The form is one of collage, and the larger proposition is that one needs to understand history as a form of collage – William Kentridge, 2022
Oh To Believe in Another World is William Kentridge’s first solo exhibition with Goodman Gallery in London and marks thirty years of representation by the gallery.
The exhibition premieres the artist’s latest major work, an immersive five-channel projection made in response to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10. The installation lends the exhibition its evocative title – referencing utopia, our wish for it and the shadow it always casts.
The centrepiece of the exhibition has its origins in a commission by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, leading to a single-channel live orchestral performance in Lucerne, Pompeii and Johannesburg earlier this year.
Oh To Believe in Another World expands on decades of critical engagement with life and culture under the Soviet Union, explored in Kentridge’s I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) and The Nose (2010), based on the absurdist opera of the same name directed by Shostakovich in the 1920s, which was suppressed shortly after opening.
Of Shostakovich’s pieces, his 10th Symphony – composed in anticipation of Stalin’s death – has always been most pertinent for Kentridge because of its humanity: “we can still feel the emotional journey of the symphony, independent of its historical moorings.”
Shostakovich’s life story involved navigating a complex relationship to the state of the Soviet Union, which provides the core inspiration for the projection. While the Russian composer and pianist was initially lauded as a sound voice to project Soviet values, Shostakovich was denounced twice under Stalin’s rule, leading him to fear for his life and compose music under intense state pressure. His 10th Symphony violated many of the Soviet restrictions on cultural production, experimenting formally with contrast and ambivalent tonalities, and was only made public once Stalin died in 1953.
The exhibition brings together a new body of work – charcoal drawings, collaged lithographs, mixed media puppets, bronze sculptures and a cardboard model for the projection – which reference the central projection in various ways and invite audiences to engage with Kentridge’s multidisciplinary practice in the round.
Concurrently, Kentridge’s largest UK survey to date is held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London this September, followed by performances from The Centre for the Less Good Idea at The Barbican in October. Oh To Believe in Another World shares its name with the eighth episode of a new series about life in the studio, titled Self-Portrait As A Coffee Pot (2022), which takes audiences behind the scenes to show the making of the projection and is set to premiere at international film festivals in Toronto and London this season. In November, Kentridge will open another major survey exhibition at The Broad in Los Angeles. Kentridge’s performance The Head & The Load, first seen at Tate Modern in 2018, travels to the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami in December.
Oh To Believe in Another World: A five-channel projection
The exhibition’s centrepiece constitutes a retrospective look at four decades of the Soviet Union – from the death of Lenin in the 1920s; the suicide of Mayakovsky in the 1930s; the assassination of Trotsky in the 1940s; and the death of Stalin in the 1950s. For Kentridge, “the report that remains of these decades is in the music of Shostakovich, the one who against expectation got away, and survived”.
According to the artist: “the characters in the projection were all participants in the politics and culture of their time and embody the simultaneous hope in revolutionary ideals and the disillusionment of their failure in the lived world”. These protagonists include: pianist and composer Elmira Nazirova; poet Vladimir Mayakovsky; author Lilya Brik; Vladimir Lenin; Leon Trotsky; Joseph Stalin and Shostakovich himself.
The projection is set inside what appears to be an abandoned Soviet museum propped up by ageing pillars. It is made of cardboard and sits on a table in the artist’s studio. Using a miniature camera, we are guided – as if in a dream – through the deserted halls into a host of symbolic imagined spaces, including a community theatre hall, an empty public swimming pool (with a clock permanently set to 12:22), a quarry and a corridor of vitrines holding stuffed historical figures.
The audio component includes the collaging of music by Russian composers, sampled and sliced to cacophonous effect to create an assemblage of sound. The work leans into the “deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds” that defined Stalin’s damning response to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934). By embracing the creative possibilities of “muddle” and fragmentation, denied to Shostakovich for decades, Kentridge turns Stalin’s denouncement into a quality to be celebrated.
Imposing Kentridge iconography fills the dilapidated museum halls, from colossal ampersands and video cameras to dainty ballerina compass puppets dancing to an empty theatre – their movements wooden and restrained. The mood swings haphazardly throughout, echoing the ebb and flow of the 10th, which moves from menacing and melancholic to urgent and chaotic.
Scenes are punctuated by sampled footage from the Soviet era as well as recurring excerpts of text pinned to the museum walls. These include selected lines from Mayakovsky’s writing and a slogan from the Russian Revolution – “we’ll chase humanity into happiness with an iron fist”.
Kentridge’s practice has been defined, in part, by preoccupations with “failed utopias” and lumbering shadow processions, as seen in works ranging from Shadow Procession (1999) and Notes Towards a Model Opera (2015). As with Oh To Believe in Another World, these works are underpinned by Kentridge’s reading of Plato’s cave in The Republic (375 BC) where prisoners’ only visual link to the outside world are the shadows of passers-by projected onto a wall. The story presents a didactic, violent journey as a necessary means for bringing people from darkness into light, shaping the artist’s fascination with the inevitable trajectory of regimes, whether they are apartheid-era South Africa, Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia.
For the artist, these charged periods in history provide fertile material for unpacking the inevitable failure of the seemingly impenetrable “grand idea”:
“Political uncertainty, philosophical uncertainty, the uncertainty of images is much closer to how the world is. That’s something we’ve very much learnt the hard way through the 20th century; there are so many failures of grand ideas” – Kentridge
Trees are one of the most dominant symbols in Kentridge’s lexicon – occurring during transitional moments in the projection, bearing silent witness to events. They are reminiscent of the ominous forests of Europe where mass murders have taken place with bodies are absorbed into the landscape without a trace. As South African critic Sean O’Toole notes, “these arboreal subjects [are] fragile icons of solidity, flux and not knowing”.
As part of the Shostakovich project, William created studio still life ink drawings with objects that are both “in and of the studio” and most frequently get “cast” as characters in his productions performing on the stage that is his studio table:
“It’s a bit like commedia dell’arte. You have your set characters and they are sent off to perform different shows every night. [Each object] just standing there waiting to be used in different places” – Kentridge
Oh To Believe in Another World (Studio Still Life) (2022) hangs above the threshold of the installation as a kind of frontispiece. Assembled above a photograph of the celebrated avant-garde author Lilya Brik are four megaphones, employed as conduits for a cacophony of disembodied voices and bare an art-historical reference:
“Cézanne spoke about the world being constructed from cones, spheres, and cylinders. Which is a way of taking the world and formalising it. I like the idea of Cézanne’s cone but I wanted to send it back into the world to earn its keep which it does in the form of a megaphone. They are formally interesting, but they also bring so many associations…” – Kentridge
I Turn Onto My Most Comfortable Side (Studio Still-Life) (2022) contains a personal arrangement of objects: a cup of black coffee and a bowl of ink, drawings of drawings of trees, boxes of pencils and pins, scissors and a 16mm film splicer that Kentridge and South African filmmaker Angus Gibson used to edit his very earliest films. Here, Kentridge splices simple yet poetic phrases, emphasising “history as collage”.
Featured lithographs contain grids of faces which correspond with the protagonists in the projection. They include Soviet intellectuals, politicians and members of the cultural avantgarde and are based on a series of drawings, which was undertaken early on in the project as part of Kentridge’s process for reflecting on Shostakovich’s life and work. The grid format and collaged effect mirrors the way that these historical figures appear in the projection – their intersecting narratives pieced together, disjointed and imperfect.
The protagonists in the projection feature partially as small paper puppets – a characterisation which evolved as Kentridge began working with costume designer Greta Goiris to experiment with the possibility of using actors inside of puppets. The life-size puppets use collaged costume alongside cut-outs of Kentridge’s drawings of the protagonists’ faces, as seen in the lithographs.
The small cardboard puppets that appear in the projection are included as objects in their own right within the exhibition. The bodies of the puppets are composed of familiar objects in Kentridge’s “universal archive”, including dancing scissors and a megaphone. Kentridge’s 40-year career as an artist has its roots in puppetry, dating back to key works in his repertoire such as Shadow Procession (1999), a seminar work in the artist’s oeuvre which also marked an ongoing interest in processions.
The combination of comic and austere movements that characterise the mechanised body language of the puppets resemble a Constructivist choreography – a distinct visual quality that is shared with the set of bronze sculptures that feature in the exhibition, and which are presented in a procession.
Miniature set model
The delicate cardboard model of the museum also features in the exhibition, giving viewers a unique opportunity to experience the intricate and intimate scale of the set for the projection.
William Kentridge (b. Johannesburg, South Africa, 1955) is internationally acclaimed for his drawings, films, theatre and opera productions. While his practice, expressionist in nature, is entirely underpinned by drawing, his method combines studio-based and collaborative practices to create works of art that are grounded in politics, science, literature and history, and maintain a space for contradiction and uncertainty.
Kentridge’s work has been seen in museums and galleries around the world since the 1990s, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Musée du Louvre in Paris, Whitechapel Gallery in London, Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen, the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Zeitz MOCAA, the Norval Foundation in Cape Town, MUDAM in Luxembourg and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He has also participated in a number of Biennale’s including Documenta in Kassel (2012, 2002,1997) and the Venice Biennale (2015, 2013, 2005, 1999, 1993).
Opera productions include Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Shostakovich’s The Nose, and Alban Berg’s operas Lulu and Wozzeck, and have been seen at opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, English National Opera in London, Opera de Lyon, Amsterdam opera, the Sydney Opera House and the Salzburg Festival.
Kentridge’s theatrical productions, performed in theatres and at festivals across the globe include Refuse the Hour, Winterreise, Paper Music, The Head & the Load, Ursonate and Waiting for the Sibyl and in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company, Ubu & the Truth Commission, Faustus in Africa!, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, and Woyzeck on the Highveld.
In 2016 Kentridge founded the Centre for Less Good Idea in Johannesburg: a space for responsive thinking and making through experimental, collaborative and cross-disciplinary arts practices. The centre hosts an ongoing programme of workshops, public performances, and mentorship activities.
His work can be found in the collections of Art Gallery of Western Australia (Perth), Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Museum of Art (New York), San Diego Museum of Art, Fondation Cartier (Paris), Zetiz MoCAA (Cape Town), Norval Foundation (Cape Town), LACMA (Los Angeles), Haus der Kunst (Munich), Sharjah Art Foundation, Mudam (Luxembourg), Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montreal, MoMA (New York), SF MoMA (San Francisco), Castello di Rivoli (Turin), Moderna Museet, Stockholm, MoCA (Los Angeles), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne), Johannesburg Art Gallery, MAXXI (Rome), Louisiana Museum (Humlebaek,Denmark), National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), National Museum of Modern Art (Kyoto), Israel Museum (Jerusalem), Inhotim Museum (Brumadinho, Brazil), Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles, Centre Pompidou (Paris), Fondation Louis Vuitton (Paris), National Gallery of Australia (Canberra), Tate Modern (London), Sifang Art Museum (Nanjing), Kunsthalle Mannheim, Vehbi Koç Foundation (Istanbul), Luma Foundation (Arles), Museum of Fine Arts (Budapest), Fundaçion Sorigue (Lerida, Spain), Guggenheim (Abu Dhabi), Kunsthalle Praha (Prague) and Amorepacific Museum of Art (Seoul); as well as private collections worldwide.
Kentridge is the recipient of honorary doctorates from several universities including Yale and the University of London. In 2012 he presented the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University. In 2013 he served as Humanitas Visiting Professor in Contemporary Art at Oxford University, and Distinguished Visiting Humanist at the University of Rochester, New York, and in 2015 he was appointed an Honorary Academician of the Royal Academy in London. In 2017 he received the Princesa de Asturias Award for the Arts, Spain, and in 2018, the Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize, Italy. Previous awards include the Kyoto Prize, Japan (2010), the Oskar Kokoschka Award, Vienna (2008), the Kaiserring Prize (2003), and the Sharjah Biennial 6 Prize (2003), among others.
Kentridge’s largest UK survey to date is held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London this September, followed by performances from The Centre for the Less Good Idea at The Barbican in October. Oh To Believe in Another World shares its name with the eighth episode of a new series about life in the studio, titled Self-Portrait As A Coffee Pot (2022), which takes audiences behind the scenes to show the making of the projection and is set to premiere at international film festivals in Toronto and London this season. In November, Kentridge will open another major survey exhibition at The Broad in Los Angeles. Kentridge’s performance The Head & The Load, first seen at Tate Modern in 2018, travels to the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami in December.