William Kentridge: All the World's a Stage - Art Collector

Issue 10, October - December 1999

With his latest project destined for the theatre, it’s safe to say William Kentridge is not afraid to step outside the bounds of traditional media. But then, for an artist known for his ability to tackle diversity and complexity, that’s probably no surprise writes John McDonald.

For the past two years William Kentridge has been working on the sets for an opera that was first performed in 1930, instantly condemned, and not staged again until 1974. Shostakovich composed The Nose at the very beginning of his illustrious but tortured career as the Soviet Union’s greatest musical genius. The opera, based on Gogol’s story of 1836, was reviled for its “dissonant, brutal score”. It was the first of several occasions when Shostakovich would offend the authorities, who had responded rapturously to his First Symphony.

Kentridge’s production of The Nose opened on 5 March 2010 at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. It was the most elaborate work yet by an artist who recognises no boundaries between art, film and theatre. On the way to opening night, Kentridge had made a large number of drawings, prints, sculptures and audiovisual works, experimenting with ideas and motifs.

This July, as The Nose begins a new season at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Kentridge will be showing 30 prints based on this theme at Annandale Galleries. The selection will be complemented by other prints, four sculptures, a film called Breathe (2008), and a poster designed for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This is typical of the diverse exhibitions Kentridge has held with Annandale while his work has been featured in the Biennale of Sydney of 2008 and in a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004.

It is not sufficient to describe Kentridge as South Africa’s most famous living artist: he is now one of the most celebrated artists in the world. Even as The Nose was playing at the Metropolitan, New York’s Museum of Modern Art was hosting a large survey called Five Themes. This exhibition will travel, in slightly reduced form, to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne next year.
Kentridge was born in Johannesburg in 1955, and spent much of his life working as an artist and theatre director under the apartheid system. Consequently he understands some of the pressures that Shostakovich had to endure when it came to making works in the shadow of an oppressive, all-powerful government. The difference was that the South African authorities simply tended to ignore most signs of political dissent by artists. Kentridge was never in danger of going to the gulags for his views, but he was condemned to share in the isolation from the rest of the world that was the common lot of all South Africans.

With the fall of apartheid in 1994, Kentridge gradually came to international attention with a series of animated films that picked over the bones of the old regime in allegorical fashion. His rough, grainy style, made by photographing pictures that had been drawn on, erased, and drawn on again, he described as “stone-age filmmaking”.
Pieces such as Felix in Exile (1994) and History of the Main Complaint (1996) established his credentials as one of the most innovative talents in world art. An acclaimed production of The Magic Flute in 2005 showed that his ambitions could not be contained with the walls of art museums. Working with puppets, projected imagery and live actors, Kentridge brought an entirely new dimension to works already known as classics.

In recent years Kentridge has explored the mechanics of seeing in a series of installations that use anamorphic distortion to present images that look completely different from different angles. This technique has informed his small sculptures related to The Nose, but his most elaborate exercise in this vein is a three-metre tall public sculpture called Firewalker, installed in Johannesburg in July 2009. A smaller version of this sculpture will be on display at Annandale Galleries.

What is most significant about these works is that Kentridge is never satisfied with a purely formal exploration of vision. Each different angle generates a different point of view and a distinct, contrasting image. This love of complexity, which embraces both optics and politics, is partly a function of Kentridge’s lifelong residence in Johannesburg. At this point of his career he could live anywhere in the world, but he remains true to his hometown because it is the place that inspires him most. In dealer, Bill Gregory’s words: “It’s his source of power.”

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