‘I am not me, the horse is not mine.’ William Kentridge
History’s Positive Progress
Standing inside the Tate Modern’s Oil “Tank”. One is surrounded by screens and music and can feel the ardent desire of human transformation that people in the 1930s dreamt of during the period of trampled art Zeitgeist and revolution. This is how William Kentridge’s elegy towards Russian revolution is expressed.
Tate Modern in London played a leading role in bringing the UK to be forefront of the world’s modern and contemporary art scene. It was converted in 2000 from a power station that was built in the early 20th century to a massive modern art museum. The place itself possesses a talismanic meaning. Through the course of hosting millions of visitors every year since the opening, Tate Modern has become something of a contemporary art pilgrimage. In order to extend its reputation even further, it is sharply responding to recent art trend changes. In 2012, Tate modern established ‘Tank’ to follow up rapid changes on contemporary art. The ‘Tank’ is the world’s first museum gallery permanently dedicated to media and performance art and is constructed from a real oil tank. The interior walls of the exhibition hall are alive with the wildness only the raw and exposed concrete can display. Under the huge container with uneven and rough surfaces, it is difficult to imagine how an artwork may not be overwhelmed by the Tank’s aura. This special space chose William Kentridge to be its first exhibitor on November, 2012 after the special exhibition for the London Olympics.
‘I Am not Me, the horse is not Mine’ is an audio-visual installation exhibition by William Kentridge, one of the world’s most respected contemporary artist alive, from 11 November, 2012 to 20 January 2013. He has held his retrospective exhibition at Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2002, and was invited by Venice Biennale, Documenta and other numerous world-class art festivals, with critical acclaim. William Kentridge’s work is characterised by black-and-white animation and strong message that leaves a lasting impression.
William Kentridge’s piece of art ‘I am not Me, the Horse is not mine’ installed in the Tank seems to be at dissonance visually and auditorily. Eight large screens display different videos in each, and except for one video, all are complexly composed of animations and collages. It comes across as somewhat difficult to take in as a single piece of work. Add here a magnificent piano melody, almost irritating brass music, and a grand African choir, and it might as well be emulating chaos. The reason for such complexity lies in the work undergoing several evolutions prior to its birth.
The beginning was Gogol’s literature ‘Nose’, published in 1836, and based on the book, Dmitry Shostakovich’s opera, ‘The Nose’, which premiered in 1930. Kentridge designed and directed his opera ‘The Nose’ based on these two works. Opera ‘The Nose’ gave the first performance at New York Metropolitan Opera theatre on 5 March, 2010 directed by Valery Gergiev. The exhibition ‘I am not Me, the Horse is not Mine’ is based on the opera ‘nose’, which was reproduced for ‘Tanks’.
In this exhibition, he chose to partition videos used in the opera and auto-replay unlimitedly on individual screens. In addition, he contributed videos of performances expressing his feelings after producing the opera and his philosophy into the mix.
It might be hard to understand at a glance the underlying subject of ‘I am not Me, the Horse is not mine’. Fortunately, however, there was a chance for the audience to hear Kentridge’s own explanation about his labyrinthine ideas. In the special lecture for this exhibition, wearing his trade-mark white shirt, he talked to the audience about story of ‘nose’.
“The storyline of the novel ‘nose’ by Gogol published 1836 is very simple. It is about an 8th rank officer Major Kovalyov who wakes up to discover that his nose has gone missing and he goes to find his nose. When he found his nose, the ‘nose’ had become a higher rank than him and it did not even reattach back to his face.”
Kentridge’s work combines the archive videos during and after the Russian revolution, which happened around the time of the opera ‘nose’’s composition, stop motion animation and recordings of plays made of shadows.
The videos encompass the former Soviet Union’s track stars, the crowd, slogans written in Russian, Elizar Lissitzky’s geometrical artwork, which represents the pursuit of revolution-oriented Russian avant-garde artists’ Utopian art, and the emblem of never-realised modern art ‘ the Titlin’s tower’.
The central theme underlying these works is the ‘Failure of Russian revolution’. Through the use of the Russian avant-garde artists’ works, Kentridge shows his tribute to the artists who heavily regarded social responsibility as artists and at the same time explained the social background of the opera.
Russian avant-garde artists engaged in diverse forms of art activities with belief that art can transform society. Breaking away from the old and pursuing new ideas, they were welcomed in the early days of the revolution, but later when Stalin only acknowledged the paintings of social actualism, their grounds for activity were greatly reduced. The artists began to hide their works and eventually the works ceased to exist in Russia.
The opera ‘nose’ suffered a similar fate after Shostakovich’s premier, due to fierce opposition from Stalin and other socialists.
If the opera ‘nose’ had videos produced by Kentridge playing above the stage throughout the performance for background explanation purposes, this Tate modern exhibition leaves the audience to continuously look and ‘interpret’ the art for themselves, standing in the centre of circle.
Surrounded by screens and music inside the oil tank, like me, the audience may feel the ardent desire of human transformation that people in the 1930s dreamt of during the period of trampled art Zeitgeist and revolution. This is how ‘William Kentridge – Elege’ towards Russian revolution is expressed.
In ‘I am not me, the Horse is not mine’ one can see glimpses of satire and humour. His humour is visible in several places, including the photos Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, where each of their noses are cut out. Also in Shostakovich’s historical piano performance scene, it shows a gigantic nose sat on the piano facing him in the video.
In the dancing scene of Anna Pavlova, a ballerina during the Russian empire, multiple copies of her nose are superimposed upon one another to cover up the whole face.
A gigantic nose marches together with her inside the actual archive of the revolution. Placing a nose over each cut in her original video produced this scene. Such comical directions are carefully calculated devices designed to initially make the audience laugh but eventually lead them to reflect on the underlying theme. This humorous but never ludicrous ‘improved comedy’ permeates through Kentridge’s artworks.
Dedication to Gogol the novelist and Shostakovich the composer, whom sublimated contradictions prevalent in the world is evident in Kentridge’s work. While one may ponder whether to perceive oppressive political powers and the world as tragic or comic, he chose to interpret the horrifying black comedy in a way such that nears it to the truth of the world.
The forceful social messages which characterizes Kentridge’s work originates from his personal history. He was born in 1955 at Johannesburg, South Africa, to white parents, a civil activist and a lawyer against the Apartheid. He was raised in an extremely rare household, which despite being the dominant white class with the Apartheid, opposed such policies.
However, his family was different to other typical white families as his great-grandparents, who were Jewish, had migrated to South Africa to avoid anti-Semitism.
The young Kentridge studied politics and African studies at Johannesburg University and after graduating from Art University, went to study maim in Paris, France. Later, he returned to his home country, South Africa, to found a troupe and worked as a Television producer and finally became a writer.
The aesthetics of Kentridge’s work is that he uses simple techniques to conceal the depth of philosophical and humanitarian thoughts, which could potentially become stereotypical and boastful.
His animation video in black and white is drawn with charcoal. His method of creating stop motion animation which he had maintained since the early 1980s, is the one of the earliest ways of making animation, drawing fusains, taking a photo, correcting the drawing and taking a photo again.
The animation videos are not enhanced with computer graphics to make it smooth, which fits his description, ‘primitive’
Kentridge’s works created with such analogue methods incorporated messages of his experiences of the scars of the Apartheid, trauma and messages against oppressive world further more. His processes link with the message he wishes to convey with his artwork.
He places meaning on communicating socially reflective messages, not on production of his own animations. This is his mission as an artist. This is why it is difficult to simply place Kentridge as either a victim or a beneficiary, or as an artist producing philosophical works based on such experiences.
At one point, Kentridge received a question from the press, “You explain circumstances in Russia through ‘nose’, but have you done so because you find it less painful to express it than what you have experienced in south Africa?”
Here Kentridge answered, “Through ‘nose’, I wanted to express that the occidental logic that acknowledges one self as a complete and even being or structure is fantastical.”
It is yet again another philosophical speculation that leads the audience into a labyrinth.
Although Kentridge places penance for past mistakes and trauma, the message is that we need to mature our society by analysing the past straight forwardly rather than emotionally and poetically.
His role as an artist is to make positive the gargantuan wheel that is called history.
Of course it is undoubtedly true that Kentridge’s view of the world is too large to understand all of his work under extension.
Stephanie Seungmin Kim (Independent Curator, Writer)