The Charged Act of Art

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Film still from “Shadow Procession,” 1999.

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Experience a unique view on the world through the eyes of South African artist, William Kentridge. A multimedia master, Kentridge’s work is fascinating and beautiful – a mournful and often humorous elegy to man’s love of violence and repression.

For master draftsman William Kentridge, the act of putting pencil or charcoal to paper is a charged act, reminding the viewer that art is first and foremost a way of looking at and recording the world — a particular specialty of this talented and multi-faceted artist. Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, the final stop on a world tour of this South African’s politically-charged work, has combined his drawings, animation, puppetry, music and film to powerful effect in an exhibition that grabs viewers as it propels you through a series of multimedia installations expertly mounted by curator Suzanne Landau and thoughtfully designed by Chanan De Lange.

Kentridge, 55, who burst upon the international scene in the late 1990s, hails from a Jewish, Johannesburg family whose political views were liberal and vocally anti-apartheid. He has spent a lifetime exploring the collision of social and political issues, of violence and sadness, of absurdity and contradiction. His work, he says, is “completed by the viewer…the artist making sense [and] the viewer completing the process.”

The exhibit, William Kentridge: Five Themes, takes the viewer through a journey of violence and fear, responsibility and reconciliation, buried history and universal guilt, and draws from the artist’s personal experience as a privileged, white, Jewish man in colonial South Africa. As Kentridge commented at the opening of the exhibit, colonial history is “repressive force by men who thought they knew what was best,” an attitude that he describes as “trying to bring rationality to the world and where it goes wrong.”

James Snyder, the director of the Israel Museum, describes Kentridge’s work as having a “mournful beauty, [a] sweet sadness [that] affects you personally.” Snyder has said that he connects with Kentridge’s Lithuanian background – they’re both the sons of the immigrant experience, Snyder by way of West Virginia and Kentridge, originally Cantorovich, from Johannesberg. The Israel Museum has been collecting Kentridge’s work for more than a decade, compelled by the complex subject matter, which Snyder says “resonates with issues we struggle with in Israel.” He compares the museum’s encyclopedic collections to the universality of Kentridge’s work suggesting that the work plugs into contemporary visual culture in a way that “takes us back into the millennia.”

The show has been a hit since it opened and Snyder told Expeditions that viewers visit for an unusual length of time — watching, enjoying and engaging with the multi-dimensional and big world that Kentridge creates in his work. One might have thought that people would have felt “uneasy with the work,” mentions Snyder, given its sensitive subject matter but that hasn’t kept them away.

The exhibit offers humor and pathos, with Kentridge telling his stories with deceptively simple paper puppets filmed in a continuous stop-action style reminiscent of early black and white movies. Through it all, Kentridge appears as the master puppeteer, dressed in his signature white oxford and dark pants, the artist in his studio revisiting history and rethinking his past, constructing a journey in which the artist makes sense and the viewer completes the process.

Kentridge visited Israel when the exhibition opened, exploring Jerusalem for a whirlwind weekend. “I think he found his stay illuminating,” remarked Snyder, recounting an amazing walking tour the artist took through the Old City’s quarters, out to the busy streets of East Jerusalem and up to the rooftop of the museum’s Rockefeller Museum branch in East Jerusalem, gaining a unique understanding of the landscape, its context and in Snyder’s words, the “pinpointed universalities on the map.” An education, to be sure, and one to be seen until June 18.

Expeditions by Da'at May 16th, 2011 0 comments Art / Media