William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

2015.6.27 - 2015.8.30 Great Hall

The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) proudly presents “William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera,” a comprehensive retrospective that marks the artist’s largest exhibition in Asia to date. Displayed across a two-story edifice designed by Kentridge’s frequent collaborator Sabine Theunissen in the UCCA Great Hall, the show includes works from nearly every major project the artist has undertaken from 1988 to the present.

The exhibition spans a vast array of media: two-dimensional artworks in India ink, charcoal, linocut, and silkscreen print on paper; kinetic sculptures that evoke the Duchampian ready-made tradition; several multi-channel video artworks comprising dozens of projections; and a large-scale installation in the form of an operatic model complete with mechanical puppet actors.

William Kentridge (b. 1955, Johannesburg) is one of the world’s foremost artists, at once a
draftsman, an animator, a filmmaker, a philosopher, an actor, a director, and a writer. If his
earliest works sprang from the violently fertile ground of a divided South Africa, his later
projects have taken this context, and his studio located therein, as a laboratory for visual
and intellectual experiments of global import. Chinese artists have known and engaged with
Kentridge’s work since 2000, when he participated in the Shanghai Biennale, a show that
itself marked the beginning of an international contemporary art world in China.

Unlike previous exhibitions of Kentridge’s work, “Notes Towards a Model Opera” coalesces
not around discrete artistic media, nor around a rigid chronology of his creative evolution, nor
even around a predetermined set of themes, but around the flexible yet ever-widening orbitals
of concern that run concentrically through his work. Beginning with the meditations on the
artist’s immediate surroundings in the waning years of Apartheid, which culminated in the
quasi-autobiographical cycle of “Drawings for Projection” for which he was first known, the
show moves on to a more philosophical exploration of oppression and reconciliation in the
pieces Ubu Tells the Truth and Shadow Procession.

I am not me, the horse is not mine casts an empathetic glance at the Russian avant-garde and its fate in the wake of the revolution it had first championed, while The Refusal of Time offers an absurdist critique of empiricism as manifest in an implicitly flawed attempt to delimit time and space. Prints, drawings, and sculptures populate the spaces among these projects, hinting forward and backward.

The exhibition’s central piece, Notes Towards a Model Opera, shown
upstairs. This work, shown for the first time here in Beijing, grows out of Kentridge’s sustained
reading and research into China’s modern history relative to global histories of Marxism,
colonialism, and revolution.

A meditation on temporalities, ideologies, and poetics shared across history and geography, this piece makes manifest a concept which Kentridge calls “peripheral thinking”: a way of looking at, say, the unlikely connection between a ballerina in the Johannesburg suburbs and one on the stage of The Red Detachment of Women. Like all of his work, it argues from the specific lessons of a life thoughtfully lived and a historical position arbitrarily inherited, to an urgent call for the relevance of humanistic bricolage in helping us make sense of the world we now inhabit.

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