Writing Art History Since 2002

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Goodman gallery | Johannesburg

William Kentridge’s exhibition Preparing the Flute, a collection of drawings, etchings and two films, relates to his production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which opened at La Monnaie (De Munt), Brussels in April 2005 and is scheduled to reach South Africa in 2007. It explains Kentridge’s interpretation of this well-known operaticallegory about masonic initiation and the trials of true love.The two films are the focus of the exhibition and this review. They are not in the tradition of other Flute interpreters, like Marc Chagall, Oskar Kokoschka and David Hockney, where the static sets are an adjunct to the music. Instead they represent what one could call the Kentridge tradition where the visual and auditory combine to create narratives of an astonishingly rich and intellectually satisfying nature. Theatricality is innate, music and voice are as integral as the shifting shapes and arabesquing lines.These films constitute a fifth category in Kentridge’s layered approach to time in the opera, which he describes as: the time when the opera was written (1791); the time when it is set (a “mythical non-specific era of Egyptian worship of Isis and Osiris”); the time when it is seen (2005); and “perhaps an era in which the production is set (which is different from, or a combination of times one, two and three)”. The fifth category would be the time when the multi-layered archive behind an operatic production is transformed into another medium, creating something which is complete within itself.The earlier of the films, Learning the Flute (2003), is shown by projection onto a blackboard. Kentridge describes it as “an exercise in preparation”, a way of finding a language for the final production, but not representing in itself the final language. There are nodes of continuity into the later film, particularly in the play of black and white, the Egyptian and Freemason references, and the conceptualisationof Papageno.An ambivalent black-white theme is at the core of Kentridge’s interpretation of Mozart’s opera. In Mozart’s Flute there is a similar ambivalence between dark-light and evilgood,epitomised in the attractive malignancy of the Queen of the Night and the austere perfection of Sarastro, the Priest of the Sun. Kentridge explores further the black-white opposites in his experiments with positive-negative drawings, evolving a technique reminiscent of nineteenth-century photographs of Egyptian temples, which in turn evoke nineteenth-century arcane clubs and scientific societies. Generic Egyptian references, such as falcons, pyramids and sphinxes, recall imagery of the Napoleonic era and Karl FriedrichSchinkel’s influential Flute designs of 1815 – and Man Ray’s surrealist metronome with its masonic eye.Masonic initiation is expressed visually through lines, constructions, and what Kentridge calls “diagrammatic Baroque stage machinery”. With the first three chords of the overture(a masonic number, as Julian Rushton notes), Learning the Flute traces lines which continually transform, describing geometric shapes, Egyptian imagery and the trajectories of heavenly bodies (and hot-air balloons). Papageno plays a principal part in the film and reveals an appealing side to Kentridge’s Flute: his identity with the bird-catcher in the employ of the Queen of the Night who represents Everyman.Papageno by-passes the initiation ordeals Tamino and Pamina have to undergo before attaining their love. He cheerfully (and sometimes fearfully) bumbles along behindTamino, enjoying his food and wine, chattering, kind-heartedly flirting with an old hag, playing his pipe and magic bells, and finally achieving domestic bliss with his own Papagena. Kentridge inserts himself into Learning the Flute as Papageno’s reversed shadow, playfully interacting with birds.In Preparing the Flute: work in progress, the Papageno- Kentridge silhouette is developed further. (Despite its title, the work is in fact complete, subject to clearing certain music rights.) With the use of a phenakistoscope’s spinning images projected onto a miniature theatre stage, the silhouette morphs from birds into Papageno into cages, day changes to night, and earthy pleasures are fleetingly suggested through a still-life with a wine bottle. The later film reveals a compelling resolution to themes explored in the earlier one, especially the nature of black/evil and white/good. The blackwhite duality is more nuanced and is expressed through drama (fear and severity) and comedy (joy and playfulness), rather than stark contrasts of evil and good.Thus the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, representing the opposites of dark/evil and light/good in the libretto, have similar awe-inspiring, fearful visuals accompanying their arias.The Queen’s character is expressed in a pantheon-like dome of stars (Schinkel’s starry hall), galaxies and orbiting planets. Sarastro’s is expressed by ingression into an imposingEgyptian temple, which becomes a galactic void at its centre with stars and masonic symbols.Similarly, other bad (frightening) and good (joyful) elements are treated together in a light, almost pantomimic way. The fearsome serpent is a sinuous arm, Tamino’s magicflute tames a rhinoceros who performs a gymnastic routine, the menacing slaves are charmed by Papageno’s bells, dance jerkily and swap bodies before flying off. And Papageno, the not-very-noble figure who acts as a foil to Tamino’s rigid virtue, is treated with some of the most endearing scenes in the two films.Kentridge’s identifying with ordinary Everyman reveals his essential interpretation of the opera. Dark and light are inherent in all creatures, the one is necessary for the other, and pure goodness does not equate with what is most desirable. In its tyrannical correctness perfection can be as bleak, desolate and empty as Sarastro’s unrelenting sunlight beating down on the landscape in the finale. With a brilliant final twist, Kentridge reverses the stage so this glaring landscape becomes the outside reality, and we the theatrical characters, no doubt imbued with the flawed contradictions of good and bad.Jillian Carman is a lecturer at the Wits School of ArtsJohannesburg Art Gallery | JohannesburgThe Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) provides the perfect architectural configuration for a show by William Kentridge, especially when it is an extensive retrospective showcase of his work. The show, which draws together early prints and rare drawings, includes recent film works such as Shadow Procession (1999) and Zeno Writing (2002), which are both impressive. However, it is his Fragments for Georges Méliès, a sequence of seven animated films projected alongside Journey to the Moon (2003), currently on view in the Italian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, that, along with three of his Shadow Quartet bronzes, represents the special feature of this show.Simulating warriors and guardians, the Shadow Quartet bronzes evoke presence, power and rootedness. The planar format of the large silhouetted figures echoes Kentridge’s Portage collages from 2000 which, although haunting and commanding, have always struck me as being quite derivative of John Coleman’s arcane travellers – in particular his silhouetted projections from Lapwing Redwing Fieldfare, presented at London’s Museum of Installation in 1992. Unlike the flatness that characterises his Portage silhouettes, the Shadow Quartet bronzes, by way of different interacting planes, become multi-dimensional and suggest connection and shadow. Whereas the earlier silhouettes hinted at violence and endurance, these monumental bronzes propose triumph, and Edwardian – or even Babylonian – magnitude.In the Méliès fragments and his Journey to the Moon projection, Kentridge again explores mythical notions of journey, space, time and place (the core of his earlier work) within the confines of psychoanalysis and local political histories. In a manner typical of the artist, he once again presents a male protagonist (remember Felix, Ubu, Faustus), and as such re-affirms renaissance and modernist notions of the artist as genius. Black becomes significant as magical matter in the filmic staging of the artist as a kind of blacksmith in his laboratory working with liquid black chaos. The various projections depict the artist interacting with this cosmic density, repetitively dismantling and mounting images and objects, a technique arrived at through film reversal. The naturalistic grip of the narrative is manipulated to evoke existential questions about destiny. What is beginning? What is end? The (non)bearded alchemist positions, repositions, moves and removes objects and images almost like planets. It is as if he has Saturn, Mars and Mercury in his coffee flask.By positioning the notion of becoming at the core of human existence, articulated through expressive marks and lines in Journey to the Moon, cosmic journeys are mapped as continually shifting but without clear teleology. Moving imagery suggests that, irrespective of tangential factors such as politics, life itself is probably more a process than a journey towards clear closing stages. Erasure becomes unfathomable providence as well as an indication of the power of human will. As the artist-blacksmith overwrites, blends and erases histories, erasure in its various forms becomes alchemical ouroboros (a circular symbol of a snake or dragon devouring its tail, standing for infinity or wholeness), as past and present, life and death become fused.Ouroboros is repeated in the exhibition, this show a homecoming for Kentridge who often visited the gallery in his childhood. The exhibition includes a selection of works by other artists, some from the JAG collection. Exhibited are works by Rodin, Adolph Jentsch and Honoré Daumier, as well as by Cecil Skotnes, Dumile Feni and Anton van Wouw, which the artist either recalled from his early visits to the gallery, or has identified as influential. These works seem to have played a seminal role in Kentridge’s development of a neo-romantic sensibility in his articulation of images of self, the recognition of the authoritative presence of a solitary figure and the articulation of an intimate relationship with nature, as well as in his development of an expressive signature.Elfrieda Dreyer is a senior lecturer at the Department of Visual Arts, University of PretoriaDAVID KRUT ARTS RESOURCE | JohannesburgA maverick reflection on the history of art in the form of a palimpsest is the central piece in this small exhibition of drypoints, by William Kentridge, Claire Gavronsky and Rose Shakinovsky. Rosenclaire, the collective name of frequent collaborators Gavronsky and Shakinovsky, has a reputation for performance and installation. This collaboration with Kentridge exposes a dynamic in the artists’ work, which gives the three a collective identity in their joint creation of one print.Juxtaposed with a series of drypoints by Kentridge, collectively entitled Thinking Aloud (and culled from his working images for his Magic Flute project), the collaborative print History of Art is layered in its aesthetic and conceptual approach, blending playful quotes from icons in European art history. A third drypoint by Rosenclaire, entitled Proximity and Distance and comprising figures claustrophobically grouped and overlapping one another in the restricted space of the copper plate, summarises Rosenclaire’s irreverent approach to the time-honoured European traditions of perspective, modulation and ostensible clarity. Rosenclaire’s work has for the past several years succeeded in existing beyond the mainstream of gallery convention. They work within the linked realms of various traditional and contemporary media, with the conceptual paradigm of issues like public debate, silent protests and picketing.Collectively, this exhibition bleeds between the two spaces at David Krut. This exhibiting device might be practical for the establishment but is not conducive to a meaningful viewing of the works on the wall.Robyn Sassen is a writer and contributing editor to SA Jewish Report

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