The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) proudly presents ‘William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera’ - a comprehensive retrospective that marks the artist’s largest exhibition in Asia to date. Displayed across a two-story edifice designed by Kentridge’s frequent collaborator Sabine Theunissen in the UCCA Great Hall, the show includes works from nearly every major project the artist has undertaken from 1988 to the present. The exhibition spans a vast array of media: two-dimensional artworks in India ink, charcoal, linocut, and silkscreen print on paper; kinetic sculptures that evoke the Duchampian ready-made tradition; several multi-channel video artworks comprising dozens of projections; and a large-scale installation in the form of an operatic model complete with mechanical puppet actors.
The core of the exhibition is its titular piece ‘Notes Towards a Model Opera’. Rooted in extensive research into the intellectual, political, and social history of modern China, from Lu Xun to revolutionary theater, that Kentridge undertook in preparation for this exhibition, this threechannel projection explores dynamics of cultural diffusion and metamorphosis through the formal prism of the eight model operas of the Cultural Revolution. The piece considers these didactic ballets both as a cultural phenomenon unto itself and as part of a history of dance that spans continents and centuries. Starting from its origins in Paris, Kentridge playfully overlays the aesthetic and ideological transformations of ballet as it is transplanted across the globe, an arch of influence juxtaposing contexts as disparate as Moscow, Shanghai, and the artist’s native Johannesburg. Dada Masilo is choreographer and dancer, and the score composed and soundtrack designed by Philip Miller. As is true of many of his projects, ‘Notes Towards a Model Opera’ is accompanied by a series of two-dimensional pieces inspired by this course of research and production, in this instance a set of calligraphic India ink drawings on paper from Chinese books.
Another centerpiece of the exhibition is William Kentridge’s “Soho Eckstein” cycle, a series of hand-drawn animations that helped establish his presence in the 1980s and 90s. Set against a backdrop of the harsh realities of the private mining industry in modern-day Johannesburg, the films recount the love triangle between the business titan Soho, his wife, and the lowly, daydreaming Felix Teitlebaum—a stand-in for the artist himself. Here Kentridge’s notion of “provisionality” is embodied not only in the film’s metamorphosing figures, but also in the artist’s process of production, as marks of erasure gradually build up over the scene. On view at UCCA are all of the ten “Soho Eckstein” films to date. These and other films including ‘Shadow Procession’ (1999), ‘Ubu and the Truth Commission’ (1997), and ‘Second-Hand Reading’ (2013) together encapsulate many of the visual and narrative motifs repeated throughout his career: drawing as palimpsest, genocide as the legacy of the Enlightenment, the interdependence of shadow and light, and the hope of revolution supplanted by the terror of its collapse.
Like animation, William Kentridge views opera as an ideal artistic form, capable of staging multiple views of a subject simultaneously for the consideration of auteur and audience, the voices of each character combining (dis)harmoniously in the final work.’ Black Box/Chambre Noire’ (2005), a project that grew out of the artist’s staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, is hererendered as a theater performance-cum-video installation, where mechanical puppets dance to Sarastro’s Aria while scenes of the 1904 Herero genocide unfold in the background. The artist reframes the Enlightenment not as the triumph of reason, but as a failed faith in rationalism that led inexorably to the perverted logic of colonialism and Apartheid. This interest in the delusions inherent to idealism is also found in his ‘I am not me, the horse is not mine’ (2008), a project born out of Kentridge’s 2009 take on Shostakovich’s rarely performed opera The Nose. Combining video and installation with a lecture-like filmic performance, the artwork is an elegy for Russian Modernism in the face of political upheaval, the rise and fall of the avant-garde during the 1917 revolution ultimately revealing the perils of utopianism. The music for both works is by Philip Miller.
Other sections of the exhibition highlight the breadth of artistic practices William Kentridge has engaged over the past three decades. First exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13), ‘The Refusal of Time’ (2012) considers historical conceptions of time through a series of kinetic sculptures. A five-channel video surrounds viewers and the mechanical “elephant” installation breathing at its center. This work, which grew out of a dialogue with historian of science Peter Galison, probes the origin of geographical time zones brought on by the proliferation of telecommunication cables, beginning in nineteenth-century Paris with the use of steam—itself reminiscent of breath, a human clock of sorts—to (imperfectly) standardize city clocks. Kentridge uses the inaccuracies inherent to all human calculations of time to explore the inexorable progress of entropy, treating scientific innovation as a metaphorical body. Here time’s “refusal” carries layers of individual and political meaning: for the individual, it is through breathing that time is refused until the end of life, and for South Africa, it is the refusal of Eurocentric time from which strength arises. Philip Miller is composer of the music and soundscape. Catherine Meyburgh is responsible for the video editing and construction. Dada Masilo is responsible for the choreography and dance.
Finally, accompanying ‘Notes Towards a Model Opera’ on the second floor of the exhibition hall is a reading room where viewers can page through a selection of William Kentridge’s artist books and short films. Among them, a set of flipbooks including the monumental 2nd Hand Reading offer a new format for the artist to explore the relationship between drawing, filmmaking, and photography. The reading room also incorporates a group of Kentridge’s Drawing Lessons, quasi-didactic short films on making art in the studio that, in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek style, contain equal parts pedagogy and art.