Victus Hobday – Magician of the Palimpsest: William Kentridge

‘Magician of the Palimpsest – William Kentridge’

Cinq Thémes

Paris, Jeu de Paume 29.06.10 – 5.09.10

William Kentridge - Il Sole 24 Ore (World Walking), 2007

NB:  This exhibition ‘William Kentridge: Five Themes’ is currently on in Melbourne at ACMI, Federation Square until May 27th 2012 – see here for details of the Melbourne Show.

The Jeu de Paume is a public gallery situated overlooking the Place de Concorde in a corner of the Tuilleries Garden. From the outside it appears to be a large classical mausoleum for retired double-decker buses or perhaps a large garden pavilion of the nineteenth century that would feature fusty old examples of gilt-framed dark offerings. It is deceptive. Once the home to the Impressionist works that are now housed in the Musee D’Orsay the Jeu de Paume was renovated in the early 1990’s with the new purpose of featuring individual artists and particularly retrospectives. It has become my destination of choice, without even bothering with a quick look up on the web to see what is on, as there is always something to be seen that is either enlightening or cutting edge and directional. The Jeu de Paume seems to net most of the mid-sized contemporary and retrospective offerings that are doing the rounds of Europe, America and Australia. There is overall a rigour and scale to most of the exhibitions that allows the luxury of gaining a broad perspective on the career of solo artists that one may have only seen in limited doses. The only slightly flat note to this rapturous praise would be in the inevitable rub of one show against another within the upstairs and downstairs gallery spaces as generally the Jeu de Paume shows two artists at the same time and often there is no relationship between the works, making the transition from one exhibition to another rather jolting.

Over summer for those who chose to either visit or stay in Paris the Jeu de Paume in conjunction with the Louvre featured the work of William Kentridge. William Kentridge was born in South Africa in 1955 and currently lives in Johannesburg. His figurative and narrative films, drawings and stage designs fluidly connect with his political musings and engagement with the historically fraught politics of his homeland. His technique of drawing in charcoal, filming frame by frame, and erasing and modifying the drawing in between, grew out of his desire to record the genesis of his work and improve his drawing. He has called this form of filmmaking ‘ stone-age animation’. The flow of the images and the traces left by his previous lines gives the drawings a dreamlike quality that draws you into the monotone landscape. Images and vignettes that he has drawn from his experiences, the transformation of people into objects and objects into figures coupled with the exploration of the wider human condition give an accent to his work that lifts it from being politically didactic or heavy handed.

Cinq Themes’ by William Kentridge was curated by Mark Rosenthal originally for the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Norton Museum of Art and has previously been shown in New York at the Museum of Modern Art from February to May 2010 to coincide with Kentridge’s stage design for Shostakovich’s opera, ‘The Nose’ based on the absurdist short story by Gogol. This detailed retrospective spans thirty years of Kentridge’s work and elegantly demonstrates the versatility of his concepts and use of mediums. Divided over six spaces the exhibition is arranged to allow the audience to be seated and watch the entirety of each film or performance in the two main spaces. Indeed, the majority of the audience was sitting through the complete works as an audience would a conventional film. Kentridge uses music in an unashamedly filmic manner, not just in the maquettes of his stage designs, or his marionette theatre but with all of his work. In the majority he uses operatic and South African music to adumbrate his characters and juxtapose the silences of certain scenes. All of these forms, the creation of animation, seated audience, music and theatrics could steer him dangerously close to the winds of entertainment and out of the world of art and gravitas; yet somehow, as so often happens with really interested and obsessed artists, his concepts and fixations are so visceral as to convince the audience with these familiar but unusually manipulated mediums. These are probably deeply unfashionable and naïve words of praise, but his work transcends animation as a wonderful visual experience in itself and instead uses it to illuminate his ideas in a layered fluidity. Where the exhibition stalls slightly is in the framed charcoal drawings that are essentially the raw material of his animations. The flatness of these works is difficult to reconcile with the continuity of his complex dealings with apartheid and post apartheid South Africa. The ever moving and changing lives of his two central characters Soho Ekstein, the white South African industrialist and Felix Teitlebaum, who respectively represent the materialistic moral bankruptcy and the idealistic longings of man are not as compelling when pinned like examples to a page. Away from the contextualisation of the other works these drawings would seem faintly average however their inclusion serves to underline the multifaceted nature of Kentridge’s productions.

A central exhibition space shows Kentridge creating his works, but just as a magician is loathed to reveal each step of his art, so Kentridge playfully erases certain steps within the ‘abc’ of his method thereby saving it from becoming a didactic record of creation. The films are looped and yet seamless, they are often played backwards, creating the effect of the art directing him and engaging him in its own self-creating. The playfulness of this room situated centrally within the wider exhibition positions Kentridge at the centre of his own creations, I was reminded of the sorcerers apprentice in Fantasia. Having got hold of the Magician’s wand he starts to direct the universe until finally the parts take up a life of their own. William Kentridge has created his own universe within his studio where even the ants that come to drink the left over coffee and crumbs are enlisted into his creations.

This exhibition is winding its way across the world, after Paris it travels through Paris, Vienna, Jerusalem, Amsterdam, and Vancouver. It is slated for ACMI in 2012.

© Victus Hobday 2010

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Images

Fig. 1 William Kentridge, still from ‘”Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old’, 1991

Fig. 2 William Kentridge – ‘Drawing for the film Stereoscope’, 1998–99, 1998-99

Fig. 3 William Kentridge – ‘Il sole 24 ore (Walking World)’, 2007

Fig. 4 William Kentridge ‘Invisible Mending’ from 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Journey to the Moon, and Day for Night’, 2003

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