Themes Abound for William Kentridge


Unfortunately (or presciently) timed to preview of the Whitney Biennial, the MoMA opened South African artist William Kentridge’s Five Themes on Tuesday night to a more subdued audience. In the atrium of the second floor contemporary art galleries, Michael Stipe, Marina Abramovic and Anna Deavere Smith mingled under a ceiling conspicuously absent of Gabriel Orozco’s monumental sculpture Mobile Matrix. The crowd trickled into the galleries at a pace that allowed for an almost solitary viewing of over 120 of Kentridge’s works in a range of media including animated films, drawings, prints, theater models and books.

Although Kentridge is perhaps best known as an author of animated films, MoMA aims to underscore the interrelatedness of his different use of media. No museum has completely reconciled the exhibition of films in the context of a traditional gallery setting, but the MoMA does great justice to Kentridge’s “drawings for projections” by treating them as if they were cinematic canvases contiguous rather than separate from his work in other media.

The exhibition is arranged, as you will know from the title, according to five themes that follow a chronological arc tracing Kentridge’s work over a the span of thirty years. The first galleries, organized under the theme, “Ubu and The Procession,” explore political themes present throughout the exhibition, but focused on South Africa at the end of apartheid. The entrances to the dark rooms where films like Ubu Tells the Truth are projected are kept open, effectively weaving light and dark galleries into one unified space. In the next set of rooms, nine films organized under the theme “Soho and Felix” are displayed side by side in a single distinct space, creating a picture gallery of moving images that is freed from the tyranny of cinematic vision. In a later gallery, the miniature theaters and projection on blackboard that Kentridge made in preparation for his staging and direction of Mozart’s 1791 opera The Magic Flute in 2005 step back in time, recalling the era of magic lantern displays. Connections between theater and the moving image overlap throughout the exhibition.