William Kentridge retrospective at the Eye Film Museum Amsterdam review *****

William Kentridge – Ten Drawings for Projections, O Sentimental Machine

Eye Film Museum, 20th June 2019

The Tourist can’t really be doing with blockbuster art exhibitions in London any more. Too lazy to take the early morning members’ option and too impatient to put up with the crowds of selfie takers who clutter up the galleries and have no interest in seeing the art. Better to focus on permanent collections here, and in Europe, away from the hordes.

So it was a joy to spend a few hours in the company of William Kentridge in the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam. A wonderful building with some diverting displays and a ever-changing roster of films old and new from around the world across its four state of the art screens. And a beautiful view of the IJ from the caff. It pains me to say but it probably has the edge on the BFI. And then there are the exhibition spaces currently devoted to this, a display of WK’s breakthrough animation works created between 1989 and 2011 which he donated to the Museum in 2015. The 10 short films are set alongside a selection of the silhouette and map tapestries which WK has designed (some of which I think I have seen before in the Smoke, Ashes, Fable exhibition in Bruges) which similarly address the history of his native South Africa and the film installation from 2015 O Sentimental Machine which is centred on archive footage of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

For those familiar with WK’s work, which frankly should be all of you, there is nothing too surprising here in terms of his Expressionistic method and technique. The animations are comprised of the charcoal sketches which WK draws, redraws, erases and reshapes, which he then films with gaps of between a quarter of a second to a couple of seconds, to create moving, in all senses, images. The act of drawing and erasing leaves traces of the past to remain in the present in metaphor for the evolution of South African society, the cycle of remembering and forgetting. The animations allude to but do not always address key events in South Africa’s modern history both pre and post Apartheid, such as the Sharpeville massacre, the release of Mandela, the passing of abolition and the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.

The films set these events against the life stories of two fictional characters, the dreamy philosophiser, Felix Teitlebaum, who is most obviously the alter ego of WK himself and Soho Eckstein, an amoral industrialist who, through time, begins to see the human suffering his business empire has wrought and seeks redemption. Felix’s history is more focussed on his interior and love lives and on his questions about the world around him. Given their physical similarities though it seems clear that Eckstein represents a darker side of WK’s own nature and, over the course of the series, the identities of the two characters begin to merge.. At least that was what I saw. As WK says, in this series he is interested in “a political art, that is to say, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings”.

Each film is accompanied by music either composed by WK’s regular collaborators or an appropriate classical piece. Even without the reflections on the evils and crimes inflicted by the apartheid regime on the South African people it is easy to become transfixed by the stories of Felix and Eckstein. Put the allusion and metaphor on top and the fascination of their construction, so simple yet so powerful, and it is impossible not to sit through every one. Which makes for a very satisfying couple of hours.

  • Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989)
  • Monument (1990)
  • Mine (1991)
  • Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991)
  • Felix in Exile (1994)
  • History of the Main Complaint (1996)
  • Weighing and Wanting (1997)
  • Stereoscope (1999)
  • Tide Table (2003)
  • Other Face (2011)

O Sentimental Machine is a little less immediate in its impact. it is made up of five screen projections, and various objects, to recreate the office of Leon Trotsky. The archive film of a Trotsky speech on the future of Communism, which is, give or take, overwritten with cut up subtitles, is drawn from the Eye’s own archives. WK and his collaborators provide additional footage involving various machines and routines with plenty of the trademark megaphones. WK parodies Trotsky whose secretary Evgenia Shelepina has to deal with his ever expanding writing. Apparently Trotsky was in exile in Turkey when he wrote the speech. He also said that “humans are sentimental but programmable machines” which became unreliable if they fell in love, thus providing the inspiration for the installation. Many layers then though the prime message I guess is the idea that technological progress and grand ideas may not necessarily be unalloyed goods and doesn’t necessarily help

WK was born in Johannesburg in 1955 the son of two prominent, ethnically Jewish, anti-apartheid lawyers. He went on to study Politics and then Fine Art, followed by mime and theatre at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. Which perhaps explains why his art is so committed, how it manages to successfully spans various media and why he has also been successful as a theatre and opera director.

The exhibition runs through to September. Of course you could go and hang out in a brown cafe of the red light district with all the other tourists ravaging Amsterdam. Or you could come here. You decide.