William Kentridge: Five Themes

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William Kentridge: Five Themes


Born in Johannesburg in 1955, William Kentridge is no stranger to political strife and social unease. Although Caucasian, Kentridge has witnessed firsthand decades of racial oppression, apartheid and dodgy governments. His father was a prominent South African lawyer who fought vehemently against apartheid throughout his career, and that passion for justice is something that is engrained in Kentridge’s life and art. Kentridge initially began his artistic career as an aspiring actor, but admitted later he “was fortunate to discover at a theatre school that I was so bad an actor [that] I was reduced to an artist, and I made my peace with it.” Self-deprecation suits Kentridge, as it does most great people, but his career so far speaks volumes of his artistic talent and relentless dedication to his work. 

Kentridge has his hand in a multitude of different pots. He is a painter, a sculptor, a writer, a draftsman. He creates short animated films, weaves tapestries, and writes operas. Kentridge and his team have brought forth pieces from all of these different media to create the most expansive and thorough exhibition of his works – William Kentridge: Five Themes. Only at the eleventh hour, after Amsterdam and Vancouver both had to drop out of the program, was ACMI decided as the tour’s final location. The exhibition is inspired by the five key themes that, together, essentially tell the story of Kentridge’s career to date. However, the works on display are pieces that may not initially have been created for general consumption.

Kentridge says the centre of this exhibition is the ‘studio as a category’. “One could characterise the studio as a safe place for stupidity; a space in which ideas can be tested, played with, before they are evaluated,” Kentridge explains. “Everything gets the benefit of the doubt in the studio, while it’s being made, and some of what’s made in the studio is then allowed out into the wider world where it can be looked at with a more critical eye. But it’s very important to understand that the work itself doesn’t start with the kind of clarity or final meaning that may be evident when one looks at an exhibition.” With Five Themes, Kentridge is trying to bring us inside his studio, inside his mind. He wants to show us the adaptive process of his art, and not just the finished idea.

The mood of the exhibition is sombre, the music is eerie and before you’ve even entered the space, a sense of melancholia encases you. But there’s a beauty in the sadness, and once you approach some of these expertly chosen works, you can’t help but be transported. The exhibition is so personal that at times you feel as if you’re intruding into Kentridge’s mind. It also manages to make your own mind seem extremely insignificant by comparison.

Kentridge has used a different means to a different end to express each idea in this exhibition, and that’s what gives Five Themes such versatility. Through all these themes though, runs a shared sentiment of oppression, transience, reconciliation and sometimes even hope. Even more than the issues they attempt to tackle, the actual artworks are heart-wrenching; the charcoal sketches are beautiful, the animations are mesmerising, the theatre models are exciting. Highlights of the exhibition include an assortment of animated film fragments titled ‘I am not me, the horse is not mine’, and a simple sketch of an old man standing on an empty hill with the words ‘her absence filled the world’ sprawled across the empty space – allowing even the broadest messages to personally resonate. The works are thought-provoking, even if they may provoke the thoughts you would much rather ignore.

The exhibition’s curator Mark Rosenthal has perhaps an even more intimate knowledge of Five Themes than Kentridge himself. Rosenthal began working on the development of this exhibition five years ago, and he has followed it around the world since its first showing in San Francisco. Winding down to the end of the tour, he is just as much in awe of William, Rosenthal says, as he has ever been. However, he laughs when asked if planning and installing such a multidisciplinary exhibition makes his job more interesting. “It makes it more difficult in some ways, because it’s hard to install many media in the same room. Not just physically – to just push them into the room – but to actually make it look good.”

But he has done a fantastic job. The careful design of the exhibition adds to the experience tenfold. It’s a sprawling display, moving from room to room; twisting and turning with every change of mood. Seldom does an international artist of William Kentridge’s calibre grace Melbourne galleries with such an historic exhibition, so you’re pretty much obliged to take advantage of the opportunity while you can.


William Kentridge: Five Themes is exhibited exclusively in Australia at ACMI until Sunday May 27. Tickets and further information is available at acmi.net.au