William Kentridge: Five Themes

Museum of Modern Art, New York

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.

William Kentridge: Still from Invisible Mending from 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès. 2003   35mm and 16mm animated film transferred to video, 1:20 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.  © 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.
William Kentridge: Still from Invisible Mending from 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès. 2003
35mm and 16mm animated film transferred to video, 1:20 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

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.