Saturday, June 02, 2007

William Kentridge: What Will Come (Has Already Come)

FRANKFURT.-Städel Museum presents today William Kentridge: What Will Come (Has Already Come), on view through 5 August 2007. The exhibition “What Will Come (Has Already Come)” takes its title from a Ghanaian proverb. The presentation will end William Kentridge’s engagement as the first Max Beckmann Foundation professor in Frankfurt, which the South African artist, theater director and filmmaker began with a series of lectures titled “Meeting the Word Halfway” in the Städel Museum in spring 2005 and continued teaching for two semesters at the Städelschule. Kentridge, who received international renown mainly for his drawn animated films, in which he explores the nature of human emotions and memories and deals with the quest for cultural identity and the rootedness in the history and politics of South Africa, intensely dedicates himself to issues of seeing in his work. The present exhibition also reveals his interest in a large variety of models of seeing with which science, popular culture, and art have been concerned since the Early Modern Age. That he has also drawn inspiration from Albrecht Dürer’s prints establishes a connection with the Städel Museum, which houses one of the most comprehensive collections of prints by Dürer in Germany. The exhibition presents a series of Kentridge’s new drawings, prints, and stereoscopic images. Its highlight is a 8-minute filmic anamorphosis for which he has used a technique that has been unknown in the history of seeing in this form to date.

The Max Beckmann Foundation professorship and the exhibition “William Kentridge: What Will Come (Has Already Come)” is supported by Altana AG.

The main work of the exhibition, the filmic anamorphosis “What Will Come,” draws on the idea of the picture puzzle that originated in the sixteenth century. Kentridge translates this play with perception that operates with distorted images that can only be deciphered from a certain angle to his film. The technique of cylinder mirror anamorphosis he employs is a special form of anamorphosis that is based on the addition of a further level of perception. It is not enough to change one’s point of view but a special seeing machine is essential to decode the picture: a cylindrical mirror with a certain radius that reflects the distorted image, “straightening” it “optically.” Producing such complicated distorted pictures requires a profound knowledge of mathematical rules and optical foundations. Relying on a special graphic grid, the preparatory sketch is transferred to the anamorphotic mode segment by segment, and the curvature of the mirror that is to correct the distortion has to be precisely calculated.

William Kentridge avoids these down-to-earth exercises by looking into a mirror while drawing, positioning his hands and arms on the desk as usual instead of basing his work on mathematical calculations. What he draws he sees in the mirror and not on the sheet in front of him. An unusual drawing process already precedes the unusual perception that the viewer is confronted with later.

As in the past, present anamorphoses also initiate a discourse on the subject of seeing because they not only entertain the viewer with their optical attractions but also encourage reflections on the relativity of visual perception. In this sophisticated play of projection, reflection, and transformation involving different forms and sceneries, Kentridge relates to subjects such as colonialism, fascism, and tyranny.

Without offering a definite plot, he intersperses his film with narrative and visual fragments. A gas mask points at the Abyssinian War of 1935/6, for example, in which the Italian fascists, with Hitler’s support, annexed Ethiopia by force and 275,000 Ethiopians lost their lives. The soundtrack, an Italian marching song of the fascists under Mussolini, speaks of a little black face, “Facetta Nera,” a beautiful small Abyssinia to be kissed by the sun of Rome. A composition by Dmitri Shostakovich based on a Jewish song that Kentridge also uses echoes the exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel after the great famine of 1984/5. If only by allusion, the artist touches on the subject of not ending losses of place through elements of his soundtrack and the visual motifs of his work. Though the background is quite different, Kentridge also comes from an African Jewish family. Born in Johannesburg in 1955, the son of Jewish immigrants already got a taste of the injustice prevailing in the country very early on. His parents were lawyers who did not shrink back from defending leftist trade unionists and political activists. “What Will Come” shows the artist in a Janus-faced structure inextricably linked at his spine with an African male’s head.

For a series of other works presented in the exhibition, Kentridge drew his inspiration from Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts in the textbook “Underweysung der Messung” (“Instruction in Measurement,” 1525), the most outstanding examples of which will be included in the exhibition, emphasizing Kentridge’s relationship with the collection of the Städel Museum. Each of these prints depicts a draftsman viewing his model or object through a graphic grid, taking his measurements, and committing it to paper in the correct perspective. In the days of these works’ origin, people and especially artists learned to see their surroundings with different eyes. First attempts were made to describe seeing in mathematical formulae and to calculate ideal proportions. Accordingly, it is a matter-of-fact and scientific view which manifests itself here. Kentridge’s model is a cardboard figure without arms and feet facing the viewer both passively and intently who is only presented to us in the form of his head. This presentation ironically exaggerates the situation of the viewer fixing an object on the one hand and lends voyeuristic traits to the perception process on the other. Unlike Dürer’s spatial construction, Kentridge’s solution is not aimed at the creation of a two-dimensional space based on vanishing points and lines but uses two individual pictures with identical motifs that differ minimally in their perspective in order to produce a three-dimensional space in the stereoscope. The effect of a stereoscope is based on the physiological characteristics of our eyes and our brain’s visual center. Looking at an object, the angle of each eye towards the object is slightly different due to the interocular distance. Only our brain’s visual center composes one single picture from the two pieces of information which allows us to perceive it as three-dimensional. In a stereoscope, a construction of mirrors and prisms fulfils this task of combining the two pictures.

It is also a work by Dürer that provides another starting-point for Kentridge’s stereoscopic drawings: as we know, Dürer never set eyes on his “Rhinoceros,” which went down in history as the most popular woodcut of the Early Modern Age. The animal had been caught in India by Portuguese soldiers and brought to Lisbon in 1503, where it was exhibited in a chamber of curiosities from time to time. Dürer knew from it by hearsay and through the description and drawing of a friend of his by the name of Valentim Fernandes. Against this background, the rhinoceros presents itself as an exotic trophy in Dürer’s work, which already suggests the colonial perspective which was to become so characteristic of Europe in the following centuries.


Mon Moreno said...

i got the chance to see it on August 16, it was presented at the "Musee des beaux-arts du Canada"..
I found it very charming, hypnotic almost and hard to go away from it.

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