Published  05/11/2013

Kentridge: Where Are We and How Did We Get Here?

Kentridge: Where Are We and How Did We Get Here?

William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
22 October 2013 – 11 May 2014

In Praise of Shadows: William Kentridge in the Collection
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
26 August 2013 – 2 February 2014


William Kentridge’s new installation, The Refusal of Time, bewilders this unprepared viewer: I find myself in a large darkened gallery on the second floor of the Contemporary Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where loud, unremitting sounds combining rhythmic music with prominent tuba parts and a toned-down narration emanate from several loudspeakers in the shape of old-fashioned megaphones.

Black-and-white moving images flicker on five screens placed on three walls around a ceaselessly moving pump-like sculpture, vaguely reminiscent of a 1924 stage set depicting a cage-like meat grinder by Russian Constructivist artist Varvara Stepanova. The 30-minute films playing continuously on the screens have a roughly narrative structure in as much as they begin and end simultaneously, combining the projections into a single non-synchronous film. They all start with enormous ticking metronomes. After this opening sequence, the images lose the unity of time and place. Maps; dancers, real ones and animations made from torn paper; coffee pots and megaphones arranged into recognisable shapes by gusts of impalpable air and then blown apart again; book pages; agitprop theatre scenes; fantastic depictions of time-measuring experiments being conducted in various parts of the globe; upside-down bicycle wheels spinning furiously but ineffectively in a perpetuum mobile fashion, rolls of perforated paper – these periodically changing and rapidly moving depictions happen in different places, but relate thematically in that they occur at the same time. It proves impossible, however, to see them simultaneously on all five screens and, consequently, to make them into a coherent story.

Towards the end of the films, a procession of shadow figures marches along, blowing into megaphones, riding platforms, dancing, taking showers, carrying scaffold poles, and eventually walking in file, stooped, putting one arm on the shoulder of the person in front. This melancholic line begins at the far left of the space and moves from screen to screen around the gallery to the far right, encircling the viewer in its mournful locomotion. Apart from a distinct beginning and end, there are a few other elements that hold the film together. The musical score by South African composer Philip Miller and Kentridge’s voice emanating from the megaphones installed around the room are the foremost among them. There is also the figure of the artist himself, recurrent and prominent throughout the screening: stepping on and over fancy antique chairs, acting in various scenes, simply walking or standing, pondering, in front of blown-up images of printed text. Toward the end, in the final procession of shadows, we spot Kentridge’s stout figure atop a moving cart, eating soup.

People walk in at any point in the progression of the films, sit on chairs scattered around the gallery and watch the sequences. Understanding what is going on does not prove easy, because Kentridge’s carefully arranged medley of images, sounds and movement is disorienting and creates a sort of time warp. Even a short wall text, explaining in concise sentences the artist’s preoccupation with the idea of time, its measurement, and its management by scientists and political powers does not elucidate the work’s meaning. From it, we learn about Kentridge’s interest in the work of science historian Peter Galison, who studied Albert Einstein’s practical thoughts about the theory of relativity – the idea that in the age of the telegraph, railway stations could not all be synchronised with a central clock because of an inevitable delay in transmitting the signal. We also learn that the moving mechanism in the centre of the room is called the “breathing machine” or “elephant”, and relates to the artist’s fascination with the late 19th-century engineering plan to calibrate clocks in Paris by pumping regular bursts of air from pneumatic tubes underground. We are told that the “elephant” is a “metaphor” for the “convulsive development of science and industry during the modern era and a reminder of the vain attempt to control time”. This explanation disappoints because it rings a false note, omitting a crucial nuance, which endows the installation with its power. The work’s melancholic mode seems to defy its interpretation as an ironic comment on the inability of modern science to impose control over time. On the contrary, it points to regret over the extent to which this seemingly impossible project succeeded.

To find a suitable explanation of Kentridge’s installation, the visitor must leave the exhibition space and look elsewhere. Originally, the installation was commissioned by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev for dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, which took place from June to September 2012. The Metropolitan Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art acquired the installation jointly, to be exhibited successively in each institution. Kentridge and Galison wrote a book devoted to this installation, which can be found in the museum’s bookshop. Also, during the run of dOCUMENTA (13) last year, the New York Review of Books published a fascinating interview with Kentridge and Galison by Margaret K Koerner.1 It appears that the Metropolitan Museum’s curators are familiar with the printed sources that appeared about the installation. The wall text, for example, cites Galison’s recollection of his discovery in the archives in Paris of a late 19th-century map detailing the location of pneumatic tubes under the city streets, which he discussed in the interview with Koerner. The wall text also recites Kentridge’s story about the origins of the “elephant” mechanism as coming from his reading of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, particularly in the novel’s comparison of the monotonous movement of a 19th-century factory machine to “the head an elephant in a state of melancholy madness”. In the interview, Kentridge ties the depressive repetitiveness of the elephant’s movement to “the relentless nature of industrial society” – a statement that expresses condemnation of this society’s steady, merciless, persevering and obdurate ways, which is in a way an opposite of the work’s alleged preoccupation with the “convulsive development in science and industry” affirmed by the wall text.

There is also a crucial moment at the very beginning of Koerner’s interview when Kentridge and Galison explain their interest in the “embodied idea” around which The Refusal of Time has been built. Apparently, their interest in the turn-of-the-20th century science stemmed from the way technologies were made tangible and therefore visible to users at that time, as opposed to the digitised “black boxes” of our electronic age. This kind of old-fashioned technology, the very processes of which one could touch and hold – with wires, telephones, and transmission towers –is still possible to draw, whereas contemporary methods of electronic communication, encoded inside chips, are impossible to visualise except in metaphoric ways. Kentridge’s interest in drawing, then, equals his interest in embodied art, a kind of art that people can grasp not only conceptually, but visually as well. His involvement in filming his drawings and performances testifies to his attempts to integrate the various media and the sensibilities they represent. One only wishes that the Metropolitan Museum had done a better job of relaying some of the crucial information from the Koerner interview to the public.

In conjunction with the installation of The Refusal of Time, a small exhibition, In Praise of Shadows: William Kentridge in the Collection, has been mounted in the museum’s mezzanine gallery. It documents the Metropolitan Museum’s 12-year history of collecting the artist’s work and consists of 15 titles and 24 works, mostly drypoint prints and etchings. It features such classic images as Casspirs Full of Love, a 1989 print in which Kentridge depicted heads copied from Giotto’s pre-Renaissance frescoes at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence stacked in a coffin-like box and titled with a name for an armoured personnel carrier. There are also etchings from Kentridge’s important Ubu Projects of 1997, depicting a naked sleeping man surrounded by an arabesque; Zeno at 4 AMprints, done concurrently with his theatre work inspired by Italo Svevo’s novel Confessions of Zeno; the Atlas Processionseries, drawn under the influence of Francisco Goya’s frescoes in the cupolas of the church of San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid. This modest exhibition culminates in Kentridge’s striking Leviathanprints. Employing the chine collé technique, the artist used torn black sheets of paper depicting moving figures stopped in mid-motion and forever separated from their environment. He then stuck them on to Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 treatise on government, Leviathan, from which the prints take their name. The exhibition shows that, until acquiring The Refusal of Time, the Metropolitan Museum focused mostly on the artist’s small-scale, two-dimensional works done in traditional media. The new acquisition marks a welcome initiative in the museum’s policy towards collecting complex multimedia installations. To bring the specificity of these works to the fore, it is important to focus on their introduction to the public. Otherwise, it may be lost in the flicker of images and the noise of the machines.

1. Death, Time, Soup: A Conversation with William Kentridge and Peter Galison by Margaret K Koerner, the New York Review of Books, 30 June 2012. 

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