Reflections on William Kentridge

 

 

Another noted artist that I only discovered in the last few years, but whose art and ideas have greatly influenced me, is the South African artist William Kentridge.

Renowned for his animated expressionist drawings and films exploring time, the history of colonialism and the aspirations and failures of revolutionary politics, South African artist William Kentridge (b.1955, Johannesburg) featured in two major London exhibitions in the last two years that I was fortunate enough to see in the last couple of years.

The Whitechapel Gallery exhibition showcased six large-scale installations by the artist, where music and drama are ruptured by revolution, exile and scientific advancement.

 

Highlights included the film work Second-hand Reading (2013), installation O Sentimental Machine (2015) and The Refusal of Time (2012), an immersive work created with composer Philip Miller, projection designer Catherine Meyburgh, choreographer Dada Masilo, scientist Peter Galison and collaborators from around the world.

Marian Goodman presented two multiscreen film installations: More Sweetly Play the Dance, and Notes Toward a Model Opera.

 

 

More Sweetly Play the Dance is an eight-screen danse macabre, reminding one of the medieval tradition which summons diverse vestiges of humanity in a paradox of revelry and mourning. Kentridge presents us with part carnival, protest, and exodus: a 45 metre caravan traversing in a sphere around us with figures in procession, a form the artist invoked in his 1999 Shadow Procession.

 

About the processional form, Kentridge says:

“In some ways we first come across it in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In a prelude to talking about the responsibility of the philosopher king, he describes people walking behind a screen carrying wooden and stone objects in their hands, their shadows thrown onto the wall opposite the prisoners shackled in the cave watching the shadows.”

Kentridge manages to combine traditional media with new media in work that references much of the culture and history of humankind’s interactions with each other – my work does not of course encompass such a vast range of subjects and media, however, I have found him inspiring for what is possible.

As with Mona Hatoum, Do Ho Suh and Tatsuo Miyajima, other artists who have greatly influenced me over these last two years, I dream about the kind of work I might make that goes beyond my previous boundaries of tradition painting and printmaking, of relatively small-scale, framed works, to the ideas of truly multi-media, multi-sensory pieces and installations drawing from a myriad of sources, cultures, languages and peoples.

 

 

Links and references

 

 

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Tatsuo Miyajima from 9 to 1 and zero in the cycle of life and death

In my post about the London-based Korean artist, Do Ho Suh, I talked about the importance of the notion of karma to his work. Karma is also central to the work of the Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima.

 

Miyajima’s three core concepts are:

 

  • keep changing
  • connect with everything
  • continue forever

These three symbolise human life and are the basis for his art.

Key to Miyajima’s practice are the numbers nine to one and zero, he says:

“Basically the count goes down from nine to one, then repeats: from 9-8-7, these numbers shine this represents life. The count continues, and as it does this symbolises change.

 

Then we reach zero In Sanskrit zero was call “sunya”, in Buddhism, in Japanese, this becomes kuu, “the void”.

It is said this idea originated in India in the sixth century but the original meaning  was not only emptiness or nothingness but also  swollenness an explosion.

In other words, ‘zero’ incorporates two diametrically opposed meanings: it indicates that this void is invisible, yet packed with energy.

 

 

 

So when someone dies, it’s like going to sleep: you can’t see anything, but there’s plenty of power there, and if you rest for a while, life reverts as though you were waking up the next morning.

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Tatsuo Miyajima: Counter Voice in Wine

This repeating cycle of life and death can be taken as the boundary of what is visible: invisible then visible, the pattern of life and death repeating. For Miyajima, that’s what it’s all about, that’s what life is.”

Miyajima doesn’t include zero in his work because it would signify death. So instead of a zero, it goes black:

“The gap between counting cycles represents a pause or breath, the ‘space of death’ before life begins once more.”

I personally found this exhibition inspiring both for the sheer scale and technical knowledge that must have been behind its staging, but even more because of the conceptual ideas behind Miyajima’s work.

This idea of the cycle of life and death, of karma, being represented by the simple idea of counting between 9 and 1 (to limit the numbers to single digits only) seems to me brilliant in its simplicity, and it can be used in so many ways. This also inspired me to think about the other textual references I could layer over my work, to represent the languages and therefore cultures that have influenced both my personal history, and that of my ancestors, but really of the history of humankind, if I can be so bold!

 

Links

 

 

 

 

Mona Hatoum’s “Measures of Distance” is a reflection of our global life

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Mona Hatoum

The 2016 exhibition at London’s Tate Modern of the work of Mona Hatoum surprised and intrigued me. I knew little of her work before I saw this show, yet was sure it would be interesting and thought-provoking, as her life and ideas are of interest to me in my own work.

The artist’s biography is marked by exile: Hatoum is a British artist, born in 1952 into a Palestinian family exiled in Lebanon. For over three decades she has been creating works which ask us to re-consider how we see and understand the world, and its “notions of territory, fragility, humanity, scale and power” (Smith, 2016).

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Mona Hatoum: Homebound 2000

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Mona Hatoum: Hot Spot 2013

To say that Hatoum’s work is “electrifying” is perhaps a bit corny, given the literally electric component of much of her work, but I think it is completely apt. Indeed the electric current ran through Mona Hatoum’s whole show at Tate Modern. Ever present, like a now distant, now nearer threat, the crackle and droning hum could be heard almost everywhere, emitted from Homebound: furniture and objects arranged behind a barrier of taut steel wire.

Produced in 2000, this domestic arrangement of tables and chairs, kitchen utensils, lights, cots, toys, a birdcage, are all wired-up so that an audible current surges round the room, with objects lit up in turn, “the aggressive sound amplified for our pleasure and disquiet. With Hatoum, the two are almost always twinned.” (Searle, 2016)

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Mona Hatoum: Grater Divide 2002

Homebound is just one of several “anxious interiors” in an exhibition that shows Hatoum’s oeuvre. Her 2013 piece Hot Spot presents the entire globe as a danger zone, with the term ‘hot spot’ referring to a place of “military or civil unrest”; here red neon outlines the contours of the world’s continents, showing what Hatoum describes as a “world continually caught up in conflict and unrest”(Smith, 2016).

Much of her work is darkly disturbing when you may think it will be at first glance. The over-sized, scaled-up domestic appliances of Grater Divide and Dormiente, using items such as graters and other kitchen utensils, useful and homely at their regular size, take on sinister characters hinting at torture implements when larger than human-scale.

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Mona Hatoum: Dormiente 2008

 

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Mona Hatoum: Dormiente (detail) 2008

 

A key piece for me is Mona Hatoum’s film Measures of Distance. It speaks to me of the inter-connectedness of familial relationships across space and time. In the film, the artist’s mother is shown in close-up, in the intimacy of her shower. Fragments of Arabic script from their handwritten correspondence form a visual barrier over the image; like barbed wire, the script conceals and reveals the body speaking simultaneously of literal and implied closeness and distance, simultaneously expressing the painful distance of displacement and the longings for closeness that mark the artist’s experience.

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Mona Hatoum: Measures of Distance 1988 (film still)

In this work I was also trying to go against the fixed identity that is usually implied in the stereotype of Arab woman as passive, mother as non-sexual being… the work is constructed visually in such a way that every frame speaks of literal closeness and implied distance.
(Quoted in Mona Hatoum 1997, p.140).

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Mona Hatoum: Measures of Distance 1988 (film still)

The film graphically highlights the difficulties of communicating across the geographical divide: Hatoum’s audio track reading of the letters in both Arabic and English shows the dual identity through language that a migrant or exile experiences and takes on board:  language both expands and limits expression, here the dual language also serves to bring audiences of both languages closer together.

Exploring themes of home and displacement from the perspective of the Palestinian exile, Mona Hatoum’s works, from the last thirty years and today, continue to be relevant in this “age of migrants, curfews, identity cards, refugees, exiles, massacres, camps and fleeing civilians” (Said, 2000).

Further reading

Gallery websites featuring the artist’s work