William Kentridge is South Africa’s most famous artist. Born in Johannesburg in 1955, he studied politics and African studies before doing fine arts at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, and studying mime at the famous Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Originally he had hoped to become an actor; however, he was, he says, so bad that he was reduced to becoming an artist. Since then he has worked in theatre and in television as an art director. In 1999 he won the Carnegie International Medal.
Zeno Writing, 2002
Best known for his animated films, these evocative, powerful and disturbing works are constructed by a process of filming and drawing. A charcoal drawing is filmed, erasures and changes are made, and then it is shot again. A single drawing is altered and filmed this way until the end of a scene.
Unlike a film, where each frame is painted or digitally created, there is something about this process of cons-tant erasure that is akin to dreaming. Things emerge and transform to reveal something of Kentridge’s personal odyssey through the fraught landscape of apartheid and colonialism. Although a political artist, he says he is primarily interested in “an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.” Meaning is reached towards, stumbled upon and suggested. Philosophical of bent, his work is essentially existential, rooted in surrealism and the theatre of the absurd.
Ubu Tells the Truth, 1996-7
This new show, split between the University of Brighton Gallery and a partially restored Regency townhouse, presents animated and anamorphic films, stereoscopic photogravures, prints and drawings. The work in the university gallery includes a number of Kentridge’s print series such as Ubu Tells the Truth (1996-7), a collaborative celebration with artists Deborah Bell and Robert Hodgins on the centenary of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi that surrealist invective against the casual power of tyrants and Zeno Writing (2002), inspired by Italo Svevo’s 1923 novel Confessions of Zeno, about a man socially, politically and personally paralysed by inaction set against the background of a Europe trudging inexorably towards war.
Kentridge’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute was premiered at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2005. His series of prints, shown here, suggests a renewed emphasis on the opera’s themes that deal with the struggle of Enlightenment values against the forces of superstition and self-interest.
Stereoscopic Photogravures, 2007
The nature of perception is a question that is of fundamental concern and is explored in the Stereoscopic Photogravures (2007). Here, dual images are brought together so the viewer perceives a depth of field previously not present in the separate prints.
This is not simply some perceptual trick but underlines Kentridge’s point that “the activity of seeing, or the work that we do in seeing… is a philosophical point about epistemology… it is about not understanding ourselves as merely passive receivers, or objects of manipulation, but people who are actively involved in constructing our world the whole time…” The nature of free will is the discourse that fuels Kentridge’s work.
What Will Come (has already come), 2007 Series
While the prints are, without doubt, interesting, it is his animated work that has the most impact. Back-projected onto the street and turned on at dusk to the delight of passers-by, seven films in honour of the early cinmateur Georges Mlis have been framed in the gallery windows.
Up the road, in the distressed beauty of a partially renovated Regency house in Brunswick Square, is the centrepiece of the exhibition, the mesmeric and provocative anamorphic film What Will Come (Has Already Come) (2006), which uses the Italian assault on Abyssinia to highlight the universal misery of wars fought by those with superior technology against those who cannot adequately defend themselves. This powerful, intelligent work, which grows out of the tradition of European Expressionism and the work of painters such as George Grosz and Otto Dix, reminds us of the fact that all life is in some way political.
William Kentridge Fragile Identities at the University of Brighton Gallery and The Regency Town House, Brighton until 31 December 2007
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Images © William Kentridge
Published in The Independent