Thursday, March 11, 2010

Art: William Kentridge: Five themes, at MoMA

An opening is rarely the best time to see a show; generally the crowds make the work physically inaccessible, and your sensorium is dulled by the free wine anyway. A short film retrospective, though, functions differently. The chattering revelers, who have come to see and be seen, would be forlorn in the dark rooms, filled with sound and flickering light, so they keep to the echoing loggia, crowding around the bar.

And so the benches are mostly free in room after room where all of William Kentridge's old films are playing. I've seen most of them before, and the ones I remember being my favorites (Sobriety, Obesity, and Growing Old and Felix in Exile ) still move me the most.

There are so many reasons why I love Kentridge's work, the primary perhaps being that I love it despite itself. It's not particularly seductive; I'm partial to clean lines, high production values, and pretty people. Kentridge works with charcoal drawings, occasionally adding a bit of blue to his black and white palette, and he creates moving images by photographing the literal palimpsest as he makes slight erasures and augmentations to lines, transforming each sheet hundreds of times, so that an eight minute film uses between 20-40 sheets of paper. This means that his films are swirling, murky things, where shadows trail each image and dim ghosts are left vibrating in the white spaces. Kentridge's cast of characters, too, are mottled and murky, aging, overweight, balding, naked. The blue chalk is usually used for water, cried as tears from his sorrowing characters' eyes, pouring from the faucet, filling rooms.

Why then, do these "ugly" animations move me? Certainly not because of their political intention; I generally loathe political art. Kentridge is South African, and the violent horrors of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are omnipresent—pigs that explode, bodies that die and disappear behind blowing sheets of newspaper, long lines of refugees carrying their belongings on their backs. While I acknowledge the importance of international awareness, I generally request that my art edify, rather than notify, or, worse, horrify.

But there is something so incredibly human in Kentridge's work—he communicates our pain so tenderly, and discloses his own with such unabashed honesty. The diligent investment in his craft (he seems to be one of the few contemporary artists who actually, physically, makes his own work) is part of that honesty.

Without knowing how big the exhibition was, I over-invested my time in revisiting Kentridge's older films, leaving myself only a few minutes to watch the newer works installed in the further galleries, a number of which were installed together in one room (three pieces consisting of ten projections all together). These, which MoMA groups under the rubric of "Artist in the Studio" perhaps aren't strong enough to show on their own, but still detract from each other, and in them, Kentridge, the flesh-and-blood man, steps into the frame (he is present in the older films, but under the guise of charcoaled characters Felix Teitelbaum and Soho Eckstein). Whimsical and reminiscent of Dada films, these are more sullied by our contemporary moment, in which art is made about art and the artistic process, rather than about humans and the human condition. And so, perhaps it's for the best that I spent all of my time firmly lodged in the early 1990s, when Felix cried blue tears, filling the room with his sorrow.

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