Drawing On Experimentation

19 March 2012 | 1:37 pm | Kate Kingsmill

Kate Kingsmill previews the William Kentridge: Five Themes exhibition currently exhibiting at ACMI.

With a career that spans more than 30 years, William Kentridge, one of the world's most significant artists, has explored almost every creative avenue from charcoal drawing to print, sculpture, books, animation, and theatre models.

William Kentridge: Five Themes is an extensive retrospective of his work, elegantly curated by American curator Mark Rosenthal. The Five Themes shape beautifully Kentridge's expansive body of work, which is so often linked to the social and political environment of South Africa, but also explores notions of transient memory, absurdity and the creative process itself.

Kentridge was born, and still lives, in Johannesburg, and he has a way of tackling issues of colonial oppression and reconciliation with expressive work that is highly engaging, expressing reflection and optimism in the wake of a brutalised society. When it comes down to it, says Rosenthal, “His work is very emotional.”

The first theme of the exhibition, Occasional & Residual Hope, focuses on a series of works reflecting on the public hearings held by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in the mid-1990s to investigate human rights abuses under Apartheid. A series of etchings flanking one wall of the first room of the exhibition, and an animated film are both titled Ubu Tells The Truth, a reference to a 1975 satirical play, Ubu Rex, about a corrupt and cowardly despot. Shadow Procession (1999) too evokes the era's atmosphere of volatility with a simple animation of silhouettes. Much has been said about Kentridge's rough-hewn animation style, which Rosenthal describes as 'stoneage' and which is in fact a refreshing antidote to the super-slick styles that we are so used to seeing in a post-Pixar world. One of Kentridge's favoured techniques is that of drawing, erasing, and re-drawing on the same page, a beautiful, effective technique which leaves traces of previous drawings, and can have a surprisingly fragile effect.

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Drawing, or as Rosenthal puts it, “playing with the way we see,” is always at the heart of Kentridge's work. One of the most surprising works in the exhibition is the anamorphosis installation What will come has already come (2007), said to be the first of its kind in the history of seeing, testament to Kentridge's spirit of experimentation. Deliberately warped drawings are projected onto a surface and reconstituted into a cylindrical mirror: a fascinating technique which can be read either as a consideration of the Italian Fascist invasion of Abyssinia by Mussolini in 1935 or as a blowfly crawling across a page.

Rosenthal becomes tangibly excited when speaking about Kentridge's work. His thrill in seeing it changing inspired him to capture it, and he visited South Africa to meet Kentridge and embark on putting the restrospective together. At the time, Kentridge was working on 7 Fragments For Georges Méliès (2003), an homage to the early French film director and magician who had a penchant for cinematic tricks. It appears in the exhibition as a series of projections that encompass an entire room and is perhaps the most whimsical of Kentridge's works.

William Kentridge: Five Themes has travelled through some of the world's best galleries. It was one of Time 100's top events in the world for 2009 and won first place in International Association of Art Critics the same year. Now in Australia, accompanied by William Kentridge himself, it's a wonderful opportunity to explore Kentridge's exciting work and distinguished career. Says Rosenthal, “Everyone remembers their first Kentridge.”