William Kentridge defines a new dimension in his latest installation. His “The Refusal of Time,” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until May 11, is a fascinating but conceptually challenging immersive experience.
The South African artist collaborated with Peter L. Galison, a history of science and physics professor at Harvard. Galison discovered that both Albert Einstein and Henri Poincaré, late 19th century mathematician and theoretical physicist, concluded that time is a relative experience rather than a universally fixed phenomenon. Whether we take this claim to be true, Kentridge does his best to convince us of it.
Kentridge is best known for his animated films in which he repeatedly draws, erases and modifies to produce narrative. I expected a two-dimensional display when I turned into the dark closed-off room, leaving behind the bright and loud artwork of the Modern and Contemporary wing.
Instead, I entered what looked like a storage space with broken screens lining all four black walls. Tape and paint spills cover the floor in incomprehensible patterns, and chairs are scattered throughout. The scene converges upon a central wooden machine, pumping and churning with precise, continuous movements but without ostensible purpose.
Suddenly, massive projections of a metronome materialized on all four walls, ticking loudly and with increasing speed, quickly changing from hypnotic to alarming. The projection changes abruptly, maps of Africa popping up and fading away. Clock faces spin out of control, as if to say that time is entirely obliterated — or perhaps irrelevant — in the artist’s nondescript space. In typical Kentridge fashion, drawings appear and erase themselves, only to be redrawn again in slightly different iterations. Here, he represents the human ability to defy time by correcting past mistakes or versions of reality with even the simplest of tasks.
However, Kentridge simultaneously challenges the assumption that everything can be rewritten. He alludes to European colonial attempts to transplant Western culture onto African societies, which possessed strong local identities that could not be erased. African figures dance and stride across all four walls of the installation, weaving their own story.
The lines are blurred between art and observer, as visitors are welcomed to take one of a haphazardly grouped set of chairs in the center of the composition. Each visitor’s experiences differ based on seat location. Each wall bears a different video projection, and the central machine blocks some parts of the narrative from view — what the visitor is able to see depends on where she has chosen to sit. Kentridge appears to be making a statement about industrialization altering the experiential narrative. He simultaneously comments on its role in history as well as on the increasing disconnect that accompanies technological advancements.
Though the experience is immersive, the exhibit is not interactive. Visitors are invited only to view, not to engage. The video depicts no cohesive storyline, and everyone in the room experiences the exhibit differently. Based on the chair arrangement, no two visitors can come away with the same understanding.
When I returned to the brightly lit Metropolitan atrium, I was silent. I had no idea how to comprehend the overwhelming scene I had just left behind. I could not believe that only 30 minutes had passed, as the exhibit’s time warp seemed much longer. For but a moment, I believed what Kentridge strove to argue: that time was only relative.