Saturday, December 29, 2012

William Kentridge: I am not me, the horse is not mine

The Tanks, Tate Modern
Until 20 January 2013

The exhibition of William Kentridge at Tate Modern is one of the bright examples of the complete diffusion of techniques and meanings in contemporary visual arts practice. The globalization goes further and further, and so art does: it grasps, it assimilates, it incorporates different styles and traditions. The media project of William Kentridge is a fresh and involving point of view on Russian cultural heritage, or rather, the absurd component of this culture. It is done from some unified international perspective, as it could be expected from the South African artist who exhibits his videos based on the story of Russian-Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol in the British Tate Modern gallery. This is a celebrated victory of postmodern hypertextuality.

In any case, Nikolai Gogol with his irony and certain inattention to limits of the genre is a perfect choice for this loud, chaotic and cheerful project. The great mystic Nikolai Gogol was born in a village Sorochyntsi on the territory of contemporary Ukraine. All his works are permeated with village folklore and fairy-tales, superstitions and some strange animistic mythology. "The Nose" is a tragic story of a man who lost his nose and the nose became an independent person, moreover, a person of a highest rank, a fact that was breaking all the hopes to return it on the place. Kentridge uses not the literary plot, but rather this idea of  a conceptual 'flip' in all his eight videos shown on large screens on the walls of The Tanks premises of Tate Modern. He uses everything: geometric shapes taken from the works of Russian avant-garde, real or invented confessional texts from the session of Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, dancing shadow of the Nose or the image of him climbing the ladder again and again, mix of Latin American music, military marches, parts of unrecognizable official speeches. All of these gives a clear sense of  being inside of some well conducted, yet unclear symphony.   

"I am not me, the horse is not mine" is a Russian proverb which is used to deny any guilt or the very fact of participation in some unpleasant event. However, it is just a part of the proverb. The second part adds: "...and I am not a coachman myself". This unnecessary addition is a kind of a ridiculous illogical construction that makes an extra assumption over what is already assumpted: if I am not me and the horse is not mine there is no need to explain that I am not a coachman, because it's just obvious. Kentridge, in his turn, uses this mechanism of extra assumptions, he involves a variety of visual (and literal) texts to make an image of some universal chaos surrounding the viewer.

In the video part containing the image of a horse as well as in other parts William Kentridge uses simple constructivist shapes. However, mostly he focuses on the shapes in black, which gives also a hint to Malevich rather than any other artist of that period. The scene with a horse is accompanied with a quotation from the poem "Kindness to horses" by Russian cubo-futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovski: “Horse, there’s no need for this!/ Horse, listen, -/ look at them all, - who has it worse?/ Child,/ we are all, to some extent, horses, -/ everyone here is a bit of a horse” (Trans. Andrey Kneller). These lines appear in Russian so that they might be recognized just by those people who understand the language, but neither understanding nor recognition is the main aim of the artist. His purpose is to use a "shell" of certain related meanings, images, texts and sounds for producing some strange synaesthetic effect. It is impossible to put the eight parts of the videos into a single narrative, instead, it is possible to develop several narratives from a single video, like a spider knits its web. 

The position of a viewer inside of the exhibition reminds another story of Gogol - "Viy". At some point of the story the young  philosopher is locked for three nights in the church with a corpse of a young witch, who upon getting desperate to get him alone calls for help other demons and monsters. The philosopher drew around himself a protective circle in order to stay invisible for monsters surrounding him, but he becomes visible to the main demon called Viy at the moment of their sight contact. For a viewer of Kentbridges' exhibition there is an unclear feeling of being surrounded by some kind of creatures who simultaneously live on the screens, perform some repetitive actions, and have no clue of presence of a viewer, even though he is involved into this contemplative process by the very construction of the exhibition space. 

The desctription of the project mentions also that William Kentridge chose the topic of "The Nose" because previously he stage designed the opera by Shostakovitch at the Met. His relation to a classical genre of the opera is surprising, this project seems to be some kind of individual reflection to this large production that involves many people and responds to restrictions set by the stage. A reflection that is more private and free. Without seeing the opera it is difficult to judge to which extent this project is the 'reuse' of the material and ideas that were produced during the preparation of the opera, and to which extent it is an independent work of art. One thing is clear: except the fact that Kentridge is a good animator, he is also very good in the creation of an overwhelming multimedia effect which cannot be explained by solely the 'exoticism' of the topic from the world-wide perspective. The impression given by the exhibition cannot be explained also by the fashion on Russian art that seems to be flourishing in the UK in the latest years. The success of the project lies completely in its ability to integration and the symphonic effect produced on the viewer. 

His Majesty, the Nose  
(stills), from the installation 
"I am not me, the horse is not mine"

A Lifetime of Enthusiasm 
(stills), from the installation 
"I am not me, the horse is not mine"

The Horse
from the installation  
"I am not me, the horse is not mine"

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