themes” travels extensively:
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth—July 11-Sept 27, 2009
Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach)—Nov. 7, 2009-Jan.17, 2010
Museum of Modern Art (New York)—Feb.28-May 17, 2010
Jeu de Paume (Paris)—dates TBD
Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam)—dates TBD
Albertina (Vienna)—dates TBD
Israel Museum (Jerusalem)—dates TBD

Wider Connections

You Tube—William Kentridge videos

John Coleman—Art as it Really Is

Richard Lacayo —Artist William Kentridge: Man of Constant Sorrow

The Art of Anamorphosis

Kipling “Take Up the White Man’s Burden

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5 Responses to “William Kentridge: Last Days in San Francisco”

  1. I’m hoping to see the show again on Monday. I’m glad that I was able to find the videos on uTube as I could not find a comfortable space to view them at the museum. He certainly is a complex artist and I can only hope (wish?) that SF MOMA will be buying some of his pieces for the permanent collection.

  2. Just a reminder that this show ends on Sunday, May 31! Luckily for us, SFMoMA does own a few of the pieces in the show, mostly drawings. However, Don & Doris Fisher own the Magic Flute installation and catalogue identifies it as a “promised gift” to SFMoMa. Hooray!

  3. Shelley Says:

    I suggest that fans of Kentridge watch George Melie’s 1902 silent classic, “A Trip to the Moon.” You can find it on YouTube. Kentridge was influenced by early French film.

  4. Brava Liz! Kentridge is a glorious artist and your review captures his essence brilliantly. I recently saw some new work of his in Venice which added water and reflections to his evocative mix. Imagine my delight and surprise when his opera The Return of Ulysses played here in Venice at La Fenice and the live singers worked together with puppeteers to “animate” the characters while his films filled a screen at the back of the stage. The subject matter was his own heart attack and recovery. It was breathtaking!
    I adore the fact that his work is so sophisticated without being slick. It is an earthy combination filled with soul.

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