June 3 – September 16 2001
Though William Kentridge is one of the most compelling interdisciplinary artists of our time, five years ago he was largely unknown outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was born in 1955 and continues to live today. There were many reasons for this low profile: the nearly worldwide cultural boycott of South Africa during the late apartheid period, the artist’s penchant for working in several different media simultaneously, and the art world’s customary myopia when it comes to artists living and working outside of Europe and North America. Today, as the most widely recognized South African artist in the world, Kentridge’s distinctive fusion of film, drawing, sculpture, graphics, music, theater, and opera is an exemplar of how separate media can function together as the extension of a single artistic sensibility.
This exhibition, Kentridge’s first career survey in this country, includes a number of important early works that preceded his first experiments in film. The earliest is a series of eight etchings titled Industry and Idleness (1986-87), based on Hogarth’s satirical series of the same name. In Kentridge’s updated version, only the idle rich stay blessed by good fortune, while the hard-working poor struggle forever against insurmountable odds. In a large etching entitled Casspirs Full of Love (1989), Kentridge contrasts the seductive image of family and comradeship fostered by South African military propaganda with the stark reality of human heads tossed inside a ladder-shaped box. The monumental drawing Arc/Procession: Develop, Catch Up, Even Surpass (1990), uses the fateful words of Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie to expose the danger inherent in one cultural group’s attempts to pattern a definition of progress on the example of another.
In Shadow Procession (1999), the first film installation visitors to the exhibit encounter, Kentridge returns to the theme of the procession in the form of a constant flow of refugees carrying their few possessions with them from one place to another. The film uses a comparatively primitive technique in which cut pieces of paper are photographed as they are shifted across a translucent surface, and its ominous music and skittish movement are surprisingly effective in expressing a sense of misfortune and dread. The next gallery contains a range of Kentridge’s drawings, many produced for his first animated films. Apart from being beautiful images to contemplate, these drawings provide the viewer with a great deal of information regarding the making of Kentridge’s films. Each image represents the final frame within a scene that may have contained several connected incidents, and each of these incidents has left its mark on the drawing’s final state.
A second projection space on the first floor is devoted to six films that make up a cycle exploring the lives of three fictitious characters: Soho Eckstein, a wealthy mine owner and land developer; his wife, whom he loves in an emotionally disconnected manner; and his alter ego Felix Teitlebaum, a hopeless romantic who succeeds in seducing Soho’s wife. This series of films, the result of nine years of Kentridge’s artistic development, obliquely examines the effects of apartheid on those who had the most to gain by pretending that the system was just and not substantially different from any other. As the Soho Eckstein cycle progresses, civil unrest and eventual social transformation become increasingly evident, yet it is never clear to what extent all this is affecting the lives of Kentridge’s protagonists. For those of us who looked at apartheid from afar, Kentridge’s perspective illuminates our understanding of how the system affected those who occupied positions of relative power under it. But Kentridge’s art is more than a commentary on apartheid. It is about what takes place when people go about their everyday lives, oblivious to the fractures that invariably occur when distinct people occupy the same place without sharing a culture.
A new development in Kentridge’s art can be seen in the furniture-based sculptures that serve as rear-projection screens for his latest films. In Medicine Chest (2000), shown adjacent to the main gallery on the first floor, Kentridge presents a found medicine chest whose mirror has been replaced by a projection surface. As the movie unfolds, the image is transformed into a window, a birdcage, a kitchen cupboard, a still life, a curiosity box, and a number of other variations of container. Ongoing physical metamorphosis is at the thematic heart of Kentridge’s work and takes precedence in this piece over the idea of character and narrative, in a way that suggests a strong metaphysical undercurrent. The act of projecting a film within a domestic object also underscores the motif of human intimacy, which sharply differentiates Kentridge’s art from that of other artists dealing with questions of cultural change and transformation.
The film installations in the second-floor gallery include Kentridge’s only multiscreen film installation to date, Ulisse: ECHO scan slide bottle (1998). This work juxtaposes three different viewpoints - a windshield-framed view of a city, an intravenous beaker slowly being drained of its contents, and various close-ups of human anatomy - at three slightly oblique angles to suggest the same scene is being experienced from very different viewpoints. A screening area at the rear of the gallery contains Kentridge’s most explicitly political work, Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997). Comparing the mad King Ubu of Alfred Jarry’s landmark absurdist drama with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to generate confessions and amnesty in South Africa, the film’s uninflected vision of the civil violence that gripped the country during the late apartheid period is disturbingly real, despite its enactment by garish cartoonlike characters.
One series of drawings - Colonial Landscapes - does not directly relate to any of Kentridge’s films. These drawings convey a sense of the grandeur of the South African landscape as seen through a surveyor’s devices and express two distinct but interrelated concepts. One is the stereotypical portrayal of South Africa as a kind of Eden, used during the colonial period to attract European settlers. The other involves the exploitation of the land for commercial purposes, a process unavoidably connected to the exploitation of the nation’s other natural resource: its people.
Videos and related works on the mezzanine level address Kentridge’s accomplishments in the performing arts, in particular the gestation of Faustus in Africa (1995) and Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), theater works produced in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company of Johannesburg; and the Monteverdi opera Il Ritorno d'Ulisse (1998). While Kentridge’s contribution to theater is more complex than this limited inclusion suggests, the viewer can sense the degree to which Kentridge has made the staging of music and theater a parallel career directly informing his development as a maker of animated films. Kentridge’s dedication to working simultaneously in several media shows the extent to which he understands his own art in relation to a broader historical context.
Compelling us to perceive his characters as constantly striving for redemption even as they slip into weakness and callousness, Kentridge emerges with a robust humanist vision. His scale may shift in an instant from public to intimate, but he faithfully records human folly in all its tragic and farcical dimensions, while holding out the possibility that the human race may yet prove worthy of its creation.
-Dan Cameron, Senior Curator
The exhibition was co-organized by the New Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Co-curators Dan Cameron, Staci Boris of MCA Chicago, and Neal Benezra of the Art Institute of Chicago, along with Lynne Cooke and Ari Sitas, have each contributed essays to an illustrated exhibition catalogue.
Following the presentation at the New Museum, the exhibition will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (20.oct.01-06.jan.02) before continuing on to the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and finally to the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa.