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.
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.
(image credits: © William Kentridge)