Magazine article Artforum International

Whichever Page You Open: Joseph Leo Koerner and Margaret Koster Koerner on William Kentridge

Magazine article Artforum International

Whichever Page You Open: Joseph Leo Koerner and Margaret Koster Koerner on William Kentridge

Article excerpt

A MELANCHOLY GENIUS of the great tradition, William Kentridge asks the big questions. With The Refusal of Time, he wonders: Is it all over when we die? After debuting at Documenta 13 in 2012, the installation made its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past fall (it is on view until May 11). It tackles no less than the vicissitudes of time, the end of the universe, black holes, and string theory; yet this visionary treatment of such weighty subjects prompts a feeling of almost religious reassurance. Produced with many contributors, the work is pure Kentridge on an operatic scale. The artist drew inspiration from hours of conversation with historian of science Peter Galison, who is credited as collaborator, along with video editor Catherine Meyburgh and composer Philip Miller. The work's nostalgic aesthetic is enlivened by the addition of South African performers, notably Dada Masilo, who choreographed the piece (she memorably performs here and elsewhere in Kentridge's art, in live action and animation), and by the appearance of the artist himself, a familiar presence his followers have come to expect.

The installation was accompanied by a spate of new shows and performances, from the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Kentridge's acclaimed production of Shostakovich's The Nose to a major exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery--a season of Kentridge that saw the artist investigating the adaptation and reinvention of works for new contexts. Unlike Refusal's staging in Kassel, for example, where it occupied an industrial space at the train station, its New York iteration required that the usually pristine Met galleries be "roughed up" (in Kentridge's words) with materials typically used to protect walls and floors during construction. Old wooden and metal chairs, scattered about for use during the half-hour running time, encourage the viewer to occupy a multiplicity of vantage points, with five videos projected onto three walls and different sound tracks at each corner.

In the nineteenth century, time came to be controlled by the dominant powers of Europe, with Greenwich, UK, at Zero Meridian (also known, ironically, as Zulu Time). By 1880 in Paris, miles of underground pipes filled with compressed air had been installed to regulate thousands of pneumatic clocks throughout the city; this prompted the prominent use of wind instruments in the music for Refusal, as well as the "breathing machine" at its center that acts as the virtual lungs of the piece--the kind of "embodied idea" Kentridge has been drawn to for much of his career, as the artist has said. His voice, piped through a megaphone, directs us to "breathe. wait a minute ... breathe," bringing us back to the body's own measure of time passing, which ultimately matters more than what may be dictated by machines or governments. What gives the installation further emotive power is the vulnerable humility of the messenger: "Here I am," repeats the disembodied Kentridge, as if from outer space, while we gaze at his dream image of the galaxy. Not only are we riveted by the artist's extraordinary inventiveness, we are comforted by his vision of a universe where, by the postulates of contemporary physics, we are eternalized--for if we accept the tenets of string theory as presented here, then pictures, snippets of conversations, and even emotions are all part of a kind of universal archive, preserved forever on the edge of a black hole.

In the dark interior of his remarkable show at Marian Goodman Gallery, Kentridge squeezed his artistry between the covers of a book: the 1914 edition of Cassell's Cyclopcedia of Mechanics, subtitled Memoranda for Workshop Use Based on Personal Experience and Expert Knowledge. Kentridge bought a used copy and stamped its yellowed endpaper with his name. A new, seven-minute video begins with the artist's ink-stained hands opening the book's cover, seen as if through his eyes. A piano sounds and the pages start to turn at the rate of twelve per second--enough to animate an adventure. …

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