Postcard from Perth 16
WA Reviews and Reflections on Theatre and the Arts
Perth Festival Visual Arts: William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time
There’s been a lot of commentary recently (including from me) about the politics surrounding the Sydney Biennale, so I thought it might be salutary to write about some actual contemporary art instead. Over the past few weeks I’ve been sampling the Perth Festival Visual Arts program, and I have to say I’ve found it overall the most stimulating strand in the Festival. As always with these Postcards, I won’t write about (and haven’t seen) everything: just what’s attracted me, stayed with me and given me food for thought.
PICA is currently hosting two Festival shows: South African artist William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time and Aboriginal artist and activist Richard Bell’s Tent Embassy. I’ll review Tent Embassy in a forthcoming Postcard, in conjunction with Bali: Return Economy at Fremantle Arts Centre.
The Refusal of Time is a collaborative multimedia collage installation combining video, sculpture, graphic art, music, sound and visual design, silent film, animation, dance and performance. It’s watershed work by one of the most inventive and unclassifiable contemporary artists in the world, and this is its first presentation in Australia.
Kentridge’s interest in collaboration is unusual for a visual artist. Perhaps it derives from his parallel training and work in theatre; undoubtedly it also reflects his political experience as a European South African whose parents were actively involved in the struggle against apartheid. His long-term collaborators on The Refusal of Time include composer/sound artist Philip Miller, film-maker Catherine Meyburgh, set designer Sabine Theunissen, dancer-choreographer Dada Masilo and dramaturg/physicist/historian of science Peter Galison. It’s also an institutional collaboration between the Perth Festival, the Art Gallery of WA (who showed great initiative in buying the work) and PICA, where it’s been installed in the magnificent central atrium gallery space. Some of the floor-staff at PICA have told me it's their favourite show in the time they've been there.
According to Gary Dufour, Associate Professor at UWA and former chief curator and deputy director at AGWA – who gave a floor-talk at PICA on ‘Collaboration and Collage’ and has known Kentridge for many years – the collaborative process is one of radical openness. Basically Kentridge says yes to any creative offer from his collaborators; their contribution becomes part of the work, and continues to transform along with the work as whole. Conversely, his ‘directions’ to them are likewise radically open. For example, the maker of the abstract wooden mechanical sculpture that’s central to The Refusal of Time was simply invited to ‘make me a breathing elephant’. This is true collaboration as I understand it: a sharing of power, the outcome of which is unknown.
For those who don’t know it, the central space at PICA is normally open-access and flooded with light. Archways lead from the entrance foyer and off to other exhibition spaces; there are white walls and a wooden floor; and it’s surrounded by a first-floor mezzanine balcony with doors leading to other galleries, studios and offices. In this case, the entrance is masked with black drapes, and the adjoining galleries have been sealed off. The floor has been covered with some kind of rubbery, slightly gritty surface, and the walls lined with towering flats of untreated or patchily painted board, decorated with the odd or written drawn scrawl and stuck-on translucent coloured squares that looks like pieces of celluloid lighting gel. Colours are muted – as is the normally resonant acoustic. The space is dimly lit to isolate the video projections on the walls and the central ‘breathing machine’.
Music and soundscape are continuous, as are the five videos, which are projected simultaneously (but not in synchrony) on three of the walls. Soundtrack and moving images unfold in a sequence of what feels like about five sections that might be called ‘movements’ or ‘acts’; each has a distinct language in terms of image/sound repertoire, technique, genre and content. Five giant metronomes tick in and out of sync; brass blare and drums pound; a male voice gives a half-audible lecture; the distant sound of opera is heard; or we hear what might be the imaginary murmur of background microwave radiation in outer space. Meanwhile, the giant metronomes are visible all around us on the walls; giant encyclopaedia pages appear and turn; Kentridge himself appears and confronts his own doppelgänger or carries Dada Masilo around on his back; Masilo reappears as one of pair of anarchists invading a clock-tower and preparing a bomb, in an avant-garde silent film using paper-cut-out costumes and props; in another, more ‘realistic’ but still pantomime silent film she conceals a lover from another man in what looks like a post-revolutionary dictatorship; and in a climactic sequence black silhouettes parade around the walls across all five screens, dancing, playing instruments, brandishing farm implements or lugging carts. Other sequences are more abstract, use drawing and graphics, and play with reverse-time photography. The duration of the whole work is about half an hour.
The Refusal of Time is an almost overwhelmingly complex work: a feast for the senses, an emotional rollercoaster and an intellectual tour de force. I’ve been back three times, and rather than gaining an objective overview I feel like I’ve been progressively immersed in the work, which has become more and more a part of my subjective experience rather than an object of knowledge or understanding. Kentridge’s key techniques derive from drawing and theatre, and his core interests are in history, politics and science as well as art; but it’s the philosophical aspect of the work as a ‘machine for thinking’ that excites me the most.
I say ‘machine for thinking’ rather than ‘thinking machine’ because despite the use of multimedia there’s something still profoundly humanist (or perhaps ‘trans-humanist’) about the work. The choice of slightly archaic technologies, materials, objects and images used in its construction, and the low-tech aesthetic of their treatment, emphasise that they’re artefacts rather than constituting a second nature with its own apparently independent life (as tends to be the case with more hi-tech work). The process of production is on show rather than being concealed – including visible projectors and loudspeakers (in the form of megaphones), the use of black-and-white film, distorted or degraded sound, and worked-over and interrupted projection surfaces. In short: there’s no illusion – no phantasmagoria, as Adorno would say.
The exception to this is, of course, the hidden ‘master-slave’ technology (apparently that's the technical term for it) that drives the breathing-machine via computer software. The second time I visited, this had broken down, and the sculpture was temporarily inert. As a result the whole work had lost its artificial lungs, so to speak. It had become merely an audio-visual installation: still totally absorbing, but without the disturbing energy introduced by a real, moving, artificial three-dimensional entity at its heart. It made me realise there’s something about the interplay between the virtual images and the actual sculpture (not to mention ourselves as living beings, randomly sitting on chairs, standing or walking around wherever we choose) that makes The Refusal of Time, and each encounter with it, a singular event.
The Refusal of Time is explicitly about time (as Kentridge himself acknowledged in the title of his lecture ‘On Time’ at the Heath Ledger Theatre last month) – specifically in the context of the prehistory of the theory of relativity, and the colonial-era subdivision of the world into artificial time-zones. It also reminds me of the ways that philosophers and writers like Bergson, Proust and Deleuze have invited us to re-think time (and indeed consciousness, creativity and freedom) in terms of continuity, quality and multiplicity rather than the segmented, quantified and unified time measured by conventional chronology. In fact, the title of the work itself implies not only a political ‘refusal’ of time as chronology or conventional history (think of Marcuse’s ‘great refusal’ of capitalism, or the story of the Paris Communards shooting and smashing all the clocks) but also (and conversely) acknowledges and redresses a psychological ‘refusal’ of time by capitalism itself, in the deeper sense of time as duration, memory or what Sartre called ‘lived experience’. As such The Refusal of Time could even be called a latter-day Salon des Refusés (or ‘rubbish-room’) that redeems the 'refuse' of history.
Proust famously described the experience of memory as being ‘real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’ – which is actually not a bad description of the projected images and recorded sounds in The Refusal of Time. Deleuze called this reality ‘virtual’; and indeed The Refusal of Time is itself a ‘virtual’ work, which co-exists in multiple (though limited) editions around the world (and thus 'refuses' the aura of Benjamin’s ‘traditional’ art-object). In this respect it resembles a play, a symphony, or perhaps even a novel or poem, more than it does a traditional visual artwork.
The rhetorical or expressive elements of this virtual artwork, however, are the elements of collage: ‘cut out’, so to speak, from moments in the history of pre-revolutionary art like Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Cubism – and indeed collage itself. In this regard Kentridge might indeed be described as a ‘postmodernist’ – although I suspect it’s not a term he’d actually endorse. Aside from this, what distinguishes Kentridge as a unique individual artist is his style and skill as a draughtsman – in particular his characteristic use of line (he’s less interested in colour) in his charcoal drawings, on paper or (in animated form) on film. This is most vividly realised in his use of animated films of drawings that evolve on the same sheet of paper, so that the trace of their history is maintained, albeit in a continually altered form. Here the use of line in drawing traces the line of time itself – recalling Bergson’s images of duration as a line infinitely extending itself, or a length of tape spooling from reel to reel (from the future to the past).
In general, the use of moving images and recorded sound in so much post-cinematic contemporary art has the effect of introducing time back into the work – and introducing us as spectators into the time of the work – in a way that obviously breaks with traditional artworks, in which time is arrested or frozen (as Keats memorably described it in the ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’). This in turn transforms the experience of time in a gallery space. In short: the work becomes a performance; the spectator becomes an audience; and the gallery becomes a theatre. In fact Kentridge has staged a number of operas: The Coronation of Poppea, The Magic Flute, Shostakovich’s The Nose, and a forthcoming Lulu. The design for The Refusal of Time is also a kind of theatre set; and his work regularly contains performances on film, typically by Kentridge himself, and his ‘muse’ Dada Masilo. More profoundly, Kentridge’s work is a theatre of the world (theatrum mundi) invoking theatre itself as a Shakespearian microcosm or metaphor for society and human existence (Lear’s ‘great stage of fools’).
If history for Joyce was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake, then for Kentridge it seems more like a delirium from which there can be no such awakening. Nonetheless, if regimes of knowledge and power alike are both doomed to failure and inescapable, there’s still space for creativity, love, joy and freedom. The sleep of reason indeed produces monsters, but also dreams and visions. The Refusal of Time is thrilling, terrifying, sexy, playful, hilarious, manic, tragic, poetic and unspeakably beautiful.
The Refusal of Time is at PICA until 27 April.
More Perth Festival Visual Arts reviews follow in future Postcards.