I have been captivated by the work of South African artist William Kentridge since I first encountered him years ago and have never stopped looking. I fell in love with his stop-motion animations, his use of charcoal drawings on a single piece of paper, the way he allowed erasure marks to bear as much weight as the charcoal itself and his willingness to allow his work to develop slowly, without fixed conclusion.
A number of his works are currently on display in the Yale University Art Gallery, where Kentridge will be speaking this Sunday. Additionally, two performances of his multimedia chamber opera “Refuse the Hour” will run at the Yale Rep this weekend.
Kentridge’s art is renowned for its ability to integrate both his formal studio practice and his passion for performance art, including theater, music and dance, as exemplified in “Refuse the Hour.” The pieces in the YUAG demonstrate Kentridge’s facility with varying media, as well: included in a single room are prints, installations and animations.
His work revolves around uncertainty, or what the artist calls “provisionality.” While his art often bears political themes, Kentridge resists political agendas, and instead maintains that his work presents political reflections without suggesting answers.
In the front corner of the gallery, concealed by a black curtain, is “What Will Come,” an installation that includes a table, a cylindrical mirror and a rotating projection. At first glance, the piece is remarkable for the technological skill with which it is executed. Looking down on the table, one sees a drawing of a distorted kidney bean; when it is reflected onto the cylindrical mirror, it becomes Earth.
The subject matter is the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Music plays through the speakers; the popping of guns punctuates one of Mussolini’s favorite marches, a Shostakovich reflection on a Jewish song about loss follows, referencing the migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Margaret Koerner, an art historian who gave a talk on Wednesday at the YUAG on the exhibit, explained, “Kentridge is concerned with dictatorial regimes and forced migration, and how they will repeat.” This is especially compelling in the context of Kentridge’s familial history: Born to a family of Lithuanian Jews in South Africa, the artist’s father, Sydney Kentridge, was a white South African lawyer who defended such figures as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Albert Luthuli.
The series of prints on the right side of the gallery is called “Zeno at 4 a.m.” Koerner suggested that this body of work may reflect how Kentridge identifies with Zeno, the titular character in Italo Svevo’s “Confessions of Zeno,” who was instructed by his analyst to keep a diary. Instead of writing, Kentridge works through his thoughts and dreams in the studio, sometimes late at night. Working without a preconceived plan of the outcome, his work, as in this case, can have fantastical or dreamlike features.
“General” is a large drypoint and watercolor work on paper striking for its use of color. Except for brief flashes in the next work, “NO, IT IS,” “General” is the only piece in the gallery that features color prominently. Kentridge’s work is known for being primarily black and white; in “General,” color begins to assume a symbolism — such as a splash of red at his collar indicating blood, an obvious critique of military authority — that the artist tends to avoid in his other pieces.
“NO, IT IS” is a three-part video installation at the back wall, and my personal favorite of the pieces in the gallery. The work was originally meant to be an element of “Refuse the Hour,” and Koerner explained that certain fragments of the animation will be projected at the back of the stage in the opera. Each video shows animations of drawings on book pages that flip like a video reel. As the artist does somersaults in one animation, on the next a telephone becomes a voluptuous female body and in the last screen a raven emerges from a nest of black ink streaks. Of the works on display in the gallery, “NO, IT IS” most reflects Kentridge’s current fascination with the concept of time as it anticipates “Refuse the Hour.” As Koerner said, “Hopefully Kentridge will be doing somersaults here, long after he is gone.”
I have loved Kentridge’s work for years, and I am now discovering that his writings and lectures are no less elegant and powerful than his art. As I begin to develop layered and moving images in my own work, I return to Kentridge and his humorous, beautiful and heartbreaking art again and again and again. It is remarkable to finally see his work in person at the YUAG, and it is a well of inspiration to whomever will take the time to engage with it.