The first exhibit in William Kentridge’s extraordinary exhibition now on at Whitechapel Gallery is, in formal terms, a sculpture; in informal terms, it’s a contraption. It’s a movie camera tripod, on which is mounted various sprockets and levers, connected to a bicycle wheel, on which is mounted two large megaphones.
The object sets the tone and the themes of what are to follow in the six experiences that comprise the exhibition. The contraption appears whimsical…the sort of thing you’d find in the studio of a mad inventor. As it should: for every artist probably harbors the soul of a mad inventor (an image that recurs throughout). But there’s a darker side that threads the pieces: the idea that there can be a fine dividing line between the joyfulness of art and the darkness of propaganda (the megaphones), where the tools of the artist become the mere levers and cogs in the manufacture of sentiment and political perspective.
Kentridge is a South African (and you can feel this in his angst about censorship and propaganda) whose work mixes video, sculpture, animation, drawings, song, performance and audio collages, often mounted on the packing cases they were shipped in (as if the underline the ‘real-ness’ of the art). His pieces immerse the viewer into the action… which is -inescapably, like the State – all around you…on multiple screens, on canvases that seem to dance and make love with each other, through snippets of scratchy recordings reminiscent of Weimar Germany…all tenuously linked together through, often jokey, narratives.
In the first experience (entitled The Refusal of Time), at the center of a large dark room sits a vast opening/closing wooden bellows, like lungs, attached to, and moved by a series of wooden cranes…wooden oil derricks, slowly, rhythmically pumping life into the room… indifferent to the passage of time shown in the assemblage of videos that make up the content of the piece. In them, black squares form themselves into various animals (from nothing comes something…willed into being by the deus maximus of the artist-creator). It may be his lungs in the middle, but there’s no doubt that we’re in his head now. And in his head, where time present and time past exist in an ontology separate and apart from the linear time of the room, we become privy to the mix of memory, dream, thought and emotion that profile the artist. The vignettes of storylines build toward a series of silhouetted figures that dance, trudge, walk, carrying their lives with them (one figure is scrubbing away in a bath born on by others; others are playing instruments; while some are simply lumbering along burdened by the baggage of their lives). They seem to move all around the room as if there were no corners. It’s an image of the refugees that now encompass our own lives and which oppress the artist. And then in a flash, a stroke of the brush, they’re gone…replaced by a comical image of a dancing man…the safe image the artist must show, perhaps to elude (maybe now, certainly in the past) the opprobrium of the State.
In one environment (O Sentimental Machine, which is his most overtly critical of the corrupting influence of propaganda), he again plays with multiple ontologies. The central ‘event’ is of a woman walking past a vast mirror. But her image doesn’t quite reflect the ‘reality’. And so the real tries to accommodate the image…leading us to wonder to what extent who we are is a reflection of how we’re seen…and to what extent do we alter who we are to better reflect how we wish to be seen? It’s a kind of personal propaganda played out on the larger scene by the State.
Kentridge is of course the genius behind it all. But these grand complex pieces are such masterpieces of computer wizardry, clever engineering and superb, old-fashioned musical compositions, that what shines through is the power of collaboration. Like a master conductor, Kentridge has harnessed and integrated a kaleidoscope of talent in service of thought provoking ideas.
And in these days where the gestalt of life seems to lie in political divisiveness and disintegration, it seems only the grand art of people like Kentridge can lead us back away from fragmentation to some sense of wholeness.