From Georges Méliès to Magic Flute and Gogol's The Nose

author William Kentridge
written by Željko Kipke

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The exhibition ‘Five Themes’ in New York’s MOMA coincided temporally with the premiere of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose at New York’s ‘Met’ in March 2010. Its libretto was written after Gogol’s short story, and the central character of both events in New York was an artist from Johannesburg, William Kentridge (born in 1955). He says of himself that he uses a most primitive form of film creation – stop-animation – nevertheless, it did not stop him in his intention to turn to highly demanding productions for opera houses in the last ten years of his career. Before his recent focus on Gogol’s absurd story under the stage auspices of the Russian Avant-garde, he staged Mozart’s The Magic Flute in the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Belgium’s capital. He had recognized in the sym­bolical musical text, as he pointed out, the social stigma of almost all dictatorial regimes whose leaders were carrying out their enlightenment programmes without any reserve, believing that radical social measures were highly effective on the path to a society of the future. Therefore, it is not surprising that the musical narrative of a wunderkind from Salzburg, five years after its staging in Brussels, marked the route towards the Russian absurd of Shostakovich’s The Nose. Namely, Kentridge equipped the seventy-year-old libretto with film schemes after the model of Russian artistic experiment from the period of the composer’s youth and developed a narrative about the conflict of Stalin’s enlighten­ment ideas with the euphoric times of Russian culture in the background. The process ended in catastrophe for the cultural experiment: it was terminated unceremoniously – with an abrupt editing cut. It is generally known that the dictator cherished a special passion for film; therefore, it is possible – of course, on a symbolical level – to talk about how film mechanics were behind the reforming of Russian society.


All the artistic measurements of William Kentridge eventually finish on the screen, as motion pictures, and his theatral engagement could therefore be subsumed under the genre of experimental film. As if the author resorted to the registry of the expanded cinema. It is not difficult to make the comparison because the New York project, according to some critics, made the reception of the anyway crazy story about a clerk and the disobedient nose even more complicated because of the abundant usage of film. The audience in the Metropolitan Opera was able to compare live opera perfor­mance with the tremendous production of drawings, objects, film experiments and measures that preceded it. The Museum of Modern Art logistically accompanied the opera and because of that, the American audience was in a privileged position in relation to the Vienna audience. The Vienna audience was given the opportunity merely to visit the exhibition titled ‘Five Themes’ in Albertina from the end of October 2010 and to bear witness, among other things, to the production splendour of the two mentioned operas – Mozart’s and Shostakovich’s. And the production – magnificent in terms of drawing and animation – supports the thesis that William Kentridge is closer to film archaeology. In its essence, it determines the direction of his operatic excursions, and museum and gallery perspectives are actually its ideal places. Namely, the pre-production display, starting from drawings, graphics, film schemes, and all the way to demanding objects and installa­tions, irresistibly smells of former wunder­kammeren. Therefore the museum collection is like Vienna’s Albertina, because of the spatial comfort it provides, a real place for props which otherwise transform an opera stage into a scene of dramatic experiment.


Radical turns are unavoidable and topical in all mediums, and thus in opera as well. The society of spectacle is hungry for new excite­ment, therefore Kentridge merely made good use of the favourable climate and given opportunity in order to subvert standards of the musical and stage media. He primarily subver­ted them with a film installation which, in the gallery space, consists of eight parallel projections. He united them under the title ‘I am not me, the horse is not mine’, with syntagama borrowed from the Gogol short story with which involvement in an obscenity is denied, or in other words, it is a language formula with which an individual denies his blame. With a unique acoustic accompaniment, he showed key elements of his animation on eight screens – from his extreme inclination to the theatre of shadows which trans­forms into a dance macabre in his hands, all the way to movable collages in the spirit of Russian Constructivism, and inserting the figure of a nose in film archive from the thirties which otherwise celebrates ‘the dictator for all times’.


Film variations related to the sub­ject of the wilful, arrogant and elusive nose possess a broader sense than it seems at first sight. Namely, William Kentridge’s acrobatics in animation are specific because of visible layers of the past. The South African frequently leaves traces which preceded the scene which is developing in front of the spec­tator’s eyes at a certain moment. With regard to that, abstract schemes on the screen are not restrictive and do not reject the metaphor about a ‘snooper’ or power-holder who has a nose for the internal and external enemies of the society of the future. Moreover, they recall an image of a circus performer who is usually surprised at events he initiates himself, and the stri­king nose on Stalin’s face lets people know that a cunning man was standing in front of them, who did not necessarily have to resort to the Russian language archive. His nose was a clear guideline, above all, to his closest associates and then for others. Additional irony was provided in advance by Mother Nature when it also bestowed Kentridge with a striking organ for smelling.


The theme of learning from the absurd comes second at the exhi­bition, right after film fragments dedicated to the French film miracle maker Georges Méliès. It is an entirely understan­dable schedule, as well as logical, because it was ne­cessary at the very beginning to warn about the film standard and archive on which the somewhat more recent experiment with opera is based. Although the film line is predominant in almost all the halls of the Albertina, even when it is limited to drawing or graphics in terms of medium, the general impression is of an exhibition under the dome of a wunderkammer or a won­drous cabinet in which anything is possible. Moreover, its author uses ancient optics, from the tool for deciphering scenes in anamorphosis and all the way to models of mecha­nical theatres. The latter were constructed for stage re­search of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and one model – ‘Chambre Noire’ from 2005 – was ordered by Deutsche Bank in agreement with the Guggenheim Foundation from Berlin. The extremely sophisti­cated model made of wood, with dra­wings on the pieces of scenery and with mechanical characters, illuminated by the light of film projectors from the front and back of the model is a real little miracle of the medium, somewhere between a home theatre and a cinema. The theme of The Magic Flute – which is otherwise the third of five great themes at the exhibition – is extended to the African continent on this mini stage, to the resistance to Enlightenment ideas from the European and American conti­nents. The artist says that Mozart’s musical narrative about the struggle of light and darkness possesses an incredible capacity, and its potential is significantly larger than it seems. He picturesquely points out that each new intervention related to the black continent ‘kills one rhino­ceros’. This animal is the synonym for Africa’s raw potential and an unavoidable figure in Kentridge’s animated getting even with greedy capitalists and despots, from fictional characters like King Ubu or Mozart’s Sarastro all the way to real-life examples from Russian and Italian his­tory.


Enlighten­ment ideas, along with the good they bring about, also assume an individual who believes in the power of his own logic and rational reasoning without reserve. Since the very beginning of his artistic career, Kentridge has been inte­rested in the space of chaos which opens up as a result of the conflict of two options, Enlightenment and despotic, light and darkness, cinema pro­jection and the barely movable model of theatre, between the black trace of charcoal or ink and the whiteness of paper, between stop-animation which moves in reverse and that that moves normally, and similar. This is a case of optics with reser­vations, due to the fact that its author still contem­plates within the contexts of drawing, which is, by virtue of its very nature, still. Merely by use of an additional effort – stop-animation or optical deformation – can this system be additio­nally dramatized, in order to make con­tempo­rary the function of social criticism in an artistic sense. The restricted room for manoeuvre, on which the author insists, is crucial for the choice of themes and operations with which they will be elaborated. His film experi­ments look like a mecha­nical theatre therefore it is no wonder that he tested his building capabilities on The Magic Flute. No wonder he chose Shosta­kovich’s opera and the mechanics of Russian Constructi­vism, and that he is loyal to the very ancient theatre of sha­dows. In the same light (or perhaps in archaeo­logical dark­ness?) were bathed his ste­reoscopic recyclings of Picasso’s graphics. The collages were presented along with exhibits from the collection of Werner Nekes, a film archaeo­logist and collector of objects, models, graphics and appara­tuses from the time of film prehistory, which range five centu­ries into the past. The ambitious collection was touring European galleries during 2009, and was hosted by the Budapest Art Pavilion (Műscsar­nok) during the summer.


Social engagement from Johannes­burg to New York ensured Kantridge an envious position on the map of multimedia art. This is almost incre­dible, since the artist cherishes classical drawing skills, the black-and-white spectru­m and film tricks from the far past. Nevertheless, his passion for experiment and media chaos provided him with a significant advantage at the very start. The history of theatre is actually the history of surrogate or replacement strategies for film. Kentridge merely intensified their share in opera productions. Here, Shosta­ko­vich’s contrasting scores helped as well, which sound like surrogates for film editing. And finally, a small digression. Almost any political theatre with a great leader in the centre is related to film illusion. The unscrupulous Russian dictator was an enthusiast for his home cinema auditorium and he forced all his close associates to attend it. Although he mercilessly retailo­red Soviet society, he was especially sensible to film illusion. He was not ready for a similar extent of radicalism on the screen and would not be able to bear the fusion of theatre and motion picture.