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.
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.