William Kentridge is a very good artist. So good, that he has managed the daunting task of producing a serious body of work that appeals as much to the uncompromising editorial board of ‘October’ as it does to a wider, less specialist audience. Crucial to this feat is the way it combines a complex and theoretically rigorous reading of 20th century art and history with a level of artistic virtuosity that can be appreciated even by traditionalists (drawing remains at the heart of his multimedia practice).
This ability to straddle spheres that might otherwise stand apart is key to both his international reception over the last 20 years and to the way the work itself operates. ‘The Refusal of Time’ (2012), the impressive multi-screen film at the heart of his current exhibition at Whitechapel, shows Kentridge at the full height of his abilities as a maker of connections and comparisons. It cleverly explores various connections between the science of time measurement, the imperialist expansion of the west, silent film and modernist aesthetics. The work features many of his usual motifs (metronomes and outmoded machinery, carnivalesque processions of silhouetted figures, a comic appearance by the artist himself) as well as his most frequent collaborators (composer Philip Miller, film editor Catherine Meyburgh, and the phenomenal choreographer Dada Masilio), but this recurring language is utilised to new and productive ends. In the rest of the exhibition, however, the connections have a tendency to fall flat. The range of works here is neither wide enough to convey the extent of Kentridge’s achievements nor focused enough to articulate one interesting perspective. It is unclear, exactly, what the exhibition is for. To be fair, the theme of time and duration are certainly at play, but issues of time are always at play in work that utilises durational media.
What the exhibition does bring to the fore, however, is one of the major risks of Kentridge’s practice, a risk that goes hand in hand with that which makes him a very good artist. One of his greatest strengths is his strategy of representing the outmoded, the handmade and the historical within mediums that are actually as technologically cutting-edge, slick and immersive as anything we encounter in the mass media. At its best, this strategy allows his work to convey the unbridgeable distance between the present day and seemingly lost, utopian histories (most prominently that of socialist revolution), while simultaneously revealing that today’s technologically-driven regime of spectacle has been constructed from the ruined remnants of these utopian and revolutionary moments. In this way, it also suggests that seemingly dead or anachronistic concepts like these might still persist, imperceptibly, within contemporary structures and experience. Its promise (however faint) is that the very tools of globalised spectacle - the way it immerses and pacifies the spectator, the way it erodes difference within the flat and abstract space of exchange - might be employed to make spectacle crack under its own pressure.
This is a risky endeavour, though, and at its weakest Kentridge’s work doesn’t quite get it right. Spectacle wins out, and viewers can find themselves seduced and absorbed by the fantastically beautiful, emotive visual and aural world that the artist and his collaborators have created. Sometimes it seems impossible to find the cracks in the surface of this world, and the work seems more like entertainment than critique. A case in point are the ‘7 Fragments for George Mélies’ (2003) displayed upstairs, in which the techniques of drawing (mark-making and erasing) are combined with those of early cinema (stop and reverse motion) to produce charming short studies in illusion. As studies for other works these are interesting but, presented here as something meatier, they seem to me overly enamoured with the magic of early 20th century cinema, less concerned with elaborating on its historical circumstances or their capacity to perform as critique, resistance or transgression in a contemporary context. Perhaps I am asking too much, but it is clear that Kentridge is an incredibly ambitious artist who (elsewhere) has produced some of the most accomplished and interesting work of recent years. That he is even taking the risks outlined above, and succeeding even some of the time, means he is a sorely needed presence in today’s increasingly spectacular cultural landscape.