Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town
25.08.2019 – 23.03.2020
In a notebook, the words: “The virtues of incomplete understanding and imperfect translation.” Below it, “To be aware of the peripheral thinking as we are aware of peripheral vision.” And then, “Let that which is in the margins come to the centre.” Remember these lines. They are not passing thoughts, but a way in. A key, if you will.
William Kentridge’s ‘Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work’ at Zeitz MOCAA is a broadly chronological survey of the artist’s work from 1975 to the present. It takes as its curatorial fulcrum the primacy of drawing, which is, for Kentridge, not an endpoint but a part of process – the artist thinking aloud in charcoal. He has come to understand his drawings, he writes, “not as a finished, finite fact, but something that is provisional” – this from the exhibition’s accompanying text. Few of the artist’s drawings remain in their preliminary state; most are reimagined as prints, videos, installations, tapestries, sculptures, performances and theatrical productions.
The exhibition’s title exists as an obscure riddle, a line borrowed from Kentridge’s production The Head and the Load (2018). Yet the question – Why Should I Hesitate? – says much of the artist at work, for Kentridge is not one to hesitate. Indeed, his drawings are profoundly without hesitation – he does not pause for fear of failure. His mark-making is assured, his gestures spontaneous, unself-conscious. There is to his work an unpolished lustre, a refined unrefinement, which is always sure but never exact. Kentridge is no stranger to error, to mishaps and missteps. On the contrary, he invites such uncertain elements into his studio, looking always to the less good idea, the secondary thought that shadows the first. Remember – “peripheral thinking,” remember – “the margins come to the centre.”
Kentridge is not only a highly productive artist, but a master collaborator. To this the lists of composers, singers, dancers, technicians, stage managers and designers who have participated in creating the works exhibited attest. For the artist, collaboration is a tool of chance; it too is an invitation to uncertainty, a plane on which competing ideas and images must find a singular expression. Remember – “incomplete understanding,” and – “imperfect translations.”
In subject, Kentridge leans always towards the absurd, his work more often a confusion of fact and fiction – where those based on historic events appear as dark theatre, and those that borrow from literature or drama could very well describe the present political moment. The line that separates art from life, it appears, is vanishingly faint. Take, by way of example, the 2010 debut of Kentridge’s The Nose (which is represented in two prints at the Zeitz exhibition) – a theatre production based on Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 operatic arrangement of Nikolai Gogol’s short story. The Nose tells of a government official who wakes one morning to find his titular appendage missing. The nose, in its absence, grows in stature and becomes not only a gentleman but a State Councillor, surpassing in bureaucratic hierarchy the low-ranking officer to whom it belongs. The opera is largely considered to be both nontonal and nonlyrical; its storyline variously described as satire, parody, nonsense and tragi-comedy. But more recently, the opera has taken on the weight of fact.
Five years after The Nose debuted, during the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall protests at the University of Cape Town, the bust of Cecil John Rhodes at the memorial above campus was vandalized. The words THE MASTER’S NOSE BETRAYS HIM were spray-painted on the sculpture’s base, and Rhodes’s nose removed, leaving a flat, unoxidised plane of metal between his eyes. Following the protests, the editor of a monthly art publication took it upon himself to furnish Rhodes with a nose. All in all, three new noses have been glued to the bust; each made from composite material and painted to match the original metal. The last remains precariously attached, while the previous two prostheses are currently housed in a bedside drawer in one of our greener suburbs. The original nose, however, remains at large. It has yet to take up public office.
In the seventh room on the museum’s third floor, is the notebook in a glass vitrine, left lying open among several others. Another line: “A sense hovering at the edge of our taste buds.” And another: “The words approach but do not reach the meaning.” The room is titled The Studio, and here the exhibition changes key, moving from the ostensibly political towards a more self-referential tone. The figure of the artist shifts in to focus. There he is in his studio, in Drawing Lesson No. 17 (A Lesson in Lethargy) (2009), and there his image walks the pages of Second-Hand Reading (2013). Included in the exhibition are a series of explanatory videos, printer’s blocks stained with ink, the unassembled parts of a collage, fragments from the studio tacked up in loose arrangement, and charcoal drawings drawn directly on the museum’s walls. Where such curatorial gestures might otherwise appear more a gimmick than revelation, here – given Kentridge’s pleasure in the provisional – the effect is genuinely intriguing.
The exhibition, designed under the direction of Sabine Theunissen, who has worked closely with Kentridge since 2003, responds to the museum’s architectural shortcomings with eloquent interventions. Walls have been moved, the lighting changed, and with the addition of such minimal and understated materials as untreated wood, hardboard and cork panelling, seagrass carpets, and embossed wallpaper, the space is rendered unrecognisable from before; the sparse, oddly-proportioned rooms disguised by the simplest mask. The galleries are arranged much like a musical score – there is a prelude of early works, several movements, solos, the recurring fugue, a triumphant finale. And on the ground floor, a suite of films – Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection, each played in a small, discrete room. On the first and third floors above, each gallery plays to its own tempo, the harmony throughout vaguely discordant. Given the seemingly endless expanse of Kentridge’s works, such an ambitious exhibition could have soon become overwhelming or monotonous. Instead, composed with restraint and played to careful phrasing, it finds a momentary balance, being neither comprehensive nor summary.
Throughout the exhibition, music and sounds echo across the museum’s galleries, beginning with the ominous soundtrack to Ubu Tells the Truth (1997) and ending with the relentless march of More Sweetly Play the Dance (2017), so that each work is accompanied by the distant score of another. It is as if the exhibition itself is not a static thing, but a strange procession – a “melancholy carnival,” an “historical pageant” – each artwork a player in an obscure performance. The viewer, too, must play their part in the parade; moving forward through the galleries, as through a history of Kentridge’s practise, to the tune of so many songs.