My latest art love at first sight was William Kentridge. I came into contact with Kentridge’s artistry about a year ago. I was visiting Lousiana – the museum of modern art in Humlebæk, Denmark – to check out their main exhibition at the time, Eye Attack, and decided to also take the opportunity to see what else they had in store. That was the best decision I made that week. In one of the underground halls I came across The Refusal of Time (2012), an installation by Kentridge that could be described as Georges Méliès meets CocoRosie plus Marcus Schinwald and they had a post-colonial critique baby together, and I was smitten. Thus I was thrilled when I learned that Louisiana was to present a major solo exhibition of William Kentridge named Thick Time.
William Kentridge (1955-) is a South African artist who is known for his films, drawings, sculptures and productions of opera and theater. He was born in Johannesburg and grew up to study politics, African studies and art there. Johannesburg remains Kentridge’s place of residence today as well as the address of his studio. Likely a consequence of this context, Kentridge’s art is informed by the way Johannesburg has been shaped by the mining industry, as well as by the apartheid system and its abolition.
Kentridge made his breakthrough in the art world in the early 1990s with a series of mainly black-and-white animated films. These films were made from charcoal drawings that Kentridge shot for a few frames, then partly erased and redrew, then shot for a few additional frames, then partly erased and redrew again, then shot again, and so forth. This singular technique, resulting in films where movement can be visually traced, became a hallmark of Kentridge and is still used by him today. Thus the choice to screen these breakthrough works at the beginning of Thick Time, close to the hung charcoal drawings, is an excellent one, because they form the perfect introduction to Kentridge’s artistry. Watching these films – although watching is too narrow of a term because the music and soundscapes of these films are equally important – is both educational and awe striking as well as amusing. Perhaps surprisingly, there is quite a lot of playful humour in Kentridge’s work.
Since the turn of the millennium, Kentridge has developed his signature form, so clearly discernable in his animations, and combined it with his love for film and theatre in a series of installations consisting of moving images, music and sound, and sculptural objects. These installations are usually big, forming entire rooms or stages that envelope the visitors who enter. Many of them can be experienced – once again ‘viewed’ is not enough – in Thick Time, such as 7 Fragments for Georges Melies, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon (2003) and O Sentimental Machine (2015).
My personal favorite of the post millennium pieces is More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015). It is an eight-channel HD video installation with four megaphones, arranged as a stage with group of swivel chairs in the middle. From screen to screen people move in a danse macabre to the sound of a jaunty brass band. Priests, politicians and people connected to IV drips are found in the procession. Some drag themselves forward, some dance merrily. It’s beautiful, troubling, captivating and stirring.
Another piece on display in Thick Time worth mentioning is Right Into her Arms (2016). It is a computer-controlled puppet theatre with projected images, drawings and props, combining scenes from the first act of Alban Berg’s unfinished opera Lulu (composed 1929–1935) with music from the 1930s. A large dose of surrealism, dadaism and plain humor is at play in this work unlike any other I’ve seen.
The Refusal of Time is also included in Thick Time, but unfortunately it has been housed in a smaller area than last time I saw it, causing it to lose some of its power and dynamic. It is still great, but the difference in impact highlights the importance of arrangement when it comes to art in general, and installations in particular. One setup can bring out the strength of a piece, while another might do it a disservice.
The last work to be featured in Thick Time is Second-Hand Reading (2013), a flipbook film featuring drawings and words on pages of a dictionary. It contains most of Kentridge’s favorite subject matters: megaphones, typewriters, people on foot, the landscape of Johannesburg, birds, the artist himself, statements and smudges of charcoal. As such, Second-Hand Writing is a kind of mini-retrospective or summary of Kentridge’s artistry, if you will, and thus a most suitable way to end Thick Time.
I went to see Thick Time with really high expectations. Even so, I wasn’t disappointed. What started out as a crush developed during my visit into a deep admiration of Kentridge’s work. My advice for you is therefore to try to catch Thick Time at Louisiana before it closes on June 18th, or, if a prompt trip to Humlebæk isn’t possible, in Salzburg later this year. It will probably be the best decision you’ll make this week.