William Kentridge at Goodman Gallery Cape and the SANG
by Katharine Jacobs
It is the sad side-effect of success in the art world that one's name begins to sound a bit like a cliché. The more often one's ideas are repeated, the more derivative and repetitive they begin to sound. Slowly, the work begins to congeal into a stodgy and prescriptive mass, reviewers leaning on each other's opinions until actual interpretation of the work becomes impossible.
The work, or rather, the ozone layer which surrounds it, has become impenetrable. Perhaps this was the reason for the sense of boredom and lethargy with which I approached Kentridge's recent double bill in Cape Town, and perhaps, it accounts for the fact that I had to work very hard to form an opinion on the whole thing.
One of the concerns with work by big names is that they will produce tirelessly repetitive bodies of work, to maintain brand identity and have lots to sell. And at first glance, my fears are justified: this body of Kentridge's work is nothing if not repetitious. Both shows deal with the tension between fragmentation and unity - not altogether new terrain for Kentridge - and hence the same ideas appear in 11 videos, a host of bronzes, some assemblage, prints and four charcoal drawings. Unless I too have been brainwashed, I think that there might be reason for this. Indeed, repetition might be said to be the medium through which these works operate.
(Repeat) from the Beginning, the Goodman leg of the twin shows, was commissioned by Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The imagery, as the title's musical reference suggests, is hence somewhat operatic; the same opera singer, megaphone and conductor are repeated across the board. The media however, couldn't be more diverse. The usual charcoal drawings are in attendance, of course, but what is interesting about this body of work is the manner in which their dusty, contingent quality - which has been so useful to Kentridge in the past - has been translated into altogether different forms.
Video piece Breathe (2008) makes use of small torn shards of black paper, which have the same smudgy, burnt quality of Kentridge's charcoals. Starting out as a scattered, disparate cloud, the small torn fragments are swept up by a paintbrush, or rather, are drawn after it as if by a magnet, to construct images - a megaphone, a singer - before disintegrating and re-forming again as something else. This is much the same process of transformation which occurs in his charcoal drawing and erasure works, but constructed in this way, the process draws attention to the movement from fragmentation to unity.
This idea is repeated in the Constructions for Return (2008), but is translated into a three dimensional format. Cobbled together from pieces of torn black card, or flat shards of black laser-cut metal, the constructions appear, at first glance, to be wholly abstract; a meditation on modernism, perhaps. Disparate, disintegrating forms, something from Zander Blom's territory, suggestive of the erosion of figuration in modernism, with the formal cut-up look of Russian Constructivism.
When they are rotated however (played, perhaps), they reverse that project of modernism. As is demonstrated in Return (2008), where a hand (one of several decisions which give these videos a hand-made quality) turns the assemblages on their bases, all the fragments align to form coherent images. Out of what appear to be mere clouds of shrapnel, a conductor, a girl, a dancer and a horse form, and we return once again to wholeness.
The bronzes, of an amputated nose riding a horse (that'll become clear later), resemble a herd of Picasso's bulls, roving from figuration to abstraction. They start out as solid, unified forms, but are slowly broken down, fragmented, into basic shapes. This then, is the same concept repeated again: fragmentation and unity, albeit with a clearer allusion to modernism. It's fragmentation again, for the chine colle lithographs, in which cut up Russian encyclopaedias bear images of pinned down butterflies, reminding us of what Wordsworth once said of more poetic text, 'we murder to dissect' (1798:online). And in a bizarre case of mirroring, this pattern of butterflies with splayed wings also appears on the front cover of Deleuze's Difference and Repetition (2004).
Which is appropriate, since all of these subtly different manifestations serve to build up a multi-faceted picture, a 'multiplicity' of meaning for the same idea (Deleuze 2004:viii). That is, they build up, and argue for, a diverse picture of unity. Which sounds a little bit like a Rainbow Nation to me. Is Kentridge getting nostalgic? All this focus on a return to unity seems a little unrealistic; after all, at what stage in South African history has there been unity between all groups?
Perhaps though, this vision is one for the future, one which we must construct ourselves, from the fragments, starting at the beginning, with nothing. As Kentridge stated in the press release for the Venice showing of the videos, there is a logic of 'anti-entropy' to these works; a sense of constructing order from chaos, rather than the other way around.
The work on show at the SANG repeats roughly the same ideas, that is, fragmentation and unity. 'I am not me, the horse is not mine' forms part of Kentridge's production of Shostakovich's satirical opera, The Nose. Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol of the same name, the opera tells the story of a minor official who wakes one morning to find his nose missing, and spends the rest of the time trying to convince it to return to his face, since it has attained a higher rank than him. Finally he wakes one morning with the nose miraculously restored to his face, and continues his vain behaviour. A critique of the fragmentations caused by class snobbery and bureaucratic posturing, it lends this half of the Kentridge doubling a more political, satirical bite.
In the video, His Majesty the Nose (2008), the notion of repetition recurs in a more cautionary guise. A man is pictured constantly climbing to the top of a set of stairs before tumbling down to the floor again. The man is engaged in a Sisyphian task, doomed to repeat and fail without learning his lesson. At one point, a giant nose is superimposed over him, completely obscuring his form. There is a sense here that the fixation has led to a fragmentation of his humanity, he is transformed, metonymically, into his own caricature.
This fate is somewhat akin to that of the power hungry man in Anton Kannemeyer or Stuart Bird's work, who ultimately becomes his own penis. This is comically appropriate when one considers that Gogol's short story has also been read, inevitably, as a demonstration of the castration complex; the removal of his nose threatening his success in both politics and with women (Kiell 1976).
Also included in Kentridge's version of the opera is the transcript from Bukharin's trial for treason, some dancing shadows which dwarf their creators, some Russian Constructivist cut-outs which have been playfully animated, and a pleasing piece of Kentridgian mime, wherein he plays the front and back end of a horse (I am not me, the horse is not mine). All of these depictions suggest a fragmentation of some sort, be it through the fragmentation of form in modernism, the cut-and-paste amputations of Russian Constructivism, complete erasure as experienced under a Communist regime, or a process of erasure through a denial of self. Repetition, essentially, all over again, but with slight variations.
But it is in the slight variations that this body of work starts to gain its own identity. For what is at work is not the dumbed-down repetition of a household name capitalising on fame, but complex repetition; the repetition of Deleuze, which reflects and multiplies the idea. Indeed, by pulling together multiple, repetitive fragments, Kentridge is able to construct something which is not tired, repetitive or derivative, but something rather novel. Rather like the manner in which the fragments coalesce to form an image in Breathe, Kentridge appears, by means of simple repetition and returning to the same idea, to have reversed entropy, and become interesting again.
Deleuze, G. 2004. 'Difference and Repetition' [Online] Available: http://books.google.co.za/books?isbn=0826477151... Last Accessed: 29 January 2009
Kiell, N. 1976. 'Varieties of Sexual Experience: psychosexuality in literature' New York: International Universities Press Inc
Wordsworth, W. 1999. 'The Tables Turned' [Online] Available: http://www.bartelby.com/145
Goodman Gallery Cape
3rd Floor Fairweather House, 176 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock
Tel: (021) 462 7573
Fax: (021) 462 7579
Hours: Tue - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 10am - 4pm
Opens: December 11
Closes: January 24
Iziko South African National Gallery
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Tel: (021) 467 4660
Hours: Tue - Sun 10am - 5pm
Opens: December 11
Closes: March 8
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