William Kentridge Follows His Nose 

The world of Wiliam Kentridge, in which planes of representation are constantly tilting, shifting and morphing, is populated with hybrid beings. In fact the first image that greets visitors at the entrance to his retrospective at MoMA, William Kentridge: Five Themes (through May 17), is a seven-foot-tall charcoal and pastel drawing of one of the most frequently-recurring mechanistic beings in Kentridge's oeuvre: a globe mounted on claw-like metal legs. In the ensuing prints, drawings, collages, animations and videos, this character alternately becomes a playful camera scampering over land with its tripod pegs; a hulking piece of mining equipment plunging black workers into claustrophobic tunnels; a megaphone blaring propaganda from the tops of steel towers; and a disembodied human head or giant nose, scrambling about absurdly on spidery legs. Like the many other characters that reappear across the South African artist's series and sagas, Kentridge invests this figure with affecting complexity, at times tragicomic and pitiful, elsewhere sly and mischievous, or outright oppressive and cruel. Kentridge is a storyteller by nature, and narrative is the foremost constant in his shape-shifting practice.

Trained as an actor and working in theater and television in Johannesburg until the late-80s, Kentridge came to visual art in his mid-30s when his animated film Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris revealed a new medium for expression with immense dramatic and cinematic potential: hand-drawn charcoal animation. Presented here in the first of over a half-dozen cavernous viewing rooms with wall-sized screens, Johannesburg opens onto a world of thick black lines brought to life by a laborious process of constantly erasing and re-drawing elements in movement. The stark, arresting medium bares the ghostly traces of the past, with silhouettes of characters and outlines of buildings still visible for seconds after they leave the frame. It provides Kentridge an eloquent and stunning visual metaphor for a subject that he treats frequently: the often visceral power of memory, which amplifies the deeply felt loses of persons and populations living through oppression.

William Kentridge at MoMA

The figures embroiled in the domestic melodrama at the center of Johannesburg, introduced sitcom-style with their names in bold captions, recur across the next eight animated films that form the 9 Drawings for Projection series (1989-2003). Behind the petty soap opera love triangle between quintessential fat capitalist Soho Eckstein (who, like all Kentridge characters, is eventually humanized if not quite redeemed), his wife Mrs. Eckstein and her always-nude lover Felix Teitlebaum—all of whom seem to add up to something like a three-part self-portrait of the artist—Kentridge portrays the immensity of Apartheid as an ominous black mass. Sometimes marching doggedly to their menial labor, elsewhere coming to Eckstein prickly and electric with shouts, protest signs and outstretched fists, black South Africans are an ever-present other in the series. The quarrels, disappointments, lies and disjunctures of the affair narrative are uneasily super-imposed onto the crackling infrastructures of apartheid, all of which makes the often surprisingly funny films engrossing and unpredictable. Be warned though: the prints and drawings in adjacent rooms, most executed during the production of the 9 Drawings series, contain major spoilers.

These works on paper, which come off as supporting materials rather than autonomous artworks, by no means prepare visitors for the radical shifts in style and subject that occur in the next sections. Though the "Five Themes" of the title are helpful, they could easily be reduced to three: Apartheid animations; studio shorts; and operas (or, as one curator put it during the press preview, "screen, studio and stage"). The middle portion consists almost entirely of a giant darkened room where the black and white projections 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès (2003) reveal on all sides the artist playing at work, or at work playing—the boundaries between work and leisure, performances of labor and actual labor are extremely blurry in Kentridge's idiosyncratic parallel universe.

William Kentridge at MoMA

These vignettes are less firmly rooted in the real world than the preceding animations, and instead reveal a very funny performer whose training in theater, puppetry and mime comes out in a kind of magician's routine: watch Kentridge draw and then scribble over a life-sized self-portrait in an infinite loop of doubling and destruction; see him orchestrating shadow plays starring scraps of paper pasted together to form modular silhouettes; laugh as he uses the various coffee-making and serving objects in his studio to create momentary micro-narratives, holding up three stacked ceramic espresso cups as if peering through a telescope, an homage to the astronomers in Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (1902). Here we gain an appreciation of the eclectic aesthetic that increasingly dominates Kentridge's work, in which narratives are more fragmented and structural than linear, and aesthetic shifts don't just mean changes in scale and perspective of charcoal drawings, but rather radical transformations from stop-motion animation to found object puppetry, vaudevillian performance and Dada-esque free-associative poetry, all stuck together a jittery collage assemblage.

Kentridge's preparations for two operas—a 2005 staging of Mozart's Magic Flute in Brussels that traveled to BAM in 2007 and a production of Dmitri Shostakovich's opera based on Gogol's proto-Kafkaesque short story The Nose that premieres at the Met this month—form the final passages of Five Themes. The room dedicated to The Magic Flute is organized around two stage dioramas wherein automated shadow puppets "perform" intermittently, giving some sense of the audio visual spectacle Kentridge created. These are mostly interesting for their documentary value, left-overs from some more significant primary artwork. In the series of prints, posters, collages and videos that have lead to the Nose opera, however, we follow the latest mutation of Kentridge's shape-shifting practice. Fusing elements of Dada collage, Russian Constructivist architecture, quasi-burlesque performance and slapstick comedy, these works provide a compelling response to the opening suite of 9 Drawings animations, with themes of bureaucratic alienation, socio-political oppression and private depression transformed, abstracted and re-formulated. It provides a perfect bookend to this slightly over-sized exhibition—fewer prints and more seating, please!—though one that by no means signals the limits of Kentridge's capacities as an artist. Rather, like his charcoal drawings that come almost magically to life, he seems liable, now more than ever, to metamorphose before our eyes and trudge onwards, with faint remnants of his former selves trailing playfully behind.

William Kentridge at MomA

(image credits: © William Kentridge)

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