Artist has time on his side

21:10, Oct 23 2014
The Refusal of Time
TIME'S ARROW: A scene from William Kentridge's The Refusal of Time, 2012, a collaboration with Catherine Meyburgh, dancer Dada Masilo and scientist Peter Galison.

One of the biggest names in the visual arts and theatre to come out of apartheid-era South Africa is William Kentridge.

Born in 1955 to two liberal lawyers, Kentridge worked under apartheid when even aspiring white artists had to wrestle with the state's limits on freedom of expression.

But since majority rule began 20 years ago, Kentridge's reputation has gone from strength to strength in and outside his homeland - whether it be his art in galleries, or working with musicians, in theatre, opera and dance.

Some of his work has addressed the brutality of the apartheid era. Kentridge says there was a period when non South Africans assumed all contemporary South African art had to be "clearly didactically political".

"I'd say the work I've made over the years acts as an indirect route map, or a route map of a particular vision of a corner of South African life.

"Someone said the real danger for an artist is when you find yourself having to live out other people's imaginations of what your country is."

Advertisement

But Kentridge says living and working in South Africa has had a huge influence on his work, whether it be about landscapes, cities or having a distant view - like New Zealand - of cultural centres in Europe and North America.

There's all the sound and music that surrounds him in Johannesburg, he says, which has a different inflexion from hearing music played in Europe or elsewhere.

"All these things are in the work."

And his work has been seen widely, including in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which then toured its exhibition to eight other cities. He's also lectured at Harvard and two years ago won the prestigious US$1 million Dan David Prize.

Wellington City Gallery's landing of Kentridge's 30 minute video work The Refusal of Time is a coup, not least because it's one of his most recent works. It has been shown to critical acclaim in several galleries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The work is a collaboration with South African composer Phillip Miller, film-maker Catherine Meyburgh and dancer Dada Masilo and looks at the nature of time. As well as mesmeric visuals which incorporate theatre, film, drawing and dance projected to encompass the viewer wherever they look, there's a complex soundscape heard through movie-set style megaphones.

The video work also appears to be powered by a pumping, breathing accordion-like sculpture known as "The Elephant".

That may give some readers the impression that The Refusal of Time is grounded in whimsy, but instead the seed for the project - and much of the ideas feeding into the work - came from science.

It looks at the history of how humans have viewed and measured time, right down to taking a breath, to black holes and string theory.

"The literal starting point was an invitation to think about working with a scientist," says Kentridge. "The only part of science I had been thinking about at the time was the prehistory of relativity, things in the 19th century, like looking at the speed of light and results coming from that."

It was then suggested to Kentridge that he talk to Harvard University science historian Peter Galison, an expert in that field.

"During conversations with Peter Galison the project gradually took form and also increased from being a thought of a single projection on a ceiling to being this much larger- scale work.

"I discovered that the terms in which scientists spoke were so full of visual metaphors that it [seemed] very comfortable and easy [to move] from the scientific discussion to finding [a] visual or material equivalent of the scientific theories."

Kentridge says his initial idea of a single projection would have been of images going out of Earth at the speed of light. Then he realised that music could be used to convey time "as a material substance".

"One could slow music down, reverse it, repeat it. That meant I was working with Phillip Miller and musicians. And from some of the stories Peter Galison told me of breaths of air for telling time, [they] could also become the breaths of air of brass instruments, so the instrumentation started to take its shape. Gradually I brought in the team I work with - the costume designer, the lighting designer, video editors. At the beginning we had more team than project, then the project expanded around the people working on it."

Kentridge says he chose film because it is the easiest way of seeing time transformed into something material.

"When you hold a roll of 16mm film in your hand like a discus, you are in fact holding nine minutes of congealed time. Film turns time into number and distance of frames on the roll of celluloid - and also the way you can repeat, reverse and slow film down becomes a way of demonstrating what that would mean with time."

Kentridge says one reason the work encompasses the viewer as they watch it is "wanting to put people in the middle of an argument".

"It's almost as if [the viewer] is sitting inside a different head. Their head is inside a different head."

The idea for The Elephant, which went through several design stages, came from the space provided for The Refusal of Time when it was created for Documenta 13, the world's largest recurring exhibition, held in Kassel, Germany.

"There were three walls which were very easy to project on to, and a fourth wall which we weren't sure what to do with," Kentridge says. "I thought it would be great if we could make like an electric substation or a huge compressed air pumping station, where all the material from the piece would be developed.

"Initially it was literally going to be a station of compressed air, which would play tubas and other mechanical instruments using that force, but we weren't able to develop [it]. What remained was something that could be 'breathing'.

"The phrase [The Elephant] came to mind from Dickens' Hard Times where he describes the machines in the north of England 'like the action of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness'. It was something that would have a continual, unstoppable rhythm of breathing, of moving."

Time is often associated with change. In the 1970s Kentridge's art included prints and drawings. From the late 80s he started animating his drawings. Often his work would allude to change in his own life and of his country. But Kentridge says he doesn't consciously set out to deal with time and change in his art.

"Obviously if you work in animation, metamorphosis is stock in trade. The themes and the ideas very much are shaped by the physical material that one works with in the studio. Change and time are themes that have emerged from the studio, rather than themes I have legislated and seen ways of examining in the studio."

The response from institutions and the public to The Refusal of Time has been astonishing, he says.

"That's been great. There was a fear when we made it that it would be very academic or a science lesson, but I suppose quite early on we understood that while the science was vital for generating the metaphors and images for the piece, the piece was not going to try to explain relativity or the difference between Einstein's view and Newton's view on time to the public.

"It would be rooted in the work but the work would not be about explaining that."

The Refusal of Time, City Gallery, Wellington, until November 16

The Dominion Post