New York

William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, megaphones, eight-channel HD-video projection (color, sound, 15 minutes). Installation view.

William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, megaphones, eight-channel HD-video projection (color, sound, 15 minutes). Installation view.

William Kentridge

William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, megaphones, eight-channel HD-video projection (color, sound, 15 minutes). Installation view.

William Kentridge’s More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, looks both unlike anything you’ve seen and something like a lot of things you’ve seen—both new and hauntingly familiar, it expertly mines both current and ancient forms of art and community as well as both novel and established devices within Kentridge’s practice, producing both wonder and recognition. Recent headlines may come to mind, but so, for me, did Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, though I wasn’t sure why until, reading the artist’s notes in a catalogue published by Amsterdam’s Eye Film Museum, which co-commissioned the work with the Lichtsicht Projektions-Biennale, Bad Rothenfelde, Germany, I saw his references to the Dance of Death, the visual and literary genus that inspired some of Bergman’s images and evidently Kentridge’s as well. Pictures and plays about the Dance of Death began in the medieval period, but as a form of memento mori or vanitas, the idea goes back at least to the tomb that Virgil planted in Arcadia in the Eclogues and surely much farther. The image of the tomb in Arcadia could itself stand as a kind of ancestor of More Sweetly Play the Dance, with its paradoxical and inextricable commingling of the celebratory and the sad.

The work is a video installation of eight large abutting screens, with music, performed by South Africa’s African Immanuel Essemblies Brass Band, provided by four old-fashioned megaphone-type speakers. (Given the quality of the sound, I suspect there is fancier technology inside.) Across the screens a motley parade advances. Who are these people and what is their purpose? Some are enigmatic: a man walking steadily forward while looking at a manuscript, for example, whose pages he equally steadily throws away. Others are more identifiable: dancers (the entire procession is a kind of dance); the band musicians playing their instruments; orators; typists; soldiers; animated skeletons; hospital patients wheeling IV carts; people holding images of historical figures (like the effigies of saints in Italian religious processions, Kentridge writes); and maybe more than anything else, people carrying things, hauling things, weighed down. This is where the headlines enter in: Seeing these men and women loaded with stuff (booty or burden? Some are pulling bodies), the viewer soon thinks of today’s refugees and wars. The hospital patients, too, Kentridge describes in the catalogue as suffering from Ebola, also lately in the news. But the currency of these stories is slippery, for the images are as timeless as they are new. Another work in Kentridge’s mind during the video’s genesis was Trajan’s Column in Rome, an almost-two-thousand-year-old image of military victory, which also must mean of defeat.

The procession was shot with live performers who moved repeatedly across a stage in Kentridge’s Johannesburg studio, generating films that were stitched together to make the final piece. The backdrop, meanwhile, is an animation, recalling the artist’s method in what probably remain his best-known works, the “Drawings for Projection” films, 1989–2011. So while the people are seen as real, the penciled clouds and sheets of rain, and the threadbare trees and brush, jerkily come and go, following Kentridge’s familiar system. Occasional numbers written on the sky tell us it’s a stage flat, and even the people are often outlined against this backdrop as flat black silhouettes, though light sometimes falls on their bodies from the side, letting in the ghosts of the color of their clothes and giving them flashes of three-dimensionality. The effect is again to suggest a feeling of timelessness, of some dimension neither unreal nor constrained by reality, as if these people had always been dancing and hauling and always will be.

The show included a second video installation, Notes Towards a Model Opera, 2015, a denser, more abstruse work but one whose deconstruction of political utopianism overlaps with the social ambiguity of More Sweetly Play the Dance. The two works also share a performer, Dada Masilo, who choreographed and dances in them—in fact the closing sequence of More Sweetly . . . shows Masilo dancing with a rifle, an image the two works share. This martial imagery, echoing Maoist propaganda posters, both harmonizes and jars with the video’s wonderful brass-band music, which is dignified but syncopated, mournful yet festive, contributing largely to the work’s extraordinary fusion of moods.

David Frankel