Weird Science: William Kentridge Deepens Time at Whitechapel

Normal science, wrote Thomas Kuhn, is the way most scientists spend their time: the quotidian task of theorizing, observing, experimenting – puzzle solving, in his words – within a specific paradigm of established theory. Later, writing in Art and Illusion, historian Ernst Gombrich argued that the development of style in representational art functions similarly to “the way science works”; that is, an artist works upon traditions established by predecessors – schemata – in order to create and recreate an image through trial and error to develop a work of art. Kuhn’s central notion that scientific progress is a result of periods of revolution in which paradigms are changed, and Gombrich’s insistence on a narrative approach to art history, have shaped the way in which their respective fields are understood; however both views presuppose that time – if not progress itself – marches ever forward.

Thick Time, an exhibition of William Kentridge’s multimedia work at the Whitechapel Gallery, spans nearly fifteen years of the artist’s oeuvre across various media, and presents a challenge to this interpretation of the temporal: time might go forward, or back, slow down, or perhaps oscillate in place; but it is never still, and if it is not of the essence, it deepens what that essence is. Though much of the exhibition is devoted to the rich, multilayered complexity of Kentridge’s multimedia works and their attention to time, the exhibition also recasts Kentridge in the role of a scientist as much as an artist. His artistic process – through collaboration, testing, and an explication of process itself – mirrors that of the scientific method. The end result, however, is body of work whose whimsical and engaging nature disguises the rigorous and methodological nature of its creation.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the 2012 video installation The Refusal of Time, created in collaboration with Peter Galison, a historian of science based at Harvard University. In a cavernous gallery, five screens project various short skits situated in scientific laboratories and administrative offices from the turn of the twentieth-century, as well as projected shadows of figures marching in time to heavy horns. All of this is modulated by an authoritarian-sounding narrator – Kentridge himself – pontificating on the history of science and rational thought. Here I am, the voice states – simple, pointed, unassuming. Assumption is the key item at stake, as much of his subjects are takes on matters of fact. Various scenes in the laboratories are based on the Bureau des Longitudes in Paris, for instance, which was tasked with standardizing, shipping, mapmaking and in 1897, extending the use of the metric system to standardize time – giving the Bureau a key role in France’s colonization of Africa. The Bureau established a unit of time determined by the how long it took for a signal to make its way to a French colony and back; the development and subsequent widespread use of this unit of time is indicative of France’s prominent presence in the region.

Kentridge makes a pointed allusion to this legacy of colonialism in his short films, presenting the viewer with two black dancers who enact slapstick and frenetic choreography in the colonial-era laboratories. In other scenes, dark silhouettes march against a grey background in step to brass band music that originated in Johannesburg; these shadowy figures, who chatter in non-English tongues, stand in for the colonial Other, whose ghostly presence evokes a grim understanding of colonial power. For the South African-born Kentridge, who hails from a family of renowned civil-rights activists (his father, the lawyer Sir Sidney Kentridge, represented both Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko), the inclusion of these characters adds a visceral bent to understand the historical attempts to justify racism through purportedly rational modes of science.

The spectacular nature of Kentridge’s exhibition, in which the viewer careens through film, music, kinetic sculpture, and animation, is engaging, but also serves as a subterfuge to weighty themes. However, if the staged whimsy of colonial laboratories serves to highlight much darker themes in A Refusal of Time, it’s also indicative of Kentridge’s careful attention to history, as seen in his installation O Sentimental Time (2015). First conceived as a commission for the 14th Istanbul Biennale, the five-channel installation intersperses documentary footage of Leon Trotsky delivering a speech with scenes of a secretary typing at a typewriter, Kentridge-as-scientist performing on a theremin – an electronic instrument controlled without any physical contact by the performer – with a female assistant, and further documentary footage of Soviet marches and dancing bears. All of this footage is unified by grainy black-and-white film, with the documentary footage of Trotsky and the Soviet soldiers blending seamlessly with the slapstick comedy of the female assistant and the scientist in the laboratory. Surrounded by chalk calculations and figures on the wall, the characters frantically figure in what appears to be pseudoscience, as the scroll of paper from the typewriter accumulates endlessly, and their movements become more frenetic, eventually climaxing to a point where the heads of both figures are replaced by megaphones – alluding to Trotsky’s assertion that people are “sentimental but programmable machines.”

The dated monochromatic aesthetic of Kentridge’s videos in O Sentimental Machine and The Refusal of Time speak to his fascination with early Modernism in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, a period in which instruments’ functions were readily apparent in their design. In a joint interview with Peter Galison, in the New York Review of Books, Kentridge discusses the design of such objects:

      If you take an old Bakelite telephone, its blackness is already halfway to being a charcoal

     drawing. But more than that, once you are drawing it, there is a set of associations that come

     from old, manual, mechanical switchboard telephones … In my case, of drawing and

     animation, something that is now perhaps invisible – connecting people across phone lines

     across continents – is rendered in a very visible way, and may even be a description of an

     obsolete process. It is not so much being fascinated with the ideas of the late-nineteenth

     century, but that it was still such a “visible” era, in a way in which an electronic era is not.

Kentridge’s choice to utilize and repurpose the technology of the early modern era – his 2016 piece Heartbeat Sewing Machine equips a manual sewing machine with software and “electronically engaged parts” – highlights the sense of discovery that characterized industrial revolution in fin de siècle Europe and America. Developments in science ranging from X-rays and photography to developments in steam technology and steel processing, anticipated the artistic movements of Modernism such as Dada in the first two decades of the 1900s. With their emphasis on a totality of experience that merged theater, visual arts, and music – and a defined snub toward the established art environment, Dada and its acolytes (Constructivism, Expressionism) rejected the paradigmatic thrust of art history, an effort not unnoticed by William Kentridge.

Originality is not the exhibition’s selling point; rather it is the range of Kentridge’s work over the last decade that provides continuous interest. Though time is treated as an exogenous characteristic of life, and as perhaps a quirky fascination of the artist, it is in fact more readily argued that time is a system of contingencies between social, economic, and political events. History, and not time itself – as Kentridge would have us believe – is the real object of curiosity, and an understanding of history as written and rewritten, rather than time in all its various forms and formulations, that gives Kentridge’s objects their verve.

For a scientist, citation is among the most relied-upon skills, and throughout the exhibit the artist’s many collaborations reveal a bevy of credits for artists, dancers, and composers he has worked with to create his multimedia installations. For instance, The Refusal of Time, which was originally presented at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel (2012), credits dancer Dada Masilo, composer Philip Miller, set designer Sabin Theunissn, choreographer Luc de Wit, and film editor Catherine Meyburgh, who also edited the films for O Sentimental Machine. Here, Kentridge acts as the principal investigator, with other collaborators indispensable to the work as a whole; similarly, the tapestries woven by the Stephens Tapestry Studio in Johannesburg, with the signature Kentridge shadow figures that dance across large maps, are only made possible by hours of labor from skilled workers. In citing these collaborators, the exhibition – and Kentridge himself, as artist – effectively explicates his process in a way that is less focused on reflexivity and more willful in providing the burden of proof.

Gombrich and Kuhn engaged themselves in demystifying their respective fields – their work unearthed that both science and art were prone to convention and predetermined methods. Though the Whitechapel exhibition positions Kentridge as a sort of Svengali through an extensive journey of time-based media, the artist’s charm is propped up by his adherence to the conventions of science, and art. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 2003 nine-channel video installation 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon, in which live-action, video, and animation combine to depict the intricacies of artistic practice with the care and precision – the exactitude – of science. We see Kentridge ascend a ladder to tape parts of his life-size self-portrait to the wall, or paint thick black marks on a white piece of paper; these actions are undone as quickly as they are made, as the film speeds up in reverse to erase the marks, lift books up from the ground into the artist’s hands. Here is literal evidence of the artist’s hand making the marks in Tabula Rasa I and II (two of the seven fragments); in Journey to the Moon, Kentridge once again riffs on early modernist space fantasies, but does so in hand-drawn, animated renderings. Throughout the exhibition lies the detritus of construction: plywood, drywall, tarp; the projectors of O Sentimental Machine are effectively displayed behind the temporary walls that house the videos. Process is laid bare throughout the exhibition, emphasizing the level of consideration and detail that it took to create each work. Kentridge trades in a structured whimsy, and Thick Time succeeds as a totality of experience not out of novelty, but because of Kentridge’s tried, and tested, approach.

1 Comment

  • Well thought out article with one blind spot; when Sol Lewitt wrote that an idea was art he was only muddying definitions… according to Wiki, ideas are science, art is an activity. This post adds to that conversation in noting how science has influenced the arts. It also points out by default how 20th-21st century art theory rejected those idiosyncrasies in art that would never pass peer review.

    Concepts like intuition and creativity are dispensed with, intellect and clear thinking posited as the artist’s realm. And yet psychology tells us that consciousness and the intellect are only the top layer of an onion-like structure of thinking, the majority of these deep functions we’re not conscious of, i.e. the unconscious. And that explains the statement “originality is not the exhibition’s selling point.” The intellect has a major flaw in that it can only deal with the known; much of contemporary art shows a lack of originality, relies on mining art history. When intuition and the unconscious creative functions are missing, we no longer have art but an illustration of art theory. Some can discern a difference.

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