Monday, 3 October 2016

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: FIVE THEMES

EXHIBITION REVIEWS

BY: TABITHA CHAN

For my first post writing in the Exhibition Reviews column, I’m featuring an artist that has heavily influenced my own drawing practice. The exhibition titled “William Kentridge: Five Themes” was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, but is still one of my favourite exhibitions to date. Explore the full interactive exhibition here.

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Kentridge was born in 1955 in Johannesburg. He is a multidisciplinary artist that has a vast practice of drawing, film animation, printmaking and theatrical performance. His work is melancholic, self-reflective and poetically honest.





His series titled, “drawings for projection” feature 9 short animated films that he created over the course of 14 years. This series tells a story of what life was like in Johannesburg during and after the years of apartheid. Apartheid, meaning “separateness”, was a system of racial segregation enforced by the National Party from 1948 to 1994 in South Africa. This film is titled, “Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris” and is the first of the series.


Kentridge is of Lithuanian-Jewish descent and is the son of 2 anti-apartheid lawyers who were heavily involved with the civil rights cases at the time. In his films, Kentridge boldly navigates the social and political tensions of South Africa with attentiveness to the complex identities of what it meant to be a victim, bystander and oppressor.

When describing the city of Johannesburg, he says, “It is a city that deconstructs itself the whole time, it’s busy erasing itself the way you erase a drawing.” (Source)

Production stills from the film, “Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old.”
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For Kentridge, drawing is a way to think rather than only a physical gesture. These films are a repetitive and meditative cycle of drawing, erasing and photographing stills.

The technique he used to create these films is through a process of stop motion animation (the film is made up of many drawings which become photographs), where each sequential movement is drawn on the same sheet of paper. This means that there is always a trace of the previous drawing, each layer acting as a memory of the past that cannot fully be erased.

In these films, Kentridge only uses charcoal and highlights of blue and red pastel. The charcoal gives him the ability to transform drawings quickly as his process is extremely immediate and intuitive. He allows moments of chance to enter into his drawings.

Production stills from the film, “Felix In Exile.”
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The narrative of these films is told through 2 recurring fictional characters: Soho Eckstein, an elite and powerful businessman and his alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum, an introverted artist who is the lover of Soho’s wife. Soho is drawn with confident black lines and is characterized by a pinstripe suit, while Felix is drawn in a softer washed out gray and is most often portrayed nude.

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Kentridge arranges these recognizable good and evil archetypes in order to break them down to reveal that human beings cannot be understood as binary oppositions. In traumatic cultural narratives, everyone is implicated and no one is innocent. As the series progresses, the viewer sees Soho’s identity fall apart as the apartheid collapses.




In 2003, Kentridge created a number of films that featured himself in the studio and his drawing process. These films are a poetic expression of the intersection between drawing and cinema as they implement techniques such as reversing footage, overlaying fade scenes and split screens.

In this particular work, titled, “Invisible Mending,” Kentridge has drawn his self-portrait, deliberately effacing it by drawing harsh lines overtop and then rips the paper. The footage is reversed so that the film actually looks like he is mending his own self-portrait as opposed to destroying it. In the final scenes of the film, his real self seemingly steps out of the drawn self through an overlaying fade.


Through self-portraiture, Kentridge examines the “artist split." Kentridge uses the studio as a metaphor to demonstrate that this separation of the self is actually how we operate in everyday life. This split between artist and viewer is how we make sense of the world, emphasizing how we are never fully complete and always to a certain extent absent from our bodies.

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“I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing – the contingent way that images arrive in the work – lies some kind of model of how we live our lives. The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world.” 

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