I made it to the William Kentridge exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery on the very last day. Not sure if that's why it was so busy or if it had been that rammed throughout its run but I even had to book advance tickets. A very rare occurrence indeed.
Kentridge is an ethnically Jewish South African born in 1955 in Johannesburg. His parents were attorneys known for their representation of those marginalised by Apartheid. This gave him a position as an observer to some key political activities of our time. Both that, and the abstract angles he refracts that vision through, can make his art difficult, challenging even, for the outsider to get a grip on. Which, again, makes the large crowds both a surprise and a delight.
The Whitechapel exhibition, Thick Time, is described as 'a series of environments' made between 2003 and 2016. Kentridge is nothing if not a Renaissance man. His works combine drawing, printmaking, film, music, sculpture, and tapestry and he often collaborates with dancers and puppeteers. He's even directed operas and staged works by Mozart, Shostakovich, and Monteverdi.
Thick Time is broken up into six immersive installations that shed light on Kentridge's interest in early cinema and theatre if rarely on the exact point he's trying to make. If, indeed, he is even trying to make an exact point. It seems far more likely is trying to create an impression in the vein of the expressionist tradition.
2012's Untitled (Bicycle Wheel) leads you into the first room. The Refusal of Time is a dialogue with science historian Peter Galison on how our measurement of time, space, and light has developed in tandem with the exploitation of global resources and people. There's some kind of Heath Robinson machine pumping away in the middle of the room while five different films play 'in the round' to the soundtrack of some parpy music. It's more fun than its high-falutin concept suggests but pretty impenetrable. Both due to the large number of visitors and its, er, impenetrability!
Second Hand Readings (2013) features slogans dancing to a composition by South African jazz musician Neo Muyanga. The animation of a dictionary turning its pages is pretty natty and the music itself is fine but, again, I was unable to appreciate it as anything other than pure spectacle.
Kentridge makes books as well. In Tapestry Library he's laid out a selection of his own tomes (and one on Durer) with chairs and tables you can sit at and peruse them. It's not unlike the reading room you'll find at the end of many an exhibition except this time it's halfway through and there are horses woven on walls with messages attached suggesting they were made in Naples.
He's made good use of the stairway which leads you up to 2016's Right Into Her Arms. A kinetic sculpture inspired by Austrian composer Alban Berg's opera Lulu (1929-1935) about a femme fatale in Vienna. Kentridge has added atonal composition by Berg's fellow Second Viennese School members Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg and a sound poem by German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters, alongside Francisco Goya, Max Beckmann, and George Grosz, being a key influence on Kentridge.
7 Fragments for Georges Melies, Day for Night, and Journey to the Moon from 2003 consist of a large room with nine short films on repeat. The sound is provided by South African composer Phil Miller. To his gentle piano music folks mill about not quite sure what to look at first or how long to spend looking at it. Again it's confusing but we've paid to get in and we don't want to look like we don't understand it.
When I'm not sure how long to take looking at something I tend not to take very long at all. So I moved on to the final room. Possibly the best in show. 2015's O Sentimental Machine ponders Trotsky's expulsion to Istanbul from Russia by Stalin. Set in a mocked up lobby of the Hotel Splendid Palace on Buyukuda Island where Trotsky stayed between 1929 and 1933 it's not clear what the doors that don't open actually mean or what the occasionally shaking gramophone signifies but it is evocative and makes you feel (even think) something though you're not sure what.
By the end I'd kind of got the idea that, despite its seemingly deep political intentions, Kentridge's art aimed to impress more on the heart than the head. As a newcomer to his work I was a little bewildered and a bit out of my depth. I'd like to see a bit more. Find out if the emperor was indeed naked or if his suit was so fine that my vision wasn't strong enough to comprehend it.