Opera and politics: William Kentridge and the art of allegory

Bridging art and opera, activism and morality, William Kentridge combines the political with the poetic in a powerful, multivalent practice.

Art Radar profiles the veteran South African artist William Kentridge, whose largest retrospective to date is on show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing until 30 August 2015. 

Installation view of William Kentridge's "Notes Towards a Model Opera" (2015), a retrospective exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Image courtesy the artist and UCCA.

Installation view of William Kentridge’s “Notes Towards a Model Opera” (2015), a retrospective exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Image courtesy the artist and UCCA.

William Kentridge (b. 1955, Johannesburg) is an internationally established artist with a vastly multidisciplinary oeuvre spanning drawing, film animation, printmaking, sculpture, opera and theatrical performance. Having first gained international attention in the 1990s, Kentridge has participated in many major events such as the Venice Biennale (2005, 1999 and 1993) and Documenta X (1997), XI (2002) and XIII (2012).

“William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera” is Kentridge’s largest and most comprehensive survey exhibition to date, and is currently on show at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) until the end of August 2015. Concurrent to the exhibition, Kentridge delivered a lecture-performance entitled “Peripheral Thinking” at Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive on 30 June 2015, interplaying sounds and images while discussing his work.

Stories from Africa

Kentridge was born in apartheid South Africa to two lawyers who were prominent opponents of the system. Drawing from his personal experiences, he began to create prints and drawings in the 1970s that addressed life in Johannesburg during and after the deadly ravages of apartheid. Roberta Smith of The New York Times writes that one of Kentridge’s early works, a 1979 monotype exhibited at his 2010 MoMA retrospective, was from a series entitled “Pit” – “a word that connotes both theatre architecture and torture.”

William Kentridge, 'Colonial Landscape (Waterfall)', 1995. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.

William Kentridge, ‘Colonial Landscape (Waterfall)’, 1995. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.

In the late 1980s, Kentridge created his signature stop-motion animated short films based on his own charcoal drawings. A gifted figurative artist, Kentridge has been compared to Goya, William Hogarth and Honoré Daumier (PDF download), and his expressionism is also linked to that of Max Beckmann and George Grosz. But what defines Kentridge is his fusion and transformation of art forms. PBS writes, while describing Kentridge’s technique:

Kentridge photographs his charcoal drawings and paper collages over time, recording scenes as they evolve. Working without a script or storyboard, he plots out each animated film, preserving every addition and erasure.

William Kentridge, 'Tango for Page Turning', 2012-2013, single channel HD video, 2m:48s. Image courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.

William Kentridge, ‘Tango for Page Turning’, 2012-2013, single channel HD video, 2m:48s. Image courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.

MoMA’s interactive page on the artist describes him as “one of the few figures to successfully bridge the fields of visual art, film, and theatre”. The defining cycle of animation films allegorise South Africa’s political upheavals through a series of characters: a wealthy industrialist, his wife and her lover. Combining image-making and story-telling, these lyrical, interdisciplinary films catapulted Kentridge to international fame. Smith writes in The New York Times that in these films,

the personal and the political combine and recombine, often to cataclysmic effect, dazzling the eye with flurries of charcoal marks and erasures.

Politics and theatre

Kentridge studied Politics and African Studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (1973–76) before pursuing Fine Art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation (1976–78). According to MoMA, Kentridge’s layered works explore “the ambivalent and often contradictory dynamics between victims, bystanders, and aggressors” by engaging subtly yet dynamically with the social, the political and the private.

William Kentridge, 'Drawing for The Refusal of Time (He That Fled His Fate)', 2011, charcoal, coloured pencil and poster paint on two sheets of brown pattern-making paper, 198 x 267 cm. Private collection. Image courtesy the artist and UCCA.

William Kentridge, ‘Drawing for The Refusal of Time (He That Fled His Fate)’, 2011, charcoal, coloured pencil and poster paint on two sheets of brown pattern-making paper, 198 x 267 cm. Private collection. Image courtesy the artist and UCCA.

Throughout his formal academic pursuit of art and politics, Kentridge was also heavily involved in theatre. According to his Tate biography,

[Kentridge’s] interest in theatre continued throughout his career and clearly informs the dramatic and narrative character of his art as well as his interests in linking drawing and film.

Installation view of William Kentridge's "Notes Towards a Model Opera" (2015), a retrospective exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Image courtesy the artist and UCCA.

Installation view of William Kentridge’s “Notes Towards a Model Opera” (2015), a retrospective exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Image courtesy the artist and UCCA.

As with the best of theatre, Kentridge’s art explores the absurdity of life through satire and comedy. According to an article in The Julliard Journal, Kentridge once said that “brutal comedy” is one way of dealing with world cataclysms. The author of the article observed that Kentridge was a “worthy successor to Goya – someone who grapples with the evils of his world and makes art out of them, causing us to laugh and cry all at once”.

Notes Towards a Model Opera

Building on his passion for theatre, Kentridge then progressed to opera. Some of Kentridge’s multidisciplinary operatic projects in recent years include Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005), a theatre performance/video installation that tackles the 1904 Herero genocide, and I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008), which deals with the 1917 Russian revolution through video, installation and filmic performance. The music for both works was composed by Philip Miller, a fellow South African with whom Kentridge has been collaborating for nearly 20 years. According to the UCCA retrospective press release, Kentridge considers opera an “ideal artistic form”:

Like animation, [Kentridge] views opera as an ideal artistic form, capable of staging multiple views of a subject simultaneously for the consideration of auteur and audience, the voices of each character combining (dis)harmoniously in the final work.

Installation view of William Kentridge's "Notes Towards a Model Opera" (2015), a retrospective exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Image courtesy the artist and UCCA.

Installation view of William Kentridge’s “Notes Towards a Model Opera” (2015), a retrospective exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Image courtesy the artist and UCCA.

At the core of the UCCA retrospective is Kentridge’s titular piece Notes Towards a Model Opera (2015). The layered, multi-dimensional work involves a three-channel projection, a series of ink and calligraphic drawings, a score and soundtrack designed by Philip Miller, and a dance choreographed and performed by Dada Masilo. The result of extensive research, Notes Towards a Model Opera delves into the intellectual, political and social history of modern China, from Lu Xun to revolutionary theatre. At the same time, the work investigates the aesthetic and ideological transformations of ballet as it was transplanted across Moscow, Shanghai and the artist’s native Johannesburg. The press release explains that the piece

explores dynamics of cultural diffusion and metamorphosis through the formal prism of the eight model operas of the Cultural Revolution [and] considers these didactic ballets both as a cultural phenomenon unto itself and as part of a history of dance that spans continents and centuries.

William Kentridge, 'The Refusal of Time', 2012. A Collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison. Five-channel video with sound, 30m:00s, with megaphones and breathing machine ('elephant'). Installation at MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Roma. Image courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo by Matteo Monti.

William Kentridge, ‘The Refusal of Time’, 2012. A Collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison. Five-channel video with sound, 30m:00s, with megaphones and breathing machine (‘elephant’). Installation at MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Roma. Image courtesy Fondazione MAXXI. Photo by Matteo Monti.

Telling it all, telling it ‘slant’

The entire retrospective spans a dizzying yet remarkably coherent array of media: two-dimensional pieces in charcoal, India ink, linocut and silkscreen print on paper; kinetic sculptures evoking the Duchampian ready-made tradition; multi-channel video artworks; and a large-scale installation complete with mechanical puppets.

Equally as impressive is the breadth in subject matter; over the years Kentridge has ventured far beyond the apartheid to explore themes involving science, globalisation, colonialism and memory. In 2012 Kentridge explored the nature of time in The Refusal of Time (2012), a 30-minute, five-channel video installation featuring live action, song and animation. The work is the product of years of research and collaboration between Kentridge and Peter Galison, professor of History of Science at Harvard University.

William Kentridge, 'The Refusal of Time', 2012. A collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison. Five-channel video with sound, 30m:00s, with megaphones and breathing machine ('elephant'). Image courtesy the artist.

William Kentridge, ‘The Refusal of Time’, 2012. A collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Galison. Five-channel video with sound, 30m:00s, with megaphones and breathing machine (‘elephant’). Image courtesy the artist.

Regardless of media, form and subject matter, Kentridge’s tone is always graceful, playful and light. According to an article in New York Magazine, Kentridge realised early on that a person from his privileged background could not speak directly for the oppressed or adopt the perspective of a disenfranchised victim of apartheid. The article goes on to say that “[i]f he was to tell the truth, he must tell it – as Emily Dickinson suggested – ‘slant’.”

Because of this unique sensibility, Kentridge is a rare political artist who gets his point across with wit and graceful humour. The lightness in touch is a result of his constant innovation and spontaneous temperament. He said, in the documentary “Anything is Possible”:

In the looseness of trying different things, images and ideas emerge … So it’s about not knowing what is happening in advance. It’s always kind of been in between the things I thought I was doing that the real work has happened.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: South African artists, drawing, charcoal, film, video, animation, sculpture, installation, political art, artist profiles, museum shows, events in Beijing

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