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  • Autodidactus
  • David Duncan (bio)
William Kentridge: Five Themes, an exhibition conceived by curator Mark Rosenthal in cooperation with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL. The exhibition traveled to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 24–May 17, 2010.

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Tania Bruguera, Head Down, 1996, Re-enactment of a 1966 Cuban performance, with bodies of Cuban artists, art critics, art history students, audience members, gallerists, and curators; lamb's wool, white paint, flag, red cloth, and political songs composed during the early years of the Cuban Revolution.

Photo: Lynda Shenkman Curtis.

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Men may find mattersufficient to busy their heads, and employ their hands with variety, delight, and satisfaction, if they will not boldly quarrel with their own constitution, and throw away the blessings their hands are filled with, because they are not big enough to grasp everything. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

While the development of a contemporary visual artist's practice may be informed by a variety of life experiences, few can claim the study of mime and theatre as their formative training. William Kentridge (b. 1955) so describes his enrollment at L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, and further supposes that, until just over a decade ago, an inexpectancy of art world recognition nurtured his idiosyncratic artistic decisions.1 Typically, curators highlight Kentridge's South African heritage and the country's racist past, which were unmistakably evident within a large portion of his recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Over the long haul, however—and the show was a weighty load, MoMA's largest exhibition devoted to a single artist to date—the melancholic weight of apartheid gave way to the flipside of colonialism: the can-do perspicacity of the Enlightenment. It is an immense spread, to be sure, but the polarity is explicitly addressed within Kentridge's recent operatic productions, and implicitly expressed by the ever-increasing display of ingenuity and mastery in his work. As further implied by the exhibition's partition into five themes, a sprawling deliberation between knowledge and ignorance, liberation and subjugation is best unpacked using a significant amount of physical and expositional space, which MoMA unreservedly provides. [End Page 52]

Collectively occupying the second-floor galleries that held Richard Serra's massive Cor-Ten steel sculptures in 2007, the first theme encountered was "Ubu and the Procession: Occasional and Residual Hope." Inspired by the bitter compromises of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, these films and drawings adopt Alfred Jarry's despicable autocratic character Ubu as the face of surveillance and repression in apartheid-era South Africa. Section two presents Kentridge's well known 9 Drawings for Projection (1989–2003) under the heading "Thick Time: Soho and Felix." The third section, "Parcours d'Atelier: Artist in the Studio," features a collection of films and drawings produced between 1998 and 2006, the most prominent of which pay homage to the pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès. Sections four and five, "Sarastro and the Master's Voice" and "Learning from the Absurd," are devoted to Kentridge's recent collaborations with two opera companies. In 2005, the artist staged, designed, and directed Mozart's The Magic Flute on behalf of Brussels's Royal Opera House La Monnaie; this spring, while preparing for his MoMA opening, Kentridge also oversaw a new production of Shostakovich's The Nose for the Metropolitan Opera.

Legal Dissent

On the eve of The Nose's debut at the Met, Kentridge presented a one-man multimedia production entitled I am not me, the horse is not mine in MoMA's Roy and Niuta Titus Theater. Inspired by his two-year long focus on the Shostakovich opera (which is based upon a short story by Nikolai Gogol), the work marked the artist's return to stage performance after nearly thirty years. Calvin Tomkins was present when Kentridge first performed I am not me … in New York several weeks earlier, during Performa 09. Tomkins would later recall that, in the combination of the Performa and Met Opera productions and the MoMA retrospective, it is "hard...


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