William Kentridge: Thick Time, Whitechapel Gallery | reviews, news & interviews
William Kentridge: Thick Time, Whitechapel Gallery
William Kentridge: Thick Time, Whitechapel Gallery
A parallel universe revealed in immersive installations and monumental tapestries
Of all the mesmerising images in William Kentridge’s major Whitechapel show, the one that lingers most, perhaps, is that of the artist himself, now turned 60, hunched and thoughtful, wandering through the studio in Johannesburg where he lives and works. He paces, meditates over a "magical" cup of coffee, imagines, draws, tears paper, works, adjusts, observes, directs – all in the gentle manner of a Buster Keaton-style silent film star. Time in this metaphoric space is thick with possibilities, under-stated humour and conundrums. It is also a Utopian universe, where mistakes can be undone, where a coffee pot can take off for the moon, where ants can form constellations, and where one can "throw a pot of paint and when you catch it in reverse, not a drop is spilt".
The artist’s brush and pigment take many forms in this video installation of 2003: a feather duster, black coffee dribbled from a pot, smudgy charcoal – all animated by the artist’s omnipotent gesture. In one short film, Kentridge’s wife, Anne – as naked muse and model – follows him unseen. In another, the artist catches torn pieces of paper that fly into his hands, reassembling to form a life-size drawing of himself. Now – this most cerebral of artists – becomes both bemused witness and preoccupied protagonist.
The "thick time" of the exhibition is, in fact, a dimension where time has been stopped, reversed, fragmented, looped – even "refused" – using multi-media installations and experiments with mime, dance, music, tapestry, film, book and stage design. This cross-disciplinary environment has hugely enriched Kentridge’s work ever since the early 2000s. Radical mime, for instance, which Kentridge studied in Paris in the 1980s, has led him to ask what is the impulse behind a gesture, a drawing, the start of a mark. His answer always deploys his characteristic graphic brush technique, which continues in the radical figurative tradition of Goya, Grosz, and Kollwitz with its expressive splatters and unerring black line. Now dancers, scientific and cinematic pioneers, and musicians, too, provide an equally dynamic means of expression. Kentridge, in particular, pays tribute to Georges Méliès, the pioneer of various cinematic techniques such as animation, time-lapse and stop-motion photography, and "day for night" (pictured above right: 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon, 2003).
There are six large works to explore in the Whitechapel show, dating from 2003-2016, including two immersive video installations that have never been exhibited previously in the UK. Each work represents a personal odyssey into the many different arenas that fascinate and intrigue Kentridge. In The Refusal of Time, 2012 (main picture), a tour de force presented in the downstairs galleries, the process of art becomes analogous to the process of science, complete with elephantine bellows, swinging dance rhythms, pulsing music, clocks, maps and giant metronomes, driven by "pumped" impulses. Within minutes we become mesmerised by the images and sounds that bombard us – the ritualised animated sequences of dancers and a carnival band, film clips, the tramp of human progress and displacement, black-and-white stills and sketches of imagined scientific laboratories, while fragments of a Kentridge lecture are conveyed through giant megaphones. At the nub of the various scientific "conversations" that served as inspiration, is the mid-19th century discovery of the speed of light and Felix Eberty’s expansion of that discovery which postulated all of space as "a universal archive of images from the past". "Near a star 2,000 light years away", as he put it, one could see "Jesus Christ on his cross … With each breath we pump out our images and transmit ourselves, and traces of ourselves".
Elsewhere, Kentridge follows in the footsteps of the Old Masters Rubens and Raphael, producing monumental mural-scale tapestries using a grand European equestrian theme. But here, distinctly un-heroic horses, designed from collages and drawings, gallop across ancient maps of southern Europe and Italy’s Abruzzo region, or rear over dejected foot soldiers (pictured above: Streets of the City, 2009). Here militarism becomes an absurdist symbol of exploitation. Kentridge is fascinated by tapestry, a form that was invented by the Ancient Greeks, but which he sees as closely related to a modern-day pixelated image, with its warp and weft. Yet here, every stitch, made from goat's yarn, represents a human decision. Since 1976, he has also worked in theatre, puppetry and opera, and the Whitechapel show include his recent designs for Alban Berg’s Lulu, (opening at the ENO on 9 November) complete with his own "collaged" musical score (incorporating Schwitters, Webern and Schoenberg).
The maps reveal Kentridge as the great bibliophile – or, conversely, as he puts it "destroyer of books". In Second Hand Reading, 2013, the pages of dictionaries become frames for hundreds of drawings, their form enabling flip animations, their texts over-written with slogans, their original purpose still legible. Kentridge is fascinated by the thousands upon thousands of books that have been made redundant by technology – particularly dictionaries, lexicons and encyclopaedias ("gorgeous books that no-one is every going to look at"). Their paper – particularly pre 1830s – is the perfect receptacle for his art. One of the many slogans that deface the pages "Massacre under the grass", provides a shorthand for the way memories are buried; only traces remain, (barely perceptible, in this case, in changes in vegetation). "We have to make the work of describing what happened", says Kentridge. It is the artist who "marks their existence". Thick Time is rich in deep thought and stirring imagination – and time vividly spent.
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