Goodman Gallery Johannesburg
13 October – 10 November 2018
KABOOM! wastes little time introducing itself. The title sets the scene for the exhibition, which largely draws on work produced for two recent performance projects by William Kentridge backdropped by war: the critically acclaimed The Head & the Load , which premiered at London’s Tate Modern in July, and the celebrated 2017 production of Alban Berg’s opera, Wozzeck .
The exhibition is organised around Kentridge’s ongoing interest in juxtaposing fragments for both coherent and absurdist ends. The result is a diverse display of work in several mediums including a new three-channel film installation related to The Head & The Load , never-before exhibited charcoal drawings used for projection in that production, as well as other drawings produced for the opera, Wozzeck . In addition, KABOOM! features composite drawings made for Kentridge’s recent performance of Kurt Schwitters’s 1932 sound poem, Ursonate , at Performa 17 in New York and a new set of bronze sculptures that form part of his Lexicon series.
‘Is it possible to tell a story without telling it through the story of one individual – the girl, the soldier, the hero, standing in for the whole war?’ says Kentridge, reflecting on the creative process behind The Head & The Load . For the artist, the answer to this question lies in ‘understanding history as fragmented’ and using this perspective to assemble various disparate pieces that help construct a ‘provisional understanding of the past.’
For his design of Wozzeck , Kentridge drew inspiration from documentary photographs depicting the ravaged First World War battlefields of Flanders. The opera, which premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2017, tells the story of a homicidal soldier – a tale brought to life by Kentridge through his characteristic charcoal drawings depicting bleak landscapes, denuded of their trees and scarred by shell craters.
During the production process for Wozzeck Kentridge brought together a group of local performers to workshop the material. ‘There were so many things not used,’ Kentridge recalls of the rehearsals, ‘so much left at the edge of the production… many of the items called to be looked at again, to be brought back onto stage.’ It was from those unused elements that Kentridge would begin development on his next project: The Head & the Load .
A play on the Ghanaian proverb, ‘the head and the load are the troubles of the neck’, this large-scale production expressively speaks to the nearly two million African porters and carriers used by the British, French, and Germans during the First World War in Africa. The Head & The Load takes the form of a processional musical journey and features an international ensemble cast of singers, dancers, and performers accompanied by a chorus of mechanized gramophones alongside multiple film projections and shadow play to create a landscape of immense proportion and imagination.
According to Kentridge, the project explores ‘the contradictions and paradoxes of colonialism that were heated and compressed by the circumstances of the war’. Among the various sources of text used to articulate this story, Kentridge drew on Schwitter’s Ursonate , which was written after the First World War, but remained indebted to the sound poems developed by the Dadaists during the Zurich cabarets in 1916. The work’s use in The Head & The Load speaks to ‘sound of a rational argument hiding a deep irrationality.’
William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1955. His career has spanned five decades and his work has been shown in major museums, galleries, fairs and biennials around the world since the 1990s, including Documenta in Kassel, Germany (1997, 2003, 2012), the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1998, 2010), the Albertina Museum in Vienna (2010), Jeu de Paume in Paris (2010), and the Musée du Louvre in Paris (2010), where he presented Carnets d’Egypte, a project conceived especially for the Egyptian Room. Kentridge’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute was presented at Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Festival d’Aix, and in 2011 at La Scala in Milan, and his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose was seen at The New York Metropolitan Opera in 2010 and again in 2013, travelling to Festival d’Aix and to Lyon in 2011. The five-channel video and sound installation The Refusal of Time was made for Documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany, in 2012; since then it has been seen at MAXXI in Rome, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and in many other cities including Boston, Perth, Kyoto, Helsinki and Wellington. A substantial survey exhibition of Kentridge’s work opened in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, going on in following years to Porto Alegre, São Paulo, Bogota, Medellin, and Mexico City. In the summer of 2014 Kentridge’s production of Schubert’s Winterreise opened at the Vienna Festival, Festival d’Aix, and Holland Festival. In the fall it opened at the Lincoln Center in New York. Paper Music, a concert of projections with live music by Philip Miller, opened in Florence in September 2014, and was presented at Carnegie Hall in New York in late October 2014. Both the installation The Refusal of Time and its companion performance piece Refuse the Hour were presented in Cape Town in February 2015. More recently, Kentridge’s production of the Alban Berg opera Wozzeck premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2017 and last year his acclaimed performance project The Head & The Load opened at Tate Modern in London, and travelled to Park Avenue Armory in December 2018. In June 2019, A Poem That I Used To Know opened at Kunstmuseum, Basel in Switzerland, which travelled to LaM in Lille in early 2020. Why Should I Hesitate, a major survey show, divided across the Norval Foundation and Zetiz MOCAA, both in Cape Town, opened in late August 2019 and will run until July 2020. In addition, Kentridge’s new opera project, Waiting for the Sibyl, premiered at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma in September 2019 and will be seen in several European cities in 2020.
In 2010, Kentridge received the prestigious Kyoto Prize in recognition of his contributions in the field of arts and philosophy. In 2011, he was elected as an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and received the degree of Doctor of Literature honoris causa from the University of London. In 2012, Kentridge presented the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University and was elected member of the American Philosophical Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Also in that year, he was awarded the Dan David Prize by Tel Aviv University, and was named as Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. In 2013, William Kentridge was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts by Yale University and in 2014 received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Cape Town. In 2017, Kentridge received the Princess of Asturias Award for the Arts in Spain and 2019, he was honoured with the Praemium Imperiale Laureate: Painting by the Japan Art Association in Tokyo.