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William Kentridge is one of the most recognised contemporary artists of today. In 2009 he was listed among the world’s 100 most influential people by Time Magazine.
The artist was born in 1955 in Johannesburg, South Africa. He attended the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg from 1973 to 1976, and then continued his studies at the Johannesburg Art Foundation from 1976 to 1978 and at the L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris from 1981 to 1982. He was a witness to the disintegration of one of the harshest social and political struggles of the 20th century: the system of apartheid in South Africa.
In his works Kentridge presents the subjective perspective, doubts and emotional responses he gives to personal experiences projected onto public affairs that the media otherwise reduces to a far more simplified format. One of the unique traits of William Kentridge is his genius in transmuting drastic political events into profound poetic allegories by using film, drawing, sculpture, animation and performance with naturalness and invention. His work is also distinct in technical terms since in an era dominated by digital imaging he continues to apply analogue methods in his films constructed from chalk drawings. In a now-signature technique, he photographs his charcoal drawings and paper collages over time, recording scenes as they evolve through the slight movement of the images. Working without a storyboard or script he plots out his films on paper by exploring a singe phenomenon through a natural process infused by a graceful virtuosity of constant movement and change.
William Kentridge has had major exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2009), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2008), the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2007) and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004), while last year he appeared in the Jeu de Pomme and the Louvre in Paris and this year he staged a solo exhibition in the Albertina in Vienna. He also paticipated in several important international art events in recent years such as the Documenta (1997, 2002) and the Sidney Biennale (1996, 2008). His opera and theatre works, usually produced with the South African Handspring Puppet Company, have enjoyed worldwide fame for a decade, and their first joint project, a drama titled Woyzeck on the Highveld, will be performed in Trafó House, Budapest on 7th and 8th October 2011 after having been staged at a number of prominent theatres worldwideDmitri Shostakovich’s opera based on Gogol’s novella The Nose was performed in William Kentridge’s direction at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2010, and in parallel with this the artist had a large-scale retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Kentridge won the Kyoto Prize, the “Japanese Nobel Prize”, in the same year.
William Kentridge lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The dossier exhibition to open at the Museum of Fine Arts on 20th September will include a portrait film about Kentridge as well as one of his most recent projects titled “I am not me, the horse is not mine”. Occasioned by the discussion at the museum on 4th October, a significant body of the artist’s film projects will be screened in the form of a special, one-off installation, among them his Soho and Felix series about post-apartheid South Africa, as well as two animation films: Shadow Procession and Ubu and the Truth Commission, the latter being an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s drama Ubu the King. On the same day a selection of experimental, fine art quality films by György Kovásznai (1934-1983) can also be seen.
The installation “I am not me, the horse is not mine” is actually adapted from Gogol’s The Nose (1836), which can be placed in the larger context of literary history marked by Cervantes’ Don Quijote, written in 1605, and Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy, published in 1759. William Kentridge focused his interest on how these authors – using the impossible and the fantastic as a starting point for their works – build a bridge to the absurd which leads to the centre of 20th-century modernity. This course of development of the absurd peaked in the Russian modernists of the 1930s, which is acutely demonstrated by the fact that Dmitri Shostakovich composed an opera based on Gogol’s short story. (The opera made it a hit with the public but was banned not long after its premiere.) In “I am not me, the horse is not mine” Kentridge takes the respective works by Gogol and his predecessors as a basis in order to draw attention to the emergence of the various trends in Russian modernity as well as to the Russian avant-garde having lost the highlighted place it occupied and the tragic fate it had to suffer. The video installation was conceived during the process of Shostakovich’s opera being adapted to the stage at the New York Metropolitan Opera House. The work begins with a nose on the loose, for which Kentridge used authentic film footage from the Soviet Union of the 20s and 30s. “I am not me, the horse is not mine”, i.e. the title itself, is a Russian proverb used to decline responsibility. In his work Kentridge actually mourns the artistic idiom that was lost in the 30s along with the chance to change the fate of humanity, something so many had placed their faith and hope in. One of the film fragments presents a congress held by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at which one of Lenin’s main confidantes, Nikolai Buharin, was fighting for his political and physical survival. Buharin’s failed speech is imbued with gloomy comedy, and, as Kentridge says, absurdity appears at its most grotesque in the Gogolian drama. In the artist’s view this piece is made especially topical by showing that this reality can only be portrayed through the absurd, where cause is disconnected from effect and the expected order of the world is turned upside down.
The exhibition is curated by art historian Brigitta Iványi-Bitter, who is also the director of the Kovásznai Research Workshop. On 4th October New York-based writer, researcher and art consultant András Szántó will be in conversation with William Kentridge. William Kentridge’s first visit to Budapest is a result of the initiative and invitation of the Kovásznai Research Workshop, and is also due to the artist’s interest taken in György Kovásznai’s oeuvre. Like many others, Kentridge has discovered the parallels between his own works and the animation films Kovásznai started to make from the early 60s. Both of them are fine artists who tried their hands at filmmaking and, therefore, their film projects have kept the references, strategies and approaches taken by fine artists. The similarity of their approach is manifest in several ways: they render the criticism of societal crises of the day in a symbolic narrative; they present the collective traumas erased from social memory/public discourse through the symbolic fate of real individuals; a documentary approach is coupled with lyricsim in their figurative and narrative animation films; and, perhaps most characteristically – given the current state of our culture – the genuine understanding and appreciation of their films is best possible within the domain of the fine arts. The question might well arise: how can such parallels exist between two artists who live so far away from each other both in space and time? Apparently it is not impossible for two artists living in societies that are closed for entirely different reasons to make the central theme of their work the understanding and explanation of the internal mechanisms of the society that surrounds them, as well as getting down to the roots of individual and collective pain. Here we have two artists who, in their time, revolutionised the conservative correlations between genres and genre types, while in regard to referencing tools they drew on the western traditions of art history and the well known visual signs of popular culture.
The classical museum space of the Museum of Fine Arts offers a unique and extremely exciting opportunity to place a contemporary work – especially since it is a media art performance – in a narrative based on the discourse between old and new. Moreover, the fine references William Kentridge makes to the legacy of modernism virtually beg to be used in revealing semantic interplays in the auratic enviroment of one of Budapest’s most elegant museum spaces.