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Why you shouldn't miss a show of works by the South African artist William Kentridge

An untitled work by Kentridge at the ongoing showPremium
An untitled work by Kentridge at the ongoing show

Tushar Jiwarajka has scored a coup by bringing a solo show of South African artist William Kentridge to his Volte Gallery, in Mumbai’s Colaba. The 57-year-old Kentridge is about as trendy as you can get in the art world.

Let me explain how trendy, with the help of a guilty pleasure called The Artfacts algorithm ranks artists by assigning points to each exhibition in which their work is displayed, based on the importance of the institution hosting the show. I call it a guilty pleasure because, while grading artists in this fashion seems a bit disreputable, it is an excellent indicator of fashionableness. Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso have been steady in the Top 2 positions for years, but other names have moved up or down as their stars waxed or waned.

Among those who have featured in single-artist exhibitions in India over the years, Kiki Smith is currently ranked No. 84; Yoko Ono, 86; Jonathan Meese, 120; Anish Kapoor, 161; Rebecca Horn, 193; Auguste Rodin, 229; Julian Opie, 247; Gregory Crewdson, 300; Henry Moore, 361; Wolfgang Laib, 388; Anselm Reyle, 507; and Anj Smith, 7,980 (she’s just 33 years old, and obviously has a lot of upside potential). Not long ago, no Indian figured in the Top 2,000, but now Shilpa Gupta comes in at No. 487; and Subodh Gupta, Raqs Media Collective, Amar Kanwar, Nalini Malani and Jitish Kallat all find places in the Top 1,000.

Kentridge’s current ranking is No. 16 among all artists, living and dead, who have practised in the last 150 years. That’s how hot he is.

Kentridge’s show at Volte, called Poems I Used to Know, displays the multifaceted talent of a man who gained degrees in political history and fine art in South Africa before studying mime and theatre in Paris. His practice consists of simple drawing at one end, and acting at the other. Video brings these extremes together.

He first ventured into that medium by creating stop-frame animation sequences: Make a drawing, click a photograph, make a small change, click another photograph, painstakingly stitching together a sequence in which the drawing morphs before the viewer’s eyes.

There’s something reassuringly old-fashioned about the technique, and about his mainly black and white drawings, but he imbues them with political resonance and philosophical depth. Not long after producing his first film, he began combining animation with live action, in which he often figured as an actor. He also added found footage, making his videos progressively more elaborate.

The central work in his show at Volte is titled I Am Not Me, the Horse Is Not Mine, which, we are told, means something like, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t do it", in Russian. It consists of eight animated films, each 6 minutes long, screened simultaneously in a rectangular room, unified by a musical score, shared imagery, and a common theme.

The videos originated in the design of a production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1928 opera, The Nose, that Kentridge directed three years ago at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Shostakovich, in turn, was adapting a short story written by Nikolai Gogol in 1836, in which a low-ranking Russian bureaucrat wakes up to find his nose missing, and spends the rest of the tale attempting to reunite with it.

The absurdity of the story had obvious political implications when the 22-year-old Shostakovich composed his opera. It was a period when Russian and Soviet culture, after a decade of innovation in architecture, art, poster design and cinema, was being stifled by Stalinist orthodoxy. Kentridge uses this history to explore the brutal end of utopian ideologies, and the confusion of identity this causes among those who believed in the dream.

I Am Not Me, the Horse Is Not Mine is replete with citations of early Soviet art, notably the work of Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Vladimir Tatlin and Dziga Vertov. But you don’t have to get the references or know the political history to enjoy the eight-channel video, and the prints, drawings, sculptures and animated flipbooks that make up the rest of Poems I Used to Know. Kentridge also uses lots of accessible material, such as puppetry, shadow plays and early slapstick movies.

Those who go in with no foreknowledge but an open mind are likely to leave the show thinking, “I have little idea what that was about, but I loved it."

Poems I Used to Know is on at Volte Gallery, Kamal Mansions, near Radio Club, Colaba, Mumbai, till 20 March.

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Published: 15 Feb 2013, 05:12 PM IST
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