Time Out New York / Mar 25–31, 2010

William Kentridge

William Kentridge may be (among other things) an animator, but his art is pointedly grown-up, taking on complex political and personal issues with unflagging seriousness. Focusing in particular on the fraught history of his native South Africa, the 55-year-old employs a rich mix of filmmaking, printmaking, drawing and theater to weave a series of dense allegories around his chosen subjects. MoMA’s retrospective (which originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art but has been enhanced by several prints from the Modern’s collection) sensibly divides Kentridge’s extensive oeuvre into five parts, organized chronologically and according to theme. And while there is a lot of projected video in the show, a conscientious exhibition design allows plenty of room to maneuver.

Progressing from a series of works inspired by Ubu Rex (an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s satirical play Ubu Roi) to his recent production of Dmitry Shostakovich’s opera The Nose (an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s comic short story), “Five Themes” constitutes irrefutable evidence of the artist’s sweeping ambition. But in underlining his strengths, it also reveals a few weaknesses. Large charcoal drawings extracted from animations are a natural cornerstone of the show, but often look lumpen in isolation. And a section dubbed “Parcours d’Atelier: Artist in the Studio” strikes an embarrassingly hokey note in its presentation of Kentridge as a kind of portly creative wizard, able, in a suite of seven films, to bring his materials to animated life with a wave of the hand.

More successful are those works in which Kentridge engages with the heritage and problems of his homeland, in particular the ravages of apartheid. “Occasional and Residual Hope: Ubu and the Procession,” the show’s opening section, includes an animated film, Ubu Tells the Truth (1997), and a suite of etchings that address the hearings established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995, where representative victims confronted members of the recently toppled system. Also featured here is one of the most memorable works in the show, 1999’s Shadow Procession. In this stark seven-minute projection, the representational detail and narrative development with which Kentridge’s work is generally infused give way to the simplicity of cut-paper silhouettes, many grotesquely exaggerated and all en route to nowhere.

In these and related works, Kentridge comes close to making Ubu his own. But it is in the figures of industrialist Soho Eckstein and his nemesis, Felix Teitlebaum—both also fictional characters—that he finds the perfect avatars with which to pull apart the essential character of contemporary South Africa and interrogate his own place within it. Locating Eckstein and Teitlebaum in Johannesburg during the old government’s dying years, the artist follows them through nine animated films. One of the most powerful of these is History of the Main Complaint (1996), which boosted Kentridge to international prominence when it debuted at Documenta X in 1997. Again taking the TRC meetings as a point of departure, it opens on a hospital bed, in which Eckstein lies stricken with an illness that parallels the malaise of his white South African brethren in the face of their regime’s imminent demise.

While arguably indebted to Neo-Expressionist painting, this film and others of the period are distinctive for their visual basis in erasure and redrawing. This labor-intensive method endows figures in motion with smoky trails and lends the projected image a quivering, liquid surface that constitutes a mesmerizing and effective metaphor for cultural—not to mention individual—turmoil. But, as other parts of “Five Themes” remind us, he has mediated his imagery in ways that are equally striking, if not more so.

The show’s fourth section, “Sarastro and the Master’s Voice: The Magic Flute” includes one work that is like few other objects I’ve seen—the extraordinary Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005). The piece relates to the artist’s production of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, which he pointedly recasts in the long shadow of colonialism, and includes a model stage that also serves as the backdrop for a video projection. It further incorporates a number of mechanical elements, including figures that rise eerily from its floor to participate in the action. In hands less experienced at turning forms associated with childhood to emphatically adult ends, the result could have been rather twee; in Kentridge’s, it is very close to profound.

Image: William Kentridge, Drawing from Stereoscope, 1998-1999