Marian Goodman Gallery, London, 11 September – 24 October 2015
Most gallery-goers have had a Kentridge moment, spellbound by his drawings, films and installations that treat History as a dream from which we never awake. I would bet most often that moment would be, as it was for me, watching one of his Drawings for Projection (1989–2011), the well-known series of animations made from layered charcoal and pastel drawings that veer between floaty allegory and harsh directness in attempting to come to grips with modern-day South Africa. Crucially, the method carried the message, the erased lines of charcoal still visible as the drawing struggled to change, the animation carrying a homemade honesty that also spoke silently about how memory and meaning accrue. The Kentridge moment is strongest the first time; there’s a constancy to his shadow plays, cartoonish live-action videos and, yes, the operas he’s directed, as they continue to pick at the threads of the past, to layer and tangle them. Kentridge is assured at sounding, again and again, the tragicomic note of unrooted jumping back and forth that seems to define our contemporary understanding of history. And while it’s never the wrong note, it just always feels like the same note.
Dictionaries and maps form the backdrops for the drawings and video that make up half of his solo exhibition More Sweetly Play the Dance. Large ink drawings of flowers and vegetables sweep up across dozens of thin pages of definitions in English and Chinese, one two-metre high image of a lily slanting over parts of the ‘S’ section (from ‘snake buzzard’ to ‘snuff box’). Empty slogans abound over the vegetal still lifes and spill on other pages across the walls: ‘Hope for the clean slate’, ‘Eat bitterness’, ‘Use the wind to rescue speech’. This is Kentridge in darkly ironic humanist mode, jumping between nods to Paris’s Commune of 1871 and demonstrations of 1968, events from Mao’s Cultural Revolution and back to protests in Johannesburg. Smudging between these upheavals, he seems to suggest that all revolutions are merely an attempt to shift who is supplying the definitions and giving the imperatives.
In the upstairs gallery, an unlikely procession of brass bands, ambiguous protesters, politicians, bureaucrats and cowed lackeys pulling along a chorus line of dancing skeletons march across a grey landscape. The massive eight-screen video More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015) combines live action and animation footage to make a jaunty, musical merging of carnival, funeral, protest and mass exodus. It’s slow and sad, everyone worn and a bit manic, presented to a tune almost forcibly upbeat; there’s a sense that this is the parade of life, as fun as it gets. The expanse of another pan-continental gesture, though, starts to wear a bit. The video was originally commissioned for this year’s Lichtsicht projection biennial, an outdoor screening event in the German spa town of Bad Rothenfelde, and it bears the marks of being a biennial commission: oversize, overstated, unambiguous while still being unspecific. Kentridge’s merging of histories begins to feel less like an entangling of related events and more like a simplification of situations. In his Drawings for Projection, the sense of history being made, moment by moment by each of us, is palpable. Here, while the Kentridge note remains, our role in all this seems to have shifted. Both videos in this show are ostensibly inviting, surrounding the audience with lifesize figures dancing or gesturing frantically; but as one of the slogans appearing in Notes Towards a Model Opera (2015) states, ‘The greater the hardship, the greater the hardship.’ We are cast as spectators to a history that is already written and to which we must, however jauntily, resign ourselves.
Originally published in ArtReview Vol. 67, no. 9, December 2015