William Kentridge, born, raised and still living in Johannesburg, is a visual artist and man of ideas. As a white, anti-apartheid South African, his art has always been informed by issues of colonialism, segregation and working class oppression. Best known for his stop-motion animated films developed from marvelous charcoal drawings, his “stories,” have always been a brilliant combination of visual free association and psychological insight. His unique language of images and private associations have become, year by year, denser and increasingly layered with geology, geography and history.
Three years ago, Kentridge hit the New York art world with a major show at MoMa (read Eleanor’s review), and his first production as director and designer of The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. Now he is back. The Nose recently returned to the Metropolitan Opera’s line-up, and his latest work, The Refusal of Time, just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ever restless and ambitious, Kentridge’s intellectual landscape continues to broaden. He’s become increasingly absorbed by scientific, historic and metaphoric disquisitions on the nature of time. That interest, sparked by Einstein’s 1905 paper on relativity, focused by the work of Harvard-based historian, Peter Galison, on efforts to control “time” and clocks in 19th century Europe, and driven by Kentridge’s desire to make visible what is invisible – time – has produced a monumental, thirty minute, five-channel video installation, The Refusal of Time, a personal meditation on time and space. It is a joint acquisition between the Met and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Commissioned for Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, where it was first unveiled last year, many critics consider it Kentridge’s “masterwork.” Sheena Wagstaff, head of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met, writes, “It is rare that the intelligence of an artist’s intellectual vision is matched so perfectly by such a profoundly moving and remarkable manifestation.” At this week’s press opening, with Kentridge in attendance, she hailed it as, “a complex and ambitious culmination of different strands of Kentridge’s work.” It is the first major work of contemporary art to be acquired by the Met this year, signaling its strong commitment, under the new leadership of Thomas P. Campbell, to modern art, an area previously dominated by other institutions. The Met is clearly thrilled by its acquisition.
Frankly, despite my deep admiration for Kentridge’s work, I’m less persuaded that this is his magnum opus. One needs a syllabus – supplied in the Wall Text and all of the press materials – to decipher and decode the meaning and associative threads of his room-size installation. First, there is the “breathing machine” or “elephant” in the middle of the room. It is a large wooden sculpture with pumping bellows, inspired by an 1870s scheme for copper pneumatic tubes under the streets of Paris to pump air to calibrate the city’s clocks. According to Kentridge, he free-associated this hare-brained scheme to Charles Dicken’s vision, in Hard Times, of factory machines moving “monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.” Thus, he dubs his creation, “The Elephant.”
On a psychological level, underneath all these complex and somewhat grandiose ideas lies Kentridge’s struggle to balance the finality of death with the hope that some small shard of our existence lingers on, like specs of matter at the edge of dark holes. In short, for Kentridge, the machine – as well as the shadow procession, the process of drawing and erasing, and many other images in the film – are about the futile impulse to control time and, by extension, his hope, desire and effort to forestall depression and death.
For me, the highlights of The Refusal of Time hark back to the strengths of Kentridge’s earlier work: the charm of his stop-action animation; the compelling sonority of the Tuba-dominated music and soundscape (by Philip Miller), and his love of silent movies, expressed both in dramatic scenes, processions and, most poignantly, in images of celluloid strips. Kentridge’s restless, inquisitive mind is always a conversation between his divided self. It will be fascinating to see where he goes next.
Photos of William Kentridge and Sheena Wagstaff by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Caption for installation images:
William Kentridge (South African, born 1955)
The Refusal of Time (installation view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Five-channel video with sound, megaphones, and breathing machine (‘elephant’)
A collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh, and Peter Galison
Jointly owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Purchase, Roy R. and Marie S. Neuberger Foundation Inc. and Wendy Fisher Gifts and The Raymond and Beverly Sackler 21st Century Art Fund, 2013
© 2012 William Kentridge
(Editor’s note: attached is a link to Dienstag’s 2010 review of his work at MoMA.)