William Kentridge at the Goodman Gallery
by Michael Smith
William Kentridge's shows in South Africa are always watched with great interest by local audiences. Arguably the closest thing we have to an art star, Kentridge is a consistent presence on the global contemporary art scene, showing in galleries and museums most other SA artists would commit adultery to go near. So his appearance at The Goodman Gallery during November and December with 'What Will Come' seems all the more compelling and important for Jozi. But Kentridge's ubiquity on the global stage makes some of the rest of us wonder why all the interest in him. His cornering the market on revisiting colonial-era horrors for European audiences may have something to do with it.
One's initial sense is that one has to deliberately separate the quality of the work from the hype that always attends Kentridge's local shows. However, this show proves that the hype is founded, and that Kentridge, as always, has delivered. This show is less cohesive than the 2006 showing of Black Box/Chambre Noire at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. This is because the works on show are culled from three separate projects: The Magic Flute; images and sculptures based on Dmitri Shostakovich's opera The Nose; and Kentridge's latest film, What Will Come. The works from the latter dominate the exhibition, by virtue of their spectacular visual nature. The circular format film and the still drawings that result from its process are distorted when viewed normally, but they pull into correct perspective when viewed reflected in the polished chrome cylinders placed at their centres. This push-pull between confusion and clarity suggests the shifting between forgetting and remembering, and becomes a particularly apt device for communicating the deeper conceptual strata of the film.
The work explores the 1935 Abyssinian war, dealing in imagery that is frequently surreal, consistently poignant. Kentridge's focus on this pre-World War II conflict is not purely historical: its parallels with current conflicts around the globe, most notably the USA's invasion of Iraq, are quite striking.
Over a number of years, Mussolini's Italy made moves to consolidate its power in the horn of Africa, a somewhat tardy response to the 'Scramble for Africa' colonial land grab. The European dictatorship already had control of Eritrea and Somalia (then called Somaliland), and had its sights set on Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). The League of Nations, cowed by the palpable aggression of Hitler's Germany and the distinct possibility of a European war, and keen to retain Italy as an ally should this occur, backed down from preventing Italy's expansion in the region. Consequently, when Italy finally invaded Haile Sellassie's soveriegn state in 1935, The League did little to deter it bar some fairly limp sanctions.
Once they had wrested control of the country, Italy functioned quite typically for a colonial power: its army had illegally used mustard gas during the invasion, and continued in this vein of atrocities, butchering rebels and civillians alike. They introduced public stocks, made executions frequent, and when rebels detonated a bomb at an official state ceremony, the colonialists went on the rampage, randomly killing more than 30 000 Abyssinians, whether they were involved in the resistance or not.
This, then, is the factual basis of the imagery Kentridge works with here: serene rural landscapes are bombed, peaceful towns are razed, displaced people wandering through the landscape are shot and dismembered. In a telling sequence of surreal shape-shifting, a bird flying in the air turns into an artillery tank on the ground.
The work seems rightfully accusatory in its tone. More than the obvious horrors of Italy's occupation, the broader rammifications of this saga were that The League of Nations was exposed as an ineffectual body. Kentridge seems to be suggesting a parallel with the USA's current dominance of the global political climate, and the seeming inability of organisations like the UN to exert any significant pressure on the superpower.
However, at a different level, what is interesting are the circumstances of the work's genesis: it was originally made for an Italian exhibition called 'Emergency'. This likens it to 2006's Black Box/Chambre Noire, which was commissioned by the Deutsche Bank Guggenheim, for the purpose of revisiting the genocide of the Namibian Herero people at the hands of the late 19th /early 20th century German colonists. It seems that Kentridge is doing a brisk trade in reworking European history for European countries, in terms of the postcolonial paradigm.
What concerns me about such a process is that it is, once again, a case of Africa's stories being told for European audiences by a white man (albeit one born, bred and still resident in SA, and with significant anti-apartheid credibility). The process of European organisations throwing money at cultural endeavours which document European colonists' excesses on African soil seems undeniably like it serves the purpose of assuaging guilt. This colours one's reading of What Will Come, despite the considerable power and relevance of the work.
A series of sculptures Kentridge has made in preparation for his 2008 reworking of The Nose, provide some comic relief in this dense show. Shostakovich's satirical libretto tells the story of a nose that leaves its owner's face, and avoids all endeavours to have it returned. The owner even sees it in a cathedral, but by then the nose has attained a higher social status than him, and refuses to be reintegrated into the face. After being caught and beaten, the nose submits, eventually being returned to the face of its owner, who continues his existence unperturbed by the events.
The piece is obviously a blistering critique of power and systems of social standing. Kentridge's reworking will resonate loudly in SA where political jostling and social maneouvering are reaching fever pitch in the run up to the 2009 elections. The equestrian sculptures of The Nose toy with traditions of political art and nation building, frequently employing a fractured, faceted formal approach in which one observer rightly identified the influence of Picasso. These are tabletop sculptures, employing scale and incongruity to reveal a humour in Kentridge's approach I last detected in his treatment of Ubu. This series balances the visual and conceptual intensity of the anamorphic and stereoscopic works with a lightness and an ease of viewing that nonetheless retains a characteristic sharpness of wit.
As an exhibition, 'What Will Come' reveals at least as much about Kentridge's prolific output as it does about his formal and conceptual range. Reservations aside, one truly garners a sense of his importance for the local and global art scene from this show.
Opens: November 10
Closes: December 14
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