Mainstream America meets William Kentridge
by Laurie Farrell
In the past four years, William Kentridge's work has received considerable exposure and acclaim in the United States. Sue Williamson summed up Kentridge's trajectory when she observed that 12 years ago, Kentridge walked around New York City trying to persuade art galleries to look at his slides without success. Things have changed considerably. In 1998, Kentridge held solo exhibitions including 'Drawings for Projection' at the Drawing Center, New York, and 'Weighing and Wanting' at MCA San Diego, and was a finalist in the Hugo Boss Prize Exhibition at the SoHo branch of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York. Add to that the 1999/2000 Carnegie International Medal and a coveted slot in the MoMA New York Projects series (both of these exhibitions featured his film Stereoscope), and one could argue that the American art scene should know who William Kentridge is.
Curated by Neal Benezra, deputy director and curator at the Art Institute of Chicago; Staci Boris, associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Dan Cameron, senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, this retrospective stops at major metropolitan museums across the States and ends at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town.
On February 28 2001, Kentridge's first major retrospective opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institution in the nation's capital. With high ceilings, a clean installation, curving walls that helped the exhibition's narrative unfold, and an enormous space that seemed to have been created for this show, this opening installation really set the pace for what is sure to be a very successful tour. The exhibition included 11 films, excerpts from theatre productions, two film installations, line drawings created by the artist for this venue, and more than 70 graphic works.
One of the strengths of this exhibition is the connection between Kentridge's drawings and the films they appear in. In the exhibition walkthrough, drawings were grouped in series according to the film they relate to, and preceded their respective films. Experiencing drawings created for a film, and then watching the life of the print evolve through various stages of erasure and transition into film, created an organic bond between the drawings and films. After walking through several series of drawings followed by films, visitors were able to visually obtain familiarity with Kentridge's process, cast of characters, and an underlying sense of his artistic style.
The Kentridge show is currently on view at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. Senior curator Dan Cameron gave a press tour on opening day that introduced the New York adaptation of the exhibition. The New York exhibition opens with Shadow Procession (1999), a seven minute film with music by Alfred Makgalemele that creates a liminal space between the ticket booth and the entry space of the exhibition. Turning the corner into a small room, a series of eight etchings from the Hogarth in Johannesburg series (1986-7) along with three other graphic works serve as representations of Kentridge's early period. Moving further into the show, the next space includes several series of drawings from Kentridge's first eight films that are screening continuously in one room in the back of the gallery. After watching over 60 minutes of film, the visitor must double back through the exhibition in order to continue on to the upper levels. Heading back towards the front of the gallery space, an intimate side gallery contains Medicine Chest (2000). This new installation piece projects through a small chest that has two glass shelves and a clear glass door as its vehicle of transmission. Accompanied by a soundtrack in DC, the piece is showing mute in New York City due to the artist's desire to avoid audio bleeds from other spaces.
Ascending the stairs to the mezzanine level, a series of three 1988 silkscreen prints on paper titled Art in a State of Grace, Art in a State of Hope and Art in a State of Siege are installed in a curious space above the front desk. Kentridge stated that these prints are the most politically motivated works in the show.
Located in an open walkway between the two main exhibition floors, excerpts from three theatre productions, namely Faustus in Africa! (1995), Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997) and the Monteverdi opera Il Ritorno d'Ulisse (1998) play on a single monitor as people traverse back and forth. As an open critique, it is interesting to note that the theatre installations at the Hirshhorn and the New Museum both placed these three works in walkways. In defense of both curatorial programmes, all institutions must address spatial constraints and make choices. It is interesting that these works which highlight collaborations between Kentridge and the talented Handspring Puppet Company are consistently placed in challenging spaces.
The top and final floor of the New Museum installation houses three separate viewing spaces for Ulisse: ECHO scan slide bottle (1998), the projection installation Sleeping on Glass (1999), and Ubu Tells the Truth (1997). Additional graphic works line the walls connecting the closed viewing spaces, allowing the drawings and prints to stand on their own.
Initially, after comparing the DC and New Museum installations, I felt that the strong connection between the drawings and prints that had been so effectively translated in DC was lost in the New Museum adaptation. However, after careful reconsideration, I recognised that Cameron's installation allows Kentridge's strength in each media to shine through. Also, Kentridge states that initially he felt the drawings were the art and were to be kept separate from the films. And sure, it is a lot to ask the average museum visitor to sit through eight films in one sitting. But you can be sure that the individuals who actually do so will walk away with an ability to connect characters, themes and reoccurring icons (both the obvious and the esoteric).
A noted commonality in both installations was the absence of extended label copy and timelines that tend to historically anchor artists. By abandoning over-simplified, "didactic" text, the curators have allowed visitors to experience common themes imbedded in Kentridge's work: issues of loyalty and loneliness, action and introspection, the teasing out of corrupt power structures, and larger human issues that seem rooted and local in almost every context. Furthermore, avoiding a directing narrative allows each viewer to find their own respective truths and connections with the art.
Visitors who want to feed additional intellectual curiosities can do so by purchasing the exhibition catalogue, a William Kentridge: Drawing the Passing video, or David Krut's William Kentridge CD-ROM (all which are valuable resources and recommended purchases). Another opportunity for information was made available at the New Museum through a public conversation held between Dan Cameron and William Kentridge. In an open interview that encouraged questions from the public, Kentridge revealed sources and ideas that have motivated his works. Carefully evading several audience members' attempts to categorise his artistic expressions as products of his Jewish heritage, or sympathies of white-guilt in post-apartheid South Africa, Kentridge articulated the complexities surrounding the weight of Europe in Africa.
Laurie Ann Farrell is associate curator at the Museum for African Art, New York
The New Museum exhibition closes on September 16 2001, then travels to the following venues:
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
October 20 2001 - January 20 2002
Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston
March 1 - May 5 2002
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
July 21 - October 6 2002
South African National Gallery, Cape Town
December 7 2002 - March 23 2003