William Kentridge

While William Kentridge’s panoramic video installation More Sweetly Play the Dance was on display at the National Gallery of Canada, a remarkable show of Kentridge’s work debuted at Griffin Art Projects on the other side of the country. The non-profit Griffin, founded in 2015 by esteemed art patrons and collectors Brigitte and Henning Freybe, funds exhibition and residency spaces in an unlikely North Vancouver neighbourhood. To date, its exhibition program has been focused primarily on the examination of private collections and collecting practices. However, under the scholarly and inspired direction of Lisa Baldissera, the gallery has organized and hosted the most impressive of its productions so far. “William Kentridge: The Collander” was a select survey of films, prints, collages, drawings and an anamorphic projection by the internationally celebrated South African artist.

In the small booklet that serves as a catalogue to the show, Baldissera recounts her “fortuitous meeting” in 2012 with Kentridge’s master printer, Canadian-born Jillian Ross, and their subsequent collaboration in bringing together stellar examples of Kentridge’s work for a Canadian audience. The show is built mostly upon loans from private collections, including Ross’s own, with impressive examples of her collaborations with Kentridge in the form of blockprints, etchings and engravings.

Installation: “Triumphs and Laments Woodcuts”: Refugees (1 God’s Opinion is Unknown; 2 Leaning on Air), 2018–2019. Relief printed from 2 woodblocks on Somerset Velvet, Soft White, 300 gsm. Final work comprised of 77 individual sheets adhered by 136 aluminum pins. Wood used: Panga Panga, ash, poplar, maple, saligna, African walnut, Kiaat, beech, mahogany and white oak, 178 x 114 centimetrers / 178 x 254 centimetres, edition of 12. Courtesy Jillian Ross Print. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography.

The etchings and film fragments from Kentridge’s “Nose” series reveal the many ways this singular artist can spin his acclaimed musical, theatrical and performance projects—in this case, his 2010 production of the 1929 Shostakovich opera The Nose for New York’s Metropolitan Opera— into intriguing still and moving images that extend the reach of the original live events. Kentridge uses the absurdist, hand-drawn image of a wandering, autonomous nose (the opera was based on an 1837 short story by Gogol) to evoke an understanding of Russian modernism during and after the October Revolution. Tatlin’s plans for the never-realized Monument to the Third International, for instance, make a few appearances here. Beneath all the absurdity—a big disembodied nose strutting around the tower, riding on horseback, ascending a rickety stairway towards a podium only to fall off it and ascend again— what is really being expressed here are sorrow and dismay. The “Nose” series is a critique of the ways early modernism’s utopian-socialist aspirations in Russia were crushed under Stalin.

Also on view were selections from Kentridge’s “Universal Archive” series, with birds, trees and coffee pots processed through greater and lesser degrees of abstraction— querying, as art often does, how far our minds will stretch in assembling separate and reductive marks into comprehensible wholes. Printed with astonishing virtuosity on dictionary pages, the black linocut images are so glossy and immediate, so alternately dense and gestural, that they resemble original ink-brush drawings more than prints. The visuals are subtly counterpointed by the columns of words and definitions on the found dictionary pages.

Also on display were two monumental collages from Kentridge’s “Triumphs and Laments” series. Composed of 77 woodblock prints shipped to Vancouver from South Africa, the Refugees images were assembled by Ross during a Griffin Art Projects residency and functioned here as a diptych, depicting a line of Rwandan refugees, their belongings piled on their heads, some bundles with rifles protruding. These works evolved from a “performative and public art project” Kentridge undertook in Rome in 2016 and reiterate the artist’s brilliant use of the processional format of antiquity to express the disastrous contemporary consequences of war and armed conflict. Triumph for some, perhaps, but lament for many.

At left: Reeds, 1996, Sugarlift, spitbite aquatint and drypoint on handpainted paper, red pastel. Paper: Velin d’Arches, Blanc, 300gsm, 120 x 160 centimetres, edition of 40. Printed by Jack Shireff and Andrew Smith. Printed at 107 Workshop. Published by David Krut Fine Art. Private collection, Vancouver.

However impressive Kentridge’s print works are, the films make the greater impact: their stopmotion animation and complex soundtracks, most of them composed by the artist’s long-time collaborator Philip Miller, both enthrall and unsettle us. They remind us that Kentridge’s drawing- based practice first came to international attention in the early 1990s through his ongoing film series, “Drawings for Projection.” Not incidentally, this was the time of formal negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa. Among the show’s many and varied films— and serving as a spritely introduction to the more sombre works ahead—were 12 one-minute experimental studies created in 2020–21, when the COVID pandemic consigned Kentridge to his home studio. All these animated works interleave or superimpose drawn elements and phrases from the artist’s notebooks with tools and furniture recruited from around his workspace, along with puppets, paper sculptures and measured performances by Kentridge himself, dressed in his characteristic, you could say diagnostic, garb: a longsleeved white shirt and black trousers.

These short films, Baldissera tells us, are presented through the Centre for the Less Good Idea, an interdisciplinary project space founded by Kentridge in recognition of the importance of failure to the creative process. The centre embraces a way of working in which the secondary or “less good idea” emerges from the “cracks and fissures” that occur in attempting to execute the primary or “good idea.” Here, visual and textual elements dance together in an improvisatory manner, revealing not so much the surrealist’s privileging of the unconscious mind over the intellect but rather what Kentridge sees as previously untapped approaches to problem solving. We are given glimpses of neuronal rabbits bounding off the mind’s well-trodden pathways and into the uncharted woods.

Two of Kentridge’s chestpoundingly powerful films, Mine, 1991, and City Deep, 2020, were projected wall-size in a darkened gallery, the former work backed by Dvorak’s emotionally fraught Cello Concerto in B minor, Opus 104, the latter by Miller’s complex weaving of classical European music, traditional African vocals and experimental music and sound effects. Visually, both films employ what Kentridge calls his “stone age animation,” first developed in 1989: he shoots a succession of charcoal and pastel drawings on the same sheet of paper through a process of densely worked, expressionistic drawing, erasure and redrawing. Baldissera observes that this method is metaphoric of the ways memories are laid down, recalled and reimagined; it is also, to my mind, evocative of the writing and rewriting of history. A striking fact is that Kentridge develops his films intuitively, “without a script or storyboard,” each image or idea emerging spontaneously from the previous one. The artist’s own reading of the process is that the imperfect erasures of the successive stages of each drawing become a record of both the progress of an idea and the passage of time.

Mine depicts an oppressive colonial condition in which teeming crowds of African mineworkers are housed in sordid barracks and deployed downward, ever downward, into the darkness of mine shafts and tunnels, slaving for gold while a fat white entrepreneur, propped up in a big bed, rings up his profits. The chiming of bells and the relentless sight and sound of drilling compound the sense of oppression, which, at the film’s end, is relieved when a tiny rhinoceros—a symbol of Africa in Kentridge’s work—emerges from an immense calculator, snorting and stamping. (Many of the images here, especially of the miners’ crowded dormitories and showers, eerily evoke the Holocaust.) City Deep speaks to present-day South Africa through its images of impoverished individuals chipping away at decommissioned mine sites in blighted landscapes and of museum walls crumbling into dust. The latter struck me as an apt metaphor for the post-colonial state and the necessity for upending the ways colonizers have shaped museum collections and exhibitions through the exclusion and marginalization of indigenous peoples—issues very much foregrounded in this part of the world. However, it is possible that Kentridge is simply marking, with some sadness, the disrepair into which the Johannesburg Art Gallery has fallen amid, as Baldissera explains, “collapsing economic and political conditions.”

A third-generation South African of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, Kentridge references both the particular and the universal. The colonial exercise of power through entrenched systems of race-based segregation and control, the disenfranchisement and exploitation of colonized populations—such histories are not unique to South Africa. It is widely believed that the white South African government looked to Canada’s Indian Act and reservation system in the 1940s when instituting elements of apartheid. (Ironically, decades later, Canada looked to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a template for its own.) There are parallels, too, in the devastation of the South African landscape as it was stripped of gold and the destruction of Canada’s natural environment through clear-cut logging, open-pit mining and the massive-scale extraction of bitumen from the Alberta tar sands. Among his many other achievements, Kentridge reminds us that we still have much to answer for. ❚

“William Kentridge: The Collander” was exhibited at Griffin Art Projects, North Vancouver, from May 29, 2021, to September 4, 2021.

Robin Laurence is an independent writer, critic and curator, based in Vancouver. She has written essays, reviews and feature articles for local, national and international publications and is a long-time contributing editor to Border Crossings. She is the 2021 winner of the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing.