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The studio is a safe place for stupidity


SCENT OF AN ARTIST: The Nose (with strawberries) (above); (left) The eight-part video installation 'I am not me, the horse is not mine' offers documentation and insight into the artist's staging of 'The Nose', a satirical opera

A South African artist who loves to horse around, and then some

When South African artist William Kentridge's show opened in Mumbai recently, the city's Kala Ghoda Arts Festival had just gotten under way. This was a lovely coincidence because the central motif of Kentridge's paintings was the horse.

The horse has an important place in Mumbai's political history. The colonial statue of the Prince of Wales astride on a black horse gave this crescent-shaped art precinct its name. However, thanks to political demands in post-Independence Mumbai, both horse and rider were removed and deposited in a quiet part of the zoo. As such, this horse has become representative of a cross-section of critical issues such as palimpsest, history, colonisation and communalism.

A similar set of concerns can be found in the horse motif in Kentridge's exhibition, called Poems I used to know. One of the central pieces in the show is named after a Russian proverb for avoiding blame, I am not me, the horse is not mine. The horse also appears in the painted steel sculpture World on its hind legs, and the hand-woven wool tapestry The Nose (with strawberries).

I am not me, the horse is not mine is an eight-part video installation which offers documentation and insight into Kentridge's 2010 staging of The Nose, a satirical opera composed by Dmitri Shostakovich and based on Nikolai Gogol's short story of the same name. Kentridge elaborates, "Written by Gogol between 1835 and 1836, the plot concerns a St Petersburg civil official whose nose leaves his face, develops a life of its own and is found gallivanting around town as a snooty official of a higher rank. I'm interested in continuing to question the terror of hierarchy. With this story, Gogol proposed the idea of division of the self 70 years before Freud did. "

The operatic tenor of the piece also lends itself to absurdity, a theme that interests Kentridge. "I am also drawn to his privileging of the absurd, " he says. "In my work, I, more often than not, follow absurdity with great assiduity to its logical end. Divisive strategies such social hierarchy and apartheid are absurd. They defy logic and hence the absurd becomes an important category of looking at them. "

Speaking of categories, under Kentridge's direction, The Nose, first performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, was inflected with drawing, animation, video and puppetry. A similar hybridity was also found in the artist's other operatic undertaking : a 2004 production of Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland and Mozart's Magic Flute the subsequent year.

In the early 1980s, the now 57-year-old artist studied mime and theatre at Jacques Lecoq's theatre school in Paris. The school's emphasis on body, movement and space left a lasting impression on him. Although he gave up acting in favour of the visual arts, he continues to draw heavily on Lecoq's theatre philosophy. On a few occasions, Kentridge is known to have declared playfully that he was 'reduced to being an artist' because he considered himself a bad actor.

You can take a man out of acting school but clearly you can't take the take actor out of the man. Kentridge features regularly in his videos. At the ongoing exhibition, he appears in at least two video works: I am not me, the horse is not mine and a triptych of three flipbook films titled No, IT IS, 2012. He explains, "A lot of what I learnt at theatre school comes through in my videos and it is because of that experience that I'm comfortable with my body and don't mind looking ridiculous. The studio is a safe space for stupidity. "

The Anatomy of Melancholy juxtaposes a charcoal drawing of the artist on one page against a drawing of dancer-choreographer Dada Masilo on the other. While Masilo's dance is light and agile, Kentridge's moves appear deliberately off-kilter. In fact, his slow-mo running in the video recalls the slow-mo run-up of actors in yesteryear Bollywood films.

At the artist's talk at Jnanapravaha Mumbai, Kentridge playfully took his enthralled audience through some of his works. He even improvised on the music for The Anatomy of Melancholy, moving gleefully between tango time and Beethoven. The video gets its title from Robert Burton's book The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621. The two dancers groove on the pages of this book. "A lot of my drawing happens in old books. The choice of book is determined by both the content and the texture of the paper. "
While Burton's book is presented as a textbook on the subject of melancholia, it performs most adeptly as philosophical text and a work of literature.

Kentridge has been there and done that and more. In 2011, he had a notorious distinction bestowed on him when four of his prints were stolen from a gallery in his hometown of Johannesburg. While most artists everywhere arrive at an artistic formula and then live by it, Kentridge continues to shapeshift: drawing, animation, video, opera, sculpture, installation, puppets. . . the works.

In Kentridge, Edward Said would surely have found another chapter for On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. Published posthumously following the influential cultural critic and writer's death in 2003, the book reflects on unexpected late departures in the styles of writers and composers who through a life of immense learning continue to evolve in unanticipated ways. Waiting then, in anticipation, for new departures in Kentridge's artistic idiom.

The exhibition is on at the Volte Gallery, Mumbai, till March 20

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