William Kentridge's SANG Retrospective
by Paul Edmunds
It would be pretty much impossible to review the William Kentridge retrospective without acknowledging his status as South Africa's most widely known and successful artist at the moment. Given this, as well as the nature of any retrospective, I'm not sure an analysis of the value of this exhibition is necessary and nor am I confident that I have anything original to add to the tomes of critical response that his work has already garnered. I can, however, pick out themes, small details and congruencies which caught my eye during the course of my visits to the show, during which time I shared the space with more visitors than I've ever seen in the SANG's ample exhibition spaces. (If the success of an artist or exhibition is measured by the amount of visitors it attracts, then Kentridge is indisputably at the top of his game here.)
The show is arranged on a satisfying circuitous loop and affords interesting glimpses of other rooms as you make your way around. The beginning of this journey is marked by the long line of Shadow Procession bronze sculptures, which are conveniently displayed at chest height (these are labelled only in Braille and offer, I assume, an experience for the blind who are, by definition, unable to see a shadow procession). Despite the permanence of their medium, the sculptures retain the freshness of their characters in the film of the same name.
The procession of bronzes leads the eye to a projection at the far end of the next room, where Ubu tells the Truth alternates with Shadow Procession. Kentridge clearly has as much a feeling for form and surface as he does for shape and line, and his wax and found object constructions have both the same madcap and melancholic qualities as their animated torn-paper counterparts. Not that the film's procession is completely in two-dimensional silhouette either. Unseen characters from the foreground cast long and indistinct shadows on the parading figures, which are the focus of the camera.
There is a reassuring analogue quality to almost everything. From the simple method of charcoal drawing and the burred edges of torn paper to the devices Kentridge favours - old Bakelite telephones, crystal radios, wooden tripods, cherry bombs and simple tools. The insistent ringing of a small bell attends many of the films - it marks the rise of the plunger in the glass respirator of ECHO - Ulisse slide bottle scan, and, in the hands of Soho Eckstein, signals wake-up time for the workers in Mine. The stuttering animation of Shadow Procession and Zeno Writing lends the projections a tactile, material quality.
I am always interested in the way in which things are made, and seeing drawings from the films displayed provides satisfaction on this level as much as any other. The richly worked surfaces and the ghosts of earlier images intrigue. I'm not sure that the pieces on show are any more resolved than any other from the series, but is interesting to see them when they have reached a position of stasis.
Medicine Chest is the only film on the show that is projected on a scale smaller than the drawings from which it is made. It seems a somber meditation on mortality and isolation. The work is projected from behind onto the back wall of a small bathroom medicine cabinet and is seen through what would be the mirror on the outside of its door. The screen is the light steely green of glass. A still life of objects you would likely find in a man's bathroom gives way to a portrait (probably that of Kentridge himself) or animated scenes of figures moving through landscapes amongst other things. These are interspersed with headlines Kentridge has apparently culled from newspapers.
One portrait, with a particularly Rembrandt-like pose, gives way to the same still life, which is rendered in a way recalling Dutch painting of the same time. The objects seem to putrefy and dissipate in a kind of time-lapse version of a Vanitas painting. The headlines that we read (spaced conveniently as to be legible through the irregularly spaced shelves of the medicine cabinet) all hint at a sense of isolation and separation - 'Each man his own football', 'Sealed container riddle'. Occasional visitors are a fish and bird whose mastery of water and air is lost in the confines of this small glass container.
The film's final scene shows the bird desperately trying to escape the container, so convincingly confounded by its transparent walls, unable to take off and fly away. After the sobering ruminations on mortality and isolation, the bird appears as spirit trapped in flesh. A similar idea of self-reflection is invoked in A history of the main complaint where the comatose Eckstein is examined by a team of doctors who look just like him. Inside this large, immobile, be-suited body is a tumult of memories, horrors and denials.
Passage through the exhibition does a dog's leg at this point, taking you past the more difficult Ulisse slide bottle scan and Zeno writing. Both forsake narrative for images of chaos, disorder and mortality juxtaposed with the instruments and methodology of measurement and reduction. In the former it is the crop of a slide, the arced screen of some kind of scope and the irregular measure of a rising and falling respirator. Surgical procedures, molten magma, torrents of water, mythology and memory are beyond the scope of a reductive interpretation. In Zeno writing it is similar. Zeno's cursive descriptions and calculations cannot confine the furls of smoke, ubiquitous barbed wire, images of war and the march of the wounded that chaotically fill the screen.
In the early 'Colonial Landscapes' drawings (from which we see Deep Pool and Hunting the Spurwinged Goose in the exhibition's first room) red oxide lines appear to be surveying marks, suggesting the intervention of humans upon the landscape. For Kentridge the landscape is loaded and bears scar-like traces of history. We see this in the abused wastelands of Monument and Johannesburg: 2nd greatest city after Paris.
In 1994's Felix in Exile we are introduced to Nandi who maps and surveys the land with a theodolite. The verticals, which rise from the landscape in the earlier films, and the red marks and measurements, seemed to have anticipated the arrival of this new character, who probably would have been very different pre-1994. This metaphor continues in Weighting� and wanting. Eckstein is conveyed into a MRI machine where images of wafer thin sections from his head are interspersed with memories and omissions. Later we see him in the empty interior of his Modernist holiday home and walking on its grounds. He encounters a stone, similar in volume to his head, but shaped more like a heart. Sensing some kind of resonance with this object he picks it up. The stone becomes sectioned and scanned, and just as the sediments of rock retain traces of its origin, the stone dredges up even more of Eckstein's painful memories. At the film's conclusion, we see Eckstein asleep, drained, his head resting on the stone.
Each set of projections has a space to itself and there is adequate room for large screens (there are even sofas in the room where the Soho series and others are shown). There is no light spillage and not much sound intrudes on other pieces. The strains of music one can hear contribute largely to the sad, melancholic feeling of many of the films. In fact, this for me, was the feeling that stained my visits. Kentridge's characters are almost invariably isolated, the communication they attempt, often depicted by blue lines, so often fails or is thwarted. Felix might listen to the world through headphones, but he is deaf to the horn speakers next to him. Eckstein seldom listens at all and has a faulty memory. Both are lonely and hollow. The music to which the films are set - classical, choral and other types - is always beautiful and most often melancholic.
The characters in the Shadow Procession are on occasion joyous, festive and madcap, and move along jauntily to some carnivalesque tunes, but more often they appear afflicted, more refugees than celebrants. Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art have curated this show accurately, extensively and thoroughly. It is beautifully installed, labelled and produced and goes a long way to confirming just how important Kentridge's contribution is.
Opens: December 1, 2002
Closes: March 23, 2003
A sign-language interpreter will conduct tours of the Kentridge Retrospective currently running at the SANG for the benefit of deaf viewers. Times: 1pm, January 16, February 13 and March 6.
South African National Gallery, Government Avenue, Company Gardens, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 465 1628
Fax: (021) 461 0045
Hours: Tues - Sun 10am - 5pm