It’s not often one sees an artwork that is truly unlike any art one has ever experienced in the past, but I can say with certainty that such was the case for me with William Kentridge: More Sweetly Play the Dance at Marian Goodman, London. In fact, the work from which the exhibition borrows its’ title, an 8-screen film piece described by the gallery as ‘dance macabre,’ is perhaps the most inspiring work of art I’ve ever seen, and one that has pleasantly haunted me in the two weeks since I visited the show.
The experience goes something like this: After admiring a series of stunning, mostly black and white, paintings downstairs, which blend Chinese cultural artifacts with images of flowers painted on found paper swimming in Chinese characters, you enter a room, which introduces you to Kentridge’s video art.
This first piece, inspired by Madame Mao’s ‘Eight Model Revolutionary Opera‘ and entitled ‘Notes Towards a Model Opera,’ is mainly composed of Kentridge’s longtime collaborator, Dada Masilo, dancing en pointe in a sort of costumised soldier’s uniform across the three screens with a huge gun, in styles ranging from classical ballet to contemporary South African choreography. The background is a map, highlighting the ideas of migration, borders and colonisation that are present themes throughout the show. The catchy music, arranged by Philip Miller, is based on ‘The Internazionale,’ aka the communist anthem. The piece is truly moving, illustrating the terrors of communist China and reminding one of the political violence ever-so-present in today’s world.
Following this work, a stairway outside the room calls you upward, where the pièce de résistance of the exhibition, ‘More Sweetly Play the Dance,’ is on show.
My timing on this was perfect, for just as I arrived upstairs, the video began. Chairs call viewers to take a seat, and with each chair facing a different direction, I was worried I might miss something. Little did I know what brilliance was in store!
First, I saw what appear to be charcoal sketches adorning the eight screens, which encircled the space. Suddenly, these sketches, which at first are the main focal point of the presentation, become the background, as a procession begins from the first screen, and continues all the way across to the last.
What appears to be a funereal march begins, as one-by-one, various characters from priests to soldiers to refugees to skeletons dance and flow across the screens. Even patients you’d expect to see in a hospital — rolling drips attached to their arms — make up this mass migration. Kentridge writes in ‘A Dream of Love Reciprocated‘ (2014), “My concern has been both with the existential solitude of the walker, and with social solitude – lines of people walking in single file from one country to another, from one life to an unknown future.”
The group is led by a brass band, and perhaps this is my southern roots kicking in, but I couldn’t help but think of a sort of deep South funeral march where tragedy walks side-by-side with hope, terror and unwavering faith. I even felt a tinge of voodoo in the vibe, of superstition and magic spells whispered secretly under the percussive music.
Many of the marchers carry signs, which are made of enlarged Kentridge drawings on view in the adjacent room.
Sitting in one of the chairs provided, you are able to watch the action unfold across each screen, as each character makes his or her way across the landscape of sketches. The march ends with Dada Masilo, yet again dancing en pointe with her rifle, as to signify she is “hold[ing] the hope and disillusion together.” (William Kentridge, ‘Peripheral Thinking‘, 2014-15)
With the current refugee crisis being the horror that it is, it felt cathartic to witness an artist trying to put all the madness into a viewable, tangible form. Emotions run wild throughout this exhibition, and we are pushed to consider the reality of what is going on around us in a thoughtful and meaningful way. What if not this, is one of the great powers of art.
It’s difficult to find words, but suffice it to say my breath was taken away completely, as can yours be until 24th October.
– India Irving
William Kentridge: More Sweetly Play the Dance is on view at Marian Goodman until 24th October; 5-8 Lower John Street, London W1F 9DY; Open Tuesday – Saturday 10AM-6PM; Admission: FREE