William Kentridge: tearing and repairing

Whitechapel Gallery:  William Kentridge to 15 January 2017

William Kentridge- Still from Invisible Mending, courtesy of the artist

 “Tear and repair”, a slogan that appears in one of Kentridge’s animations, is a clue to the significance of his ideas. As a metaphor for the struggle we all face in fashioning a life from the rag-tag of material at our disposal, it also intensifies the power of his art. His innovative stop-motion charcoal animation technique which involves erasing and adding to his initial illustration leaves an after-image like the vapour trails of aircraft or the memory traces of our  past suggesting that our repairs will always leave a hidden shadow.

For me, the most emotionally evocative work in this exhibition is a short looped film inspired by George Melies, Invisible Mending (2003)  combining live action, animation and old school special effects also viewable on youtube.com/watch?v=hEaQ0h72GNg . I first saw it ten years ago standing in the street on a freezing December day looking at the screen through the plate-glass of Brighton University’s Art building. At the time I was reflecting on the hard graft you need to patch yourself up following a period of personal turmoil and it provided a comforting image of survival. We see Kentridge take torn sheets of drawing paper and miraculously piece it together on his studio wall. He wipes away the scrawls and smudges that obscure the drawing, a full-size self-portrait, admires it, then ambles out of the frame. The drawing then transforms into his real figure that also walks away in the opposite direction. Although we know this is an illusion formed by reversing the film reel we cannot resist the optimistic interpretation that recovery from our self-destructive acts is possible.

Invisible Mending at 90 seconds is easy to miss. The Refusal of Time (2012), is not. It is a compelling thirty minute, six screen installation surrounding the viewer on three sides buzzing with ideas about time and space, infinity, mortality, migration and colonialism. I could not decide whether or not it suffers from an overenthusiastic embrace of too many collaborators including the composer Philip Miller and history of physics academic, Peter Galison. There are some great quotes from cosmologists including the idea that the universe acts an archive of all the images that have ever existed. The sight of the artist walking endlessly around a circuit interrupted at regular intervals by having to hurdle over a padded bench reflects his own expressed reliance on walking as a stimulus to his creativity. It also evokes the idea of an artist measuring out his life in a series of physical challenges much like a migrant. The image of six metronomes gradually losing their synchronicity is a neat metaphor for the relativity of time perception.  Some poignant sequences of a mournful procession of cutout figures look to be outtakes from his simpler and more emotionally engaging multi screen More Sweetly Play the Dance shown at Marion Goodman gallery in July 2015.

This ambitious layered work, overwhelming in its scope and ambition, reminds me of the Graham Swift novels Ever After and Waterland which present a rich tapestry of so many associations that it is difficult to detect an overarching theme that is given its full attention. I can admire them without being emotionally engaged by them. Less is usually more but sometimes intellectually curious artists  cannot resist the temptation to give their scattergun enthusiasm  full rein.

Kentridge is one of my top five MI artists and I hope this exhibition will raise his profile to the level he deserves. Not all of his best work is here so a comprehensive retrospective is surely due.