Art gallery visit – William Kentridge at Whitechapel Gallery/OCA study visit

I had read a bit about this South African artist before I went on this study visit and did feel intrigued. It looks like international success came in middle age for him. I bought ‘Fortuna’ and reading through it realised he does not stick to one genre – instead there’s theatre, film, drawing, making devices and more! In this article [1],  he discusses that and how he does not stick to one media as he was advised to in his early days. I like this, because I feel that in the endless search for a personal voice, does that mean we get stuck in a rut. Looking at the ‘Champagne life’ exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery that I went to later, many of the artists works were very similar in their own style. It’s only probably Phoebe Unwin that deviated her style, so I had to keep checking labels to make sure it was hers – the rest it was more obvious.

Having said that, he certainly has some trademarks – megaphones, which we discussed at the visit being metaphors for political speech and mass instructions [comfirmed in the interview [1]], using black ink and charcoal for his drawings, and being very creative in his ideas – going into each room meant not knowing quite what to expect! I also noticed he likes to put self portraits in his work, where he seems to wear the same outfit, I wondered if that is how he sees his ‘artist self’. I have read where he talks of leading a double life, there’s the artist self and the witness self.

On opening the door to this exhibition, there was a cacophony of noise, old style 40’s trumpets mixing with operatic voice and the sound of repetitive machines.

The first room had a large wooden machine sort of like a tapestry machine and 3 walls with visual displays of repetitive movements. The first thing that stuck me was that the film of one repeated movement seemed to last a long time  – maybe a minute. He wasn’t going to indulge us in quick entertainment. It seemed like he wanted you to relax and be immersed in the experience.

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The refusal of time

In the booklet, it explains that these repetitive images mark the refusal of time. I’m not entirely sure how – maybe by making time more obvious with metronomes so that we ,as the viewer, register it?

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Sketch from ‘flip book film’

He seems drawn to using old papers as backgrounds. An old OED is used here from the 1930’s, he’s drawn on every page and then reissued it as a ‘new old’ book and then filmed the pages flicking so it looks like the subject is moving. I thought this was successful as the premise of making new things out of old is an interesting one of recycling. His African roots are prominent too, with African trees and birdlife. It gives a glimpse into his life and I think that is what can make artist’s work interesting.

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Streets of the city

The horse image seems striking, made up of slogans and it seems to be both highlighting protest and pointing to history, with backgrounds of old maps and the use of the horse motif itself which references early painting?

Other rooms had theatrical productions. One began with two dancing screens, which seemed a feat in itself, then a film that featured a Dada performance which was entertaining but seemed a little obscure. Its called ‘right into her arms’ and it’s influence is from his direction and design of the opera ‘Lulu’. The other was a large room containing 9 simultaneous projections of films ‘7 fragments for Georges Melies , day for night and journey to the moon’. The most interesting ones for me, were seeing his techniques and film tricks. One had him putting up a collage of his image, that he then stepped out of. Another was a reverse film of him pouring ink from a coffee jug and stirring ink with a whisk so that the image went to white, like it it was being cleaned up. The score for this was Phillip Miller’s harmonious piano, which made a change from some of the more jarring and atonal scores of earlier rooms!

His political statements I noticed are quite subtle. In a country like his going through such change in the last century, it would be hard to avoid in an artist’s work.

An entertaining day, and reading more into this artist has bought a lot of rewards into what his work is about. I think without that, I would have come away quite baffled!

 

References

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/10/out-of-south-africa-how-politics-animated-the-art-of-william-kentridge
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