From the moment you step into ‘Thick Time‘ by South African artist William Kentridge, it is easy to understand why this new exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery holds such broad appeal. It is bold, dramatic, visionary and nostalgic, making art accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. The many children present seem to love it.
The common denominators of the six large scale installations are themes incorporated in most of his works: time, space and history. The mesmerising whirlwind of theatrical compositions manages not to lose sight of the details whilst upscaling the spectacle.
‘The Refusal of Time‘ (2012) is a loving homage to the bulky machinery of the industrial revolution when the function of any contraption would be immediately apparent just by looking at it – the concept of embodied ideas – and when components would not be merely designed to be functional, but also exquisite to look at.
While the wooden pumping machine – ‘elephant’ in the words of the artist – breathes, whirrs and splutters in the centre of the room, a cacophony of music and words blares out of loudspeakers and images envelop the visitors. It references Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, time travel, winding back history, space and black holes; it takes us back to 1880 when time was standardised to aid train travel – the central contraption could pass for a steam engine – but ultimately leaves it to the imagination of individuals to make more personal connections.
The idea of an elephant comes from the anthropomorphism in Charles Dicken’s ‘For These Times’. In the novel he compares the up and down movement of pistons to the head bobbing of elephants in a state of melancholic madness.
The kaleidoscopic and experimental nature of his pieces finds another avenue in his mohair tapestries, a series of silhouette drawings on nineteenth century atlas maps based on images from ‘The Nose’, the opera by Dimitri Shostakovich that William Kentridge directed for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
‘Right Into Her Arms‘ (2016) is the newest and most poetic of his installations. Continuing in the tradition of the paper theatres dating back to the early 19th century in Europe, but with an eye also on the rich puppetry history of South Africa, from colonial entertainment to the present Out of The Box Festival in Cape Town, we are treated to a raised stage where two rectangular cardboard panes are moved left to right, angled and even rotated by an electric motor while videos filmed during William Kentridge’s workshops for a production of Albarn Berg’s ‘Lulu’ are projected onto them.
Enthralled by the dialogues and the operatic music, it is difficult to pinpoint the moment when the two panels shift from being backdrops to the images of Lulu and her lovers to being lovers themselves on the stage, the unsteady and jittery mechanical movements so attuned to their flirtatious nature.
As magic lanterns were some hundreds of years ago, it is both entertaining and mystifying.
‘7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon‘ (2003) are films of the artist drawing in his studio. With no synchronised recorded sound, the music of a piano transports us back to the era when theatre pianists and organists would either play from sheet music or improvise. Like George Méliès in the first film studios in 1897, they employ stop motion, double exposure, animation and running backwards to bring sketches of birds, horses and coffee pots to life.
‘Thick Time‘ ends with ‘O Sentimental Machine‘ (2015). It contains footage filmed during Leon Trotsky’s exile in Turkey at the beginning of the 1930s in which he sings the praises of technology and dreams of turning people into machines. Far from indulging in the same misplaced nostalgia for the time of the Soviet Union of many Russians nowadays, it focuses the viewers on William Kentridge’s opposing efforts to supply each apparatus with a semblance of humanity, and on the wider debate about artificial intelligence in scientific circles.
‘Quick Time‘ is at The Whitechapel Gallery until 15/01/2017.