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  • Fiona Prior

William Kentridge – that which we do not remember

“William Kentridge emerged as an artist during the apartheid regime in South Africa. Grounded in the violent absurdity of that period in his country’s history, his artworks draw connections between art, ideology, history and memory. They reveal the ways in which ideas and images echo across time and between different cultures.

image: Tide Table 2003-2004 (detail) - courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of New South Wales

Kentridge is a creative who puts your head into a whirl of associations. As one reviewer wrote, Kentridge creates the universe, drawing with a stick in the earth as he uses the most simple of motifs (birds, trees, houses, aeroplanes) mediums (frequently charcoal on paper), and then uses and reuses these elements in a multitude of ways to create mini worlds and surreal time-lines. For me these mini ‘events’ appear to revolve around the tragedy of war, brutal regimes, death, the repetition of human conflict in history (same, same but different) and more; all as part of a constantly evolving and shifting universe.

And this is but one of the stimulating things about Kentridge’s work as it contains so many dimensions and symbolic illusions that you become quite giddy in the chase. As mentioned, much of his work is done with charcoal on paper, but to this simplicity of medium – this intentional ‘earthedness’ – Kentridge adds an analogue inventor aspect using primitive technology and video to present, for example, an audio-visual child’s carousel “What will come (has already come) 2007”, taking us from constellations of stars to birds, to tribal chants, to opera, to screams of pain, to whoops of children’s laughter …. as the bird suddenly becomes an aeroplane, and then a bomber and then there is desolation, then darkness and it all begins again with a linear sketch that you feel is tracing the stars, or a river ….

On superimposing his idiosyncratic sketches and text within the columns of an encyclopaedia in the work “Second-hand reading 2013”, like a flick-page animation – the work an actual encyclopaedia with Kentridge’s unmistakeable, portly figure and inscriptions seemingly moving through the entries - Kentridge has us leaping from idea to image to flow. You suddenly see a page with “End with Love”, and then another “Unhappen” and you can’t but wonder if Kentridge wishes to ‘unhappen’ the preceding hate in history? I’d like to think so. Kentridge views creativity as a form of alchemy.

Image: The hope in the charcoal cloud 2014 (detail) Collection of Naomi Milgrom AO © William Kentridge. Courtesy of the artist, Naomi Milgrom AO and Art Gallery of New South Wales

Learning the flute 2003” (reminiscent of a life sized shadow box), brings us another constellation of stars that turns to seeds, pecked up by a bird whose body disappears leaving its eye in a pyramid. Suddenly, the pyramid is a birdcage and the bird transforms into a sphinx … it just keeps going and your brain races to take in the wit, but also the unnerving sense that this work that looks like the naive images of a child gone mad with charcoal on paper has evolved into a mad inventory of the history of civilisation, all based on the archetypes within this extraordinary artist William Kentridge’s head. Man, man in enclosure, man in shower, man in gas chamber (sequence from "Tide Table 2003 - 2004") ...You get the drift and the drift will return to that constellation and begin yet another sequence of associations.

Absolutely don’t miss “William Kentridge – that which we do not remember

William Kentridge – that which we do not remember

Art Gallery of New South Wales

until 3 Feb 2019

To Note: William Kentridge will be directing and illustrating the opera Wozzeck at Sydney Opera House in a collaboration between Opera Australia, the Metropolitan Opera, Salzburg Festival and the Canadian Opera Company, 25 January - 15 February 2019.

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