WILLIAM KENTRIDGE The Refusal of Time
The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Oct 22, 2013 – May 11, 2014
William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time, which debuted in dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, is a multi-channel video and sculpture installation that, at first, seems an evolution of the artist’s ability to craft complicated allegories of the struggle between the personal and the political. Kentridge came to prominence in the 1990s with his idiosyncratic short films of animated drawings and collage that served as an exegesis for his experience growing up white in apartheid South Africa.
In Refusal, the artist brings themes developed in these earlier works to a more phenomenal and aggressively embodied staging. The room-sized installation is presented like a black box theater in between set strikes. Traces of gaffer tape and scribbled on post-it notes with set directions are randomly placed on leaning panels of uneven size. Four walls comprise the screens that support the video portion of the piece: a film/animation that cycles clockwise around the viewer. In the center of the room, amidst a scattering of bolted-down chairs, sits a large, mostly wooden machine with elbowing camshafts and a regularly extruding wooden bellows. The inspiration for naming this contraption was apparently a Dickens quote from Hard Times in which Dickens describes a Victorian industrial machine looking like an ominously nodding elephant. The video unfolds in a manic, 30-minute sequence (while the “elephant” cycles incessantly) which ranges from drawn animations to real-life tableaus. Many poetic touches are evident throughout, as when Kentridge deploys what looks to be a player piano roll of slotted paper as a type of encoded rain.
Kentridge is a canny conductor of aleatory meaning, employing a range of symbols that often juxtapose the quotidian with the cosmic. He tends to craft stuttering, awkward, collaged translations between individual and socialized experience. His tactics are implicitly, and often explicitly, modeled on Dada histrionics. The absurdist theater of Jarry, the cosmic interiority of Cornell, the revolutionary poetry of Mayakovsky, and satirical social studies by Gogol all haunt his imagery in turns. He also seems to favor early silent film genres like the experiments of Georges Méliès and even perhaps Mack Sennett’s antic films. Aspects of each of these influences are apparent in the installation.
The metaphysical theme of Refusal, implied by its title, is too often reinforced, unfortunately, in obvious and clichéd ways. As the video begins one becomes surrounded by multiple large metronomes that beat to different timings. One initial text in the video reads, “He that has fled his fate,” and later on, “Death be not proud.” The musical score often intersects too seamlessly with the images (as does a tic-tock plunking of violin strings during the metronome sequence). There is something overweening and downright corny in how Kentridge synchs the dense soundtrack to the ever-changing imagery. At times it felt reminiscent of Disney’s misuse of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” in Fantasia, to depict volcanoes erupting and dinosaurs locked in mortal combat. The mechanical “elephant” in the middle of the room is not a very subtle allusion to memory and/or its denial either. The artist’s narration of certain sections was too intrusive and melodramatic, bordering on the solipsistic. The illustrative nature of Kentridge’s work is one of its formal tactics but, since this is the case, one would assume he’d pay more attention to avoiding such obvious correlations and clichés. This didacticism undermines the aesthetic potential for the artist’s surreal and jarring intercutting of poetic reverie with socio-political reality and often devolves into a preachy humanism. What the artist obscures here, by being at once blatant and vague regarding time’s persistence, is the theme of what might be called the “culpability of relativistic ethics” that forms such an important subtext to his prior work.
What compels the viewer to pay attention to Kentridge’s work is not just his deft craftsmanship but also an irresolute existential narrative. How does the artist reconcile his circumstances of being, by default, on the white side of a white- supremacist nationalist history within stark delimitations of emotional reality and political abstraction? How can the contingent individual fluidly act and ultimately evolve within time’s social solidarities?
The Refusal of Time could be read as representing the will to get past—to socially transcend—repressive historical tropes, or, conversely, representing a pathological denial to come to personal terms with the material evidence of time and its ravaging histories. One gets the sense that Kentridge is painfully aware of this contradictory dynamic in both the microcosmic and macrocosmic sense, and that he nevertheless plods on, like his torn-paper shadow-puppets, in a pathetic parade to nowhere, no time. This stance for him must be a problematic luxury though, when one considers how a distancing from temporal reality can induce the sleep of reason. The artist’s South African heritage, spanning from apartheid to its abolishment and onto a post-Mandela regime, serves as a historical index for much of the recursive interior dialogues of ethical identity and its moral dissolution in his work. He has extensively used historical determinism as a formal armature to throw into relief his intellectually and emotionally cobbled-together response to the inevitable violence of fate and to the inequities of political determinism.
Kentridge makes time too blatant a theme in this work, however, and the effect is a paradoxical slackening of time’s hidden power to summon or deny both individual and political fates. His smoothing of temporal determinism via illustrative cliché scuttles any historical and political rationale in The Refusal of Time, and must ultimately be, for him, an act of artistic self-destruction. There is a pathos to this, which might be considered immemorial, but not one that, in this instance, appears predicted by the artist’s former, self–reconciling intent. The issue of what becomes of grand historical narratives once they get filtered through idiosyncratic, (and often asynchronous) subjective identities is one the artist seems to sincerely struggle with, but in The Refusal of Time this issue gets maintained and recuperated as entertaining farce.
TOM MCGLYNN is an artist, writer, and independent curator based in the N.Y.C. area. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cooper- Hewitt National Design Museum of the Smithsonian. He is the director of Beautiful Fields, an organization dedicated to socially- engaged curatorial projects, and is also currently a visiting lecturer at Parsons/the New School.