William Kentridge, a South African artist who is best known for his animated films, performances, sculptures, expressionist drawings and theatre productions showcases his exhibition Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery. It is his first extensive solo show in the UK in over 15 years; Thick Time is also curated by Whitechapel’s Gallery Director, Iwona Blazwick.
Kentridge lived through the course and saw the end of the apartheid having grown up in South Africa. His environment has been influential in his creations; social instability, politics, time and colonization being prominent themes among others. We can see his versatility of artistic approaches in Thick Time, but also his knowledge or rather his curiosity to understand the themes in his work by exploring them through philosophy, science or early cinema, for example.
Thick Time is a major exhibition, spread in over two floors of the gallery; it consists of six major installations established between 2003-2016 including The Refusal of Time (2012) and O Sentimental Machine (2015) which is the first time they are being exhibited here in the UK. The Refusal of Time (2012) is a multi-sensory installation that examines the role and revolution of time into moving images, mechanics, sound, performances and material commodities. It’s in collaboration with Philip Miller, projection designer & editor, Catherine Meyburgh, dancer & choreographer, Dada Masilo and American scientist, Peter Galison. In the middle of the studio where The Refusal of Time (2012) is being showcased, there is a huge ‘breathing’ machine or ‘elephant’ in position, based on attempts to manage time during the industrial revolution and the peak of European colonization in the 19th century. It was initially exhibited at dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, Germany in 2012. There is an estimate of less than twenty chairs around the ‘elephant’ and because it’s so big it’s difficult to see the people on the other side (if you’re not sitting in the middle front section of the room that is) nor parts of the three walls where animated films, shadow-plays and performances are being projected onto. Spectators are encouraged to move around or change the position of the chairs as I was told by one of the gallery assistants to not be fooled by how hard it may seem to lift the chairs up. Again, having this freedom of moving around next to the ‘elephant’ is a way of playing or modifying how people perceive space and time. The music and sounds being played in the audio-visual installation is accompanied by the darkness of the studio room, the brightness only comes from the projections. This definitely affects the atmosphere of the room when the shadow-plays being depicted relates with the theme of colonialism and post-colonialism. Although the ‘elephant’ is constantly ‘breathing’, the video installation lasts for about 16-20 minutes.
The Refusal of Time (2012) was inspired by his discussions about the progress of time with scientist, Peter Galison, especially when put side by side with human and capitalist exploitation. His flipbook film, Second-hand Reading (2013) shows drawings inscribed in pages from encyclopaedias and dictionaries. We see his rough sketches of himself along with basic, geometric shapes and drawings of nature incorporated with thought-provoking slogans or phrases and having South African composer, Neo Muyanga’s musical score being played as its backdrop music. Guests are also able to touch and flick through the book that the Second-hand Reading (2013) is from in the Tapestry Library section of the gallery exhibition.
One of the most memorable installations which I thought was very clever was Right Into Her Arms which the exhibition booklet describes as “a miniature model theatre” since it is an alteration of Alan Berg’s opera, Lulu. It’s abstractly quite clever but with undertones of parody, which makes viewers wonder if it’s inspired by Dadaism. Right Into Her Arms shows two, wooden, rectangular boards being moved back and forth, side to side by an overhead conveyor to illustrate a couple, even though they’re just genderless, neutral objects – boards to be specific, that are the same height and size. Viewers realize the plot of the scene and what the boards represent due to the written dialogues and images being projected onto the boards which signifies that one is a man and the other, a woman. We understand their relationship through the movements of the board also. I thought it’s different and genius of William Kentridge to reduce or portray humans to an everyday shape and object, it’s very abstract yet viewers can still comprehend and appreciate the story. It is a whole different perspective on human reflection.
Thick Time reflects on human progress and also regressions. William Kentridge explores time, political unrests, colonization, nature, and human relationships using a range of holistic approaches derived from various schools of thought, his curiosity of the world and the intelligence and creativity he has gained from his studies and observations is apparent in his works. Thick Time makes his audience realize more about the world and the time we have in it, regardless of what those realizations are, as long as we are actively thinking and asking questions especially our relationship towards it and towards each other.
William Kentridge: Thick Time is being housed at East London’s Whitechapel Gallery until the 15th January 2017. Tickets cost £11.95, General Admission.