Walking through William Kentridge’s retrospective Five Themes, one feels something like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, hurtling toward the future with unblinking eyes focused immutably on the past, watching the wreckage of progress accumulate.
The five themes alluded to in the exhibition’s title serve as signposts to putatively unique moments in the South African artist’s oeuvre. The first theme, Ubu and the Procession, is composed of two films, Ubu Tells the Truth (1997) and Shadow Procession (1999), as well as related drawings. Together, these works offer an appropriate introduction to the method and medium for which Kentridge is best known: charcoal drawings occasionally accented with pastels, the evolution of which – processes of erasure, redrawing, or even the tearing apart of the page itself – is filmed, producing a short animation.
The primary subject of Ubu and Procession is the fractured state of a post‐apartheid South Africa struggling to meaningfully reckon with the brutalities of its recent history, and the living sediment of that past. As the camera retreats, a tall industrial building is revealed to contain countless cells, each the stage for interrogation or torture; elsewhere, a cat turns into a radio; a human head totters about on robot-like limbs; hunched‐over silhouettes march, with a plodding cadence, against a blank, bleak landscape. This is a world where nothing is at rest, and nothing is whole. But there is hope here too: instability is one condition for newness and transformation.
A series of nine films made from 1989 – 2003 make up the exhibition’s second theme, Soho and Felix. Soho Eckstein, a bloated Johannesburg capitalist, and his often naked alter‐ego Felix Teitlebaum – both of whom, it should be observed, bear an intended physical resemblance to their creator – preside over scenes of mourning and devastation: mineworkers solemnly trek underground, bodies fall apart, animate severed heads litter the ground, and Soho enjoys a baked chicken leg. Beautiful African music – choral sounds that undulate before they soar – plays in the background, occasionally displaced by more dissonant noises.
Artist in the Studio, the third theme, consists of a three-part film installation projected on all four walls of a single room. As the title implies, the subject here is Kentridge himself, in his space of work, making and unmaking his art. In one projection, a colony of ants, rendered white on black, scurry around the artist’s desk in un-choreographed movements that reveal mesmerizing patterns. In another, Kentridge tears apart a drawing of himself, before a reverse-motion effect puts it back together. These exercises in self-portraiture might be read as a retreat from the busy public spheres that provide the mise-en-scène for many Kentridge pieces, but in another interpretation they are simply the most explicit examples of a self-critical and self-aware sensibility that lends the artist’s work much of its political efficacy.
Theme four is devoted to works created in conjunction with Kentridge’s 2005 production of Mozart’s 1791 opera The Magic Flute. Mozart’s opera chronicled the emergence of enlightenment civilization and advent of modern disenchantment. In drawings and miniaturized performances – representative images impose astrological diagrams and other scientific symbols on empty, exotic landscapes – Kentridge offers his own critique of enlightenment rationalism and the imperialist violence with which it is bound up.
This spring Kentridge directed another opera, Shostakovich’s The Nose (1930), based on Gogol’s 1836 story of the same name. Moving from the contradictions of colonial enlightenment, then, Five Themes concludes with the dialectic of revolution and reaction in twentieth-century Russia. Again we are surrounded by multiple film projections. On one wall unfolds dialogue from Nicolai Bukharin’s 1937 show trial. On another a black woman dressed in Prussian military fatigues and carrying a large flag paces against a white screen, onto which her profile is cast. Like Gogol’s story, the critique here is expressed in the idiom of the absurd – the most appropriate vocabulary, Kentridge seems to suggest, for confronting without reconciling ourselves to the horrors of the long twentieth century.
While aesthetically and politically moving throughout, Five Themes is not without its shortcomings. The exhibition is organized chronologically, and there is little engagement – either through curatorial text, or through spatial arrangement – with the ways in which the artist’s multiple thematic, methodological, and historical projects speak to one another. Five Themes, in other words, conforms to rather than deconstructs given temporal or conceptual frames. Paradoxically, though, this central shortcoming brings into starker relief one of Kentridge’s abiding strengths: the facility with which his work transcends divisions of here and there, then and now, subject and object. Resisting simple oppositions, Kentridge creates a constellation effect- one that reveals much about the imbrication of different histories of violence, and one that highlights the role of the solitary witness in remembering the past while recognizing the impossibility of ever making it whole.
Perhaps my initial identification with Benjamin’s angel was misplaced. Certainly Kentridge leads us through the wastelands of our modern history. But his work – like the medium of drawing itself, which is at soul a speculative errand into the unknown – gestures as well toward the endless possibilities of what is to come. The perspective here is Janus-faced in the best sense.
William Kentridge: Five Themes was on view, 24 February–17 May 2010.