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PRINT January 2014

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William Kentridge

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012, five-channel video projection, sound, megaphones, mixed media. Installation view, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2013.

A MELANCHOLY GENIUS of the great tradition, William Kentridge asks the big questions. With The Refusal of Time, he wonders: Is it all over when we die? After debuting at Documenta 13 in 2012, the installation made its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past fall (it is on view until May 11). It tackles no less than the vicissitudes of time, the end of the universe, black holes, and string theory; yet this visionary treatment of such weighty subjects prompts a feeling of almost religious reassurance. Produced with many contributors, the work is pure Kentridge on an operatic scale. The artist drew inspiration from hours of conversation with historian of science Peter Galison, who is credited as collaborator, along with video editor Catherine Meyburgh and composer Philip Miller. The work’s nostalgic aesthetic is enlivened by the addition of South African performers, notably Dada Masilo, who choreographed the piece (she memorably performs here and elsewhere in Kentridge’s art, in live action and animation), and by the appearance of the artist himself, a familiar presence his followers have come to expect.

The installation was accompanied by a spate of new shows and performances, from the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Kentridge’s acclaimed production of Shostakovich’s The Nose to a major exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery—a season of Kentridge that saw the artist investigating the adaptation and reinvention of works for new contexts. Unlike Refusal’s staging in Kassel, for example, where it occupied an industrial space at the train station, its New York iteration required that the usually pristine Met galleries be “roughed up” (in Kentridge’s words) with materials typically used to protect walls and floors during construction. Old wooden and metal chairs, scattered about for use during the half-hour running time, encourage the viewer to occupy a multiplicity of vantage points, with five videos projected onto three walls and different sound tracks at each corner.

In the nineteenth century, time came to be controlled by the dominant powers of Europe, with Greenwich, UK, at Zero Meridian (also known, ironically, as Zulu Time). By 1880 in Paris, miles of underground pipes filled with compressed air had been installed to regulate thousands of pneumatic clocks throughout the city; this prompted the prominent use of wind instruments in the music for Refusal, as well as the “breathing machine” at its center that acts as the virtual lungs of the piece—the kind of “embodied idea” Kentridge has been drawn to for much of his career, as the artist has said. His voice, piped through a megaphone, directs us to “breathe . . . wait a minute . . . breathe,” bringing us back to the body’s own measure of time passing, which ultimately matters more than what may be dictated by machines or governments. What gives the installation further emotive power is the vulnerable humility of the messenger: “Here I am,” repeats the disembodied Kentridge, as if from outer space, while we gaze at his dream image of the galaxy. Not only are we riveted by the artist’s extraordinary inventiveness, we are comforted by his vision of a universe where, by the postulates of contemporary physics, we are eternalized—for if we accept the tenets of string theory as presented here, then pictures, snippets of conversations, and even emotions are all part of a kind of universal archive, preserved forever on the edge of a black hole.

In the dark interior of his remarkable show at Marian Goodman Gallery, Kentridge squeezed his artistry between the covers of a book: the 1914 edition of Cassell’s Cyclopædia of Mechanics, subtitled Memoranda for Workshop Use Based on Personal Experience and Expert Knowledge. Kentridge bought a used copy and stamped its yellowed endpaper with his name. A new, seven-minute video begins with the artist’s ink-stained hands opening the book’s cover, seen as if through his eyes. A piano sounds and the pages start to turn at the rate of twelve per second—enough to animate an adventure. Titled Second-hand Reading (the phrase also lends the exhibition its title), the 2013 video soon finds a lone figure—sketched in charcoal and chalk—pacing the page in reading direction, left to right. Then, on the opposite page, a painted tree appears, and then a landscape, scrolling in step with the wanderer. The Cyclopædia becomes a book of the world, with leaves turned as if by the wanderer’s feet.

Viewers will recognize Kentridge himself in his signature black trousers and white shirt, pacing panther-like in the productive confines of his Johannesburg studio. “What happens in the studio”—to borrow a favorite Kentridge locution—is this: The artist wanders through a forest of his own motifs. The things he draws (globes, coffee machines, typewriters, megaphones), the marks he makes (in charcoal and ink), and the phrases he displays (THINKING ON ONE’S FEET; MEETING THE PAGE HALF-WAY; WHICHEVER PAGE YOU OPEN, THERE YOU ARE) cycle around him as the cyclopedia of “workshop use” that made this exhibition.

The video fills its silence with an elegy written and sung by Neo Muyanga. It also silhouettes the artist’s solitude against the horizon of history and death. Toward the video’s end, Kentridge’s pacing form dissolves into charcoal smudges, from which emerges a drawing of a black man’s corpse. Rendered in crimson pencil, trickling blood rhymes with the red lines that annotate (forensically) many of Kentridge’s works. The corpse is gradually transmuted into the South African landscape. A fleeting phrase recalls the events of Sharpeville (1960) and Marikana (2012): “the massacre under the grass.” The corpse defiles the landscape’s innocence, its charcoal outlines never fully erased. The world is grasped secondhand, through the nostalgia of old books, mournful songs, obsolete artifacts, and turning pages.

Almost as commanding a presence in the video as the artist, a black woman dressed in white (again the dancer and choreographer Masilo) and emblazoned with a cross materializes, sometimes on one page, sometimes on both in duplicate. Gracefully she signs to us with semaphore flags. A recycled motif (appearing, for example, in Sleeping on Glass, 1999), her signaling is evocative but impenetrable: an urgent message, but out of place and out of time. At the video’s end, her flags join a turbulence of banners that toss about like leaves in the wind—a gesture toward the pages on display. As in the universe portrayed in The Refusal of Time, things scatter into infinity, yet nothing is lost.

Dominating the first gallery of “Second-hand Reading” were eleven monumental trees. Rendered in india ink on dictionary pages, these large composite drawings, hung on three walls of the room, formed a paper arboretum of species indigenous to South Africa. Kentridge sized each specimen roughly to his person, as if they were drawn by the full compass of the artist’s body, contributing to a sense that these are uncanny self-portraits, like Hieronymus Bosch’s famous hybrid Tree-Man.

Kentridge made these drawings page by page. Working from a squared photograph, he loosely drew parts of the whole: twists and turns of trunk and branches, grass and bushes fringing the foreground, expanses of field, and, above all, a dense profusion of leaves. The assembly of these pages was more precise. Patching the tree together, the artist shifted, layered, tore, and added ink-marked pages, with the idea that before a thing as complex as a tree, an artist does better to evoke than to copy. Kentridge also added phrases, many previously featured in his work. Unbound, disordered, and inscribed, the secondhand pages thus cycle back to what they are made of—pulped wood of trees—but here the tree has become a new book, with words for leaves. This imagery is enduring. In ancient Greece, the Sibyl wrote her prophecies on leaves, piling them at the entrance to her cave. Gusts scattered the leaves, dispersing fate. Dante refigured the image, closing his Divine Comedy with a vision in which “what is scattered through the universe in leaves is, with love, held together in one volume.” And Joyce ends Finnegans Wake with a tree (which also stands for the book) bidding its last leaf farewell.

In the gallery, the paper trees surrounded freestanding kinetic sculptures created collaboratively with Janus Fouché, Christoff Wolmarans, Chris-Waldo de Wet, Gavan Eckhart, and Muyanga. These machines are wonders: Group efforts, they serve as models for the fragile coherence of the flip-book film, the composite trees, and the artist’s oeuvre itself, where personal elements form a public statement. The hand-cranked sewing machines that sang through megaphones, along with Untitled (Drum Machine), 2012, pounding a syncopated march, gave the show a festive feel, as if the imagination at work here were less an artist’s than a people’s.

Kentridge has linked the tree drawings to a childhood memory. During the years 1958–61, his father, Sir Sydney Kentridge, famously served as one of Nelson Mandela’s defense attorneys. When he heard his father refer then to the “treason trial,” the four-year-old William interpreted it as “trees and tiles,” connected to trees in the garden and tiles on a family tabletop. Accidentally—or unconsciously—Kentridge now draws trees in tiled form. More remarkably, these drawings also put trees on trial. Trees of the knowledge of good and evil, neither they nor the landscape they forest is innocent. In one such drawing is found the phrase THE SHRAPNEL IN THE WOOD. As with the words treason trial, the obscurity here is only contextual. The words derive from German forestry: During World War II, explosives deposited so much metal in those trees that old timber must still be cautiously harvested and sawn.

“But there’s a Tree, of many, one, / A single Field which I have looked upon, / Both of them speak of something that is gone”: These immortal lines by Wordsworth moved and embarrassed contemporary admirers, who couldn’t quite explain why. Art can signal only the form of personal experience, not its content. Private, singular, and now “gone,” whatever was originally felt before that singular tree can be glimpsed only in the unbridgeable distance from it. A rare quality of Kentridge’s art is that, while whichever page you open, there he is, his work is never merely personal. In perpetual motion from project to project, shifting seamlessly among media, revising his accumulating imagery as he collaborates with other creators, the artist grows in stature with each new challenge. One of his next works will be a film environment for a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey). It will be fascinating to see how the artist-wanderer approaches this task; how, for example, Kentridge will animate the linden tree, with its words of love carved in its bark and with its leaves always rustling, “Death.”

Joseph Leo Koerner is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard University; Margaret Koster Koerner is an independent art historian.