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Jeu de Paume Presents Exhibition by South African Artist William Kentridge
William Kentridge, A Lifetime of Enthusiasm (still), from the installation I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008. Eight-channel video projection, DVCAM and HDV transferred to video, 6:01 min. Collection of the artist, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris, and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg © 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.
PARIS.- South African artist William Kentridge came to attention on the international scene in the 1990s thanks to a series of short animation films – he prefers to call them “drawings for projection” – depicting everyday life under apartheid. In the works he has produced since the end of the apartheid regime, which feature in this exhibition, he has broadened his themes, leaving his immediate environment to examine other political conflicts. In the process he has embarked upon a kind of universal history of war and revolution in which he evokes the complexities and tensions of postcolonial memory, finding images for the residual traces left by violent and oppressive political regimes. Contrary to the norm for much political art, Kentridge takes a nuanced approach as he explores the ambiguous, often contradictory dynamic which entangles perpetrators, witnesses and victims.

“William Kentridge, Five Themes” brings together some forty pieces, many of them made since 2000. It demonstrates the variety of Kentridge’s output, which ranges across such media as drawing, film, collage, prints, sculpture and stage sets. His longstanding interest in theatre – he was a cofounder of Johannesburg’s Junction Avenue Theatre Company in the 1970s, and since then has collaborated on several occasions with the Handspring Puppet Company — is reflected in the dramatic and even dramaturgical quality of his work. Kentridge is one of the few artists active today capable of connecting the visual arts, cinema and the performing arts. He does not so much alternate between these disciplines as shift fluently around them, going from theatre to drawing and from drawing to film. Naturally, his work echoes the South African experience, but it also draws on a wide variety of European sources, notably in literature, opera, theatre and early cinema, from which he takes the inspiration for the archetypal characters in his narratives. These figures embody and act out a complex universe in which the forces of good and evil are complementary and inseparable.

In recent years Kentridge has made a profound conceptual change in his work by adopting a reflexive and at the same time amused view of his personal relation to the world. Where in his first animations he presented a whole troupe of fictive characters, he himself is now the main character – both the maker of the drawings and the cinematographic auteur – of his own creations. In his latest works, which are more varied in content and more ambitious in form, he continues to introduce improvised transitions between the camera and drawing, or between the actors and the images they project. At the same time, referring to optical illusions and the mechanisms of perception, Kentridge goes beyond the usual manipulations of animation to bring forth a world conceived as a theatre of memory.

This exhibition is articulated around five main themes which have concerned William Kentridge for some thirty years now, as illustrated in about thirty works from the late 1980s to the present. Giving particular prominence to his most recent pieces, such as Learning from the Absurd: The Nose (2008), the exhibition reveals, for the first time in France, the diversity of his output.

Theme I – An Opaque Period: Soho and Felix
With the creation of Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris, in 1989, Kentridge began a cycle of short animation films featuring a set of emblematic characters: Soho Eckstein, a greedy capitalist and property tycoon, whose murky conscience reflects certain aspects of South Africa at the time, and his sensitive alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum, who pines for Soho’s wife and often functions as a surrogate for the artist himself. But then, as Kentridge says: “There is something of me in each of my characters […] or both of them are in me.” Nine films (the preparatory drawings will be exhibited at Jeu de Paume) follow the adventures of Soho and Felix as they struggle to navigate the political and social climate of Johannesburg during the final decade of apartheid. It was in this series that Kentridge devised his working method based on improvisation and his characteristic use of stop-motion animation techniques. Injecting movement into his sequence of charcoal drawings, he evokes the local mining industry and, by his technique of continually erasing and reworking his drawings, suggests the constant erosion of the landscape. The final state of each drawing is thus a veritable record of this laborious succession of erasures and additions, like a palimpsest expressing the emotional tension between forgetting and memory.

Theme II - Occasional and Residual Hope: Ubu and the Procession
In 1975 Kentridge acted in Ubu Rex (an adaptation of Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s satire about a corrupt and cowardly despot. Twenty years later he returned to this same material, but in a different context, that of the public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which were set up by the South African government in 1995 to investigate human rights abuses during apartheid. “From a South African viewpoint,” explains the artist, “Ubu is a particularly powerful metaphor for the absurd policy of apartheid, which the state presented as a rational system.” Under the title Ubu Tells the Truth, Kentridge has made two distinct works, a series of etchings and an animation film related to his 1996 theatre production of Ubu and the Truth Commission. In what are some of the biggest drawings he has yet produced, the artist endows Ubu with a monumental dimension. This Ubu figure is inspired by photographs the artist took of himself playing the role in his studio. Superimposed on each of the etchings in the portfolio are chalk drawings of Ubu (inspired by the drawings of Alfred Jarry, creator of this crass, boorish figure) and line drawings of a naked man (based on photographs taken in the studio). In the collage polyptychs and bronze sculptures the procession of figures, echoing the animated puppets in the film Shadow Procession (1999), evokes the political and cultural volatility of this period of South African history, while also evoking the universal experience of protest and migration.

Theme III - Parcours d’Atelier: Artist in the Studio
In these works Kentridge starts with the classical genre of the self-portrait, using it as a way to present his artistic methods, seen in the setting of his studio. He becomes his own subject, presenting and describing his creative work with the greatest simplicity. “The studio is an enclosed space, not just physically but also psychically, like an enlarged head; the pacing in the studio is the equivalent of ideas spinning around in one’s head.”

The invisible process that precedes the elaboration of a work of art is the theme of 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès (2003), a homage to the famous filmmaker and conjuror known for his pioneering special effects on the silver screen. Kentridge pays tribute to silent films such as Journey to the Moon (1902), in which Méliès plays his own role in front of painted sets. In Day for Night and Journey to the Moon (2003) he sets up an exchange between process and product, echoing the way the artist plays with the inversions of temporality and tonality. Thus a sequence with ants is transformed, by inversion, into a glittering constellation of stars in a night sky. Elsewhere the artist wanders round the studio, coming and going between the camera and the wall on which he has pinned up the drawings that will become his animations.

Theme IV - Sarastro and the Master's Voice: The Magic Flute
The works here were inspired by Kentridge’s 2005 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In the centre of the room, three sculptural objects – two miniature theatres and a film-based installation – project films, alternating in what is a kind of big dramatic cycle. Learning the Flute (2003) serves as an overture or introduction. Projected on a blackboard, this film becomes a sketchbook for the show as a whole. Preparing the Flute (2005) was created as a large-scale maquette within which to test projections central to Kentridge’s production of the opera.

By opposing positive and negative film, and highlighting the symbolic conflict between the Queen of the Night and the high priest of light, Sarastro, these works offer a reflection on the moral dualism of the Enlightenment, as expressed in Mozart’s opera.

While the works on the theme of The Magic Flute refer to the Enlightenment and its dialectic, a second miniature theatre, Black Box/Chambre noire (2005) illustrates the darker side of the policies carried out in the name of Enlightenment values. For Kentridge, this installation is indeed a reflection on the ravages of colonialism, which “was seen as an Enlightenment project, bringing lightness to the dark continent.” Black Box refers to the revolt and massacre of the Herero in the German colonies of Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia), from 1904 to 1907. As a coda to The Magic Flute, the installation What Will Come (Has Already Come), 2007, evokes the invasion of Abyssinia by Mussolini’s fascist Italy in 1935. Deformed images projected onto a flat surface are reconstituted in a cylindrical mirror, as a way of suggesting the cyclical nature of history and the distortions that it can engender.

Theme V - Learning from the Absurd: The Nose
Kentridge’s last work is related to his production of The Nose for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it premiered in spring 2010.

First performed in 1930, this opera by Dmitri Shostakovich, based on Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist short story from 1836, tells the story of a Russian official whose nose disappears from his face one morning, only to turn up, in uniform, as a higher-ranking official moving in more respected circles, refusing to return to the face to which it belongs. I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) is an installation comprising eight fragments of films. It uses Gogol’s story as the basis for examining the revolutionary avant-garde in Russian art and its suppression in the 1930s. In Kentridge’s own words, this work “takes the short story, its earlier history, and its possible histories as a basis for looking at the formal inventiveness of different strains of Russian Modernism and the calamitous end of the Russian avant-garde.” The title of the work is a Russian saying traditionally used to deny responsibility. Kentridge came across it in the minutes of Nikolai Bukharin’s statement to a Plenum of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. One of the film presents excerpts from these minutes. Taking his lead from the highly contrasting graphic style of Russian Constructivist art, Kentridge creates a highly personal, lively set of images by combining stop-motion animation using paper cut-outs with fragments from the archives and filmed sequences.

Jeu de Paume | William Kentridge | Paris |


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