Sexodus XXX Machina: “More Sweetly Play the Dance” by William Kentridge (A Seven Channel Panoramic Video/ Audio Installation). Cincinnati Art Museum April 26, 2017 – May 20, 2018

May 13th, 2018  |  Published in April/May 2018

A Video Tableau Vivant. (On the I’mpossibility of I’mmortality)

 

“I’m interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending – an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.” ―William Kentridge

The practicality of Art has always been questioned, especially during times of crisis: economic collapse and war being primary among them.  You can’t melt most art down for armor. People fleeing for their lives have little time for aesthetics, although in a crisis it is sometimes the smallest keepsake, a memory of simple beauty or a melody that sustains our will and armors our humanity for the long trek toward the ultimate whatever where everything will be stripped away.

At the very least, when deemed not useful to their ends, the “regimes that be”, the ones that are often the root cause of the aforementioned fleeing, turn art and media toward propaganda. That most iconic of all fascisms, so far for the West at least, was of course the one that sprung from “Teutonic Culture” and spread with a few tweaks to the far flung reaches of the planet, including most presciently for US, to the former Apartheid Regime in South Africa.

How is such oppression most poignantly portrayed in art? How does an art that challenges an entrenched status quo and has no easy answers so often able to get under the skin of authoritarian regimes the world over?  Why does a rather militant form of black and white “realism” often seem to predominate under such purist mentalities? Is it a good sign that no American Artist has been arrested for political reasons in the last 30 odd years, say since McCarthyism got many black-balled? Does this mean the US is ultimately a tolerant society or that there just aren’t many artists pushing the important boundaries anymore? What are the boundaries when base scandal is employed by everyone and their Octomom, even by those white nationalists currently running for office nationwide, trying to get ahead on the tweeting food chain? Why must the “moral majority” always deploy an “othered” and “uncivilized” minority to mobilize their forces for looting? These strict majority/ minority lines can of course become blurry up to and including when the color of one’s skin or the color of one’s money becomes involved…or maybe even blurrier, depending on where you exist or where you were ancestrally mixed by your parents’ parents’ parents…that oldest form of genetic engineering.

The practicality of a “person of the majority” (whether that be enforced racially, financially or brutally) weighing in on topics of race could also be ill-advised, impractical, even scandalous to the point that you get blackballed by the powers that be; even arrested recently under certain segregationist regimes: one must tread ambiguously or be willing to be incarcerated along with the oppressed, giving up the color of a privilege that could just as easily keep you hidden.   Engaging with the topic of race, in less political realms, can verge on the taboo of say a comedian making jokes about minorities as part of their material: it’ll only get you so far with some audiences even under our present US regime.

As a South African “political artist”, as some (even himself) might characterize Kentridge, race may be the only legitimate topic for any artist worth his salt of the earth, especially considering the history of Apartheid and the population percentages according to race being flipped as to what they are in America: “The 2011 census figures for these categories were Black African at 76.4%, White at 9.1%, Coloured at 8.9%, Asian at 2.5%, and Other/Unspecified at 0.5%.” Also his social engagement seems logical considering the fact that Kentridge comes from a lineage of important lawyers in the past yet ever persistent struggle against segregation and its aftermath: his mother pushed to overturn the legal basis of Apartheid and his father defended Nelson Mandela at his 1956 treason trial and went on to represent two other Nobel Prize-winners, Desmond Tutu and Albert Luthuli, as well as the family of Steve Biko. Since the ANC took over, things have gotten even more muddled to say the least.  As a freshman poetry professor of mine once suggested, “Until you master this medium, never use big words like love, hate or Vietnam in your poem. It will suck the whole thing down the drain.” Luckily, I’m just reviewing a master.

Kentridge’s use of his rather signature multi-media style in “More Sweetly Play the Dance” is certainly epic in scale and themes, without getting “sucked down the drain”.

Part of this may have to do with the artist’s approach to his work, something he has often characterized as “poor-man’s animation”: always working on a single piece of paper in charcoal, he makes an expressive drawing and then erases elements of each image before adding new passages and erasing again, capturing each stage on video, which ghostly morphs the traces of the drawings when put into motion. He then animates the images into a seamless and “shimmering, mesmeric whole”.

In “More Sweetly Play the Dance” the seven channel, nearly life-sized scaled panoramic piece currently at the CAM, the “poor-man’s” technique has morphed into a rather massive and high definition computer-synched, almost omnimax-like installation. Kentridge has long ago graduated to the elite canon of contemporary art and we are all the better off for that fact. There is a modesty and simplicity maintained, even at this height, width and length. Still one wonders why Kentridge’s work seems to be immune from scandal when dealing with a big theme, almost a third rail, even though both his works are fraught with the imagery of a brutalized race? Why aren’t we ever at a stage to discuss our races when they ultimately all end up at the same finish line? Is life but a stage for this race rage?

The particular stage being set for this Kentridge piece, (stage being the appropriate term considering Kentridge’s theatrical background and bent), is a rather stark and apocalyptic, ever-shifting (and typically for the artist) charcoal erasure-animated drawing of windswept landscape, with what looks to be an ominous post-apocalyptic nuclear winter cloud or a flock hovering scavengers weaving around in the far distance. Or maybe that’s just the look of a typically rainy/ smoggy day on an abandoned airfield near a massive and polluted modern day megalopolis in South Africa.  Upon this stage, when the video loop begins, comes first a male dancing figure garbed in priestly remnants who dances singularly right to left and opposite the rest of the forth-coming action: what could best be described as a processional of forced migration. This initial whirligig of a figure is the only individual to cross all seven screens alone, traipsing across the synched projections seamlessly in an impressive technical feat for any video artist. This synched up feat is continued for the following fifteen or so minute procession of the on-going shadowy migration of the aforementioned displaced and diseased, along with the occasional flash of singular figures arising from this “morassive” cast of characters that range in the tens if not hundreds, trudging left to right: what we could term as the archetypal and displaced “migrants”.

These migrants -all black South African in this case- are mostly in silhouette, except for the occasional authoritarian-looking white, pounding on a podium flanked by the occasional black man garbed in military gear.  All are nearly in shadow, turning across our vision like a half-broken zoetrope carousel: these “migrants” dragging along everything from IV drips to dead bodies in their funereal wake and electronically looped wandering. There are the occasional flashes of protest though –some carry political placards with ambiguous statements like “eat bitterness”.  Many also carry paper cutout heads paraded on the ends of broom sticks, some of whom could be Roman Emperors, one that even looks a great deal like the orator Cicero; or is that a cutout of Kentridge himself, referencing his ultimate auteur-ship?

Some migrants are sheathed in makeshift plastic sheets that might barely protect them from some pestilence like Ebola; nearly all seem resigned to a purgatorial fate in a stark corner of limbo where carne music is piped in via a New Orleans Funeral Dirge Band. Megaphones shaped like carnival barker cones are bellowed through by many in the video and are also interspersed throughout the “real-space” of the installation, serving as loudspeakers in a rather sparse “disused schoolroom” chic of old chairs and stools. Is an education about Apartheid the main sustenance in store with this work, belted out by some loud professor, or should we duck and cover beneath our desks when the charcoal animated mushroom cloud sprouts its flock of scavengers coming for all of us? Kentridge never makes it clear. Yet there seems to be a hierarchy both visually and thematically that is not entirely topped by that one percent standing atop military or financial power.

This other “one” who seems to stand out in this seven screen processional, the one set on a pedestal above all the downtrodden, protestors, militants, politicians, (et al.) is a singular female dancer variously garbed at one moment as a topless figure, prancing en pointe in only a tutu.  At other times, and in a separate instance, this  dancer waves a rifle high while costumed in vaguely revolutionary uniform, like some Lady Lucy (Australopithecus) Liberty with some real fire power in her hand, that kind that comes from where freedom of speech meets freedom of action. This singular she seems to be at the core of the theme of “More Sweetly Play the Dance”, pirouetting past the dead bodies the Grim Reaper strews in her path, trying to disrupt her danse macabre.  Still, in spite of her enticements, most in this automated drudgery seem resigned to an inescapable fate. The inescapable fate of death and decay it appears: the Grim Peapers moribund pornography may yet win.

All this dance with death does seem to be an echo of the dark age the title harkens. One full of pestilence and ignorance that will never pass, but will continue spinning on its axis between light and dark, oppressor and oppressed, the ying and yang of a bittersweet life in which many of us try and find the tiniest shred of joy or pleasure, the smallest impetus to celebrate or just distract ourselves from the inextricable machinery of feudal death and destruction. So what’s the en pointe you might ask?

Kentridge seems to point a pointless bony figure down a trail of tears which courses through a long and winding equatorial-like line of misery around the planet and back again, even presently running through North Africa from Libya into Syria and beyond, through to Europe, where we’ve seen this tragic film of fleeing before -evidenced by one iconic black and white news show reel after show reel of people with all their last belongings trudging through the decimated landscape of two world wars -and now the potential of an encroaching Third, but all in HD.

Kentridge does leave a crumb or two though, high on a pedestal where the last colorful birds of paradise might alight and pirouette in a dance of flight before an inevitable extinction, an exit only slightly mitigated by their immortalization in an artist’s scribbling committed to an ephemeral media humming away in a mostly  empty, sexless and echoing white-cubed cave.

 

  1. Riffs on the Human Races’ Finish Line over a Jazz Funeral Dirge.

(Manic Preacher Dance Remix Script)

 

for William Kentridge

 

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” ― P.T. Barnum

 

Aandacht and Achtung Please, Ladies and Ghents!

Direct from Sud Afmerika via

that speeding train of tears that traipses

the third rail

through all your favorite Europagan

Das Kapitalism whirlwind destinations:

 

IIIT’s The Burn’em and Flailing’s Seven Ring

Purgatorial Malthusian Ever-Circulus (TM)!

 

I’m your Ringmaster

Dr. Sickman Shaudenfreude (ADPhD)

and we’ve got such a spectacular pure white-gazed

over spectacle of real othered

human flesh-and-blood-treasure tragicomedy tonight for you Volks!

 

We-tonight-right here will bridge

the crucible of water and land

between Motherland and Queen City

bum rush the WASP infested pearly gates of “artwerk macht frei”.

 

We’re on that endless Underground Flail-Rood

running the everlasting rutted tracks

greased by Mr. Skinhead’s EthniK Kleanse Kleaner (TM)!

 

From unholy see to unholy see

furrowed brow to furrowed fields

we’ll plough through

with the help of that sweatiest salt of the earth.

 

This svelte veld was grabbed by you and me!

A carnivore’s carnival of big game hunting

smarming with bloodsuckers!

 

No fret about the potential infection:

the breed and circuits will abound,

without the contamination, truth or reconciliation

coming down

-cuz all this epidemic pestilence and guilt

will be kept at a safe distance behind

our massive Y2K MaxHD sterilized perpetual

wartime 360 degree HyperScreen FeBrezed PleasureDome (TM).

 

See, hear, you can even almost

lick the surround and subconsciously sounded

“magic of the tragic” that our

alchimerical creatives have whipped up for your empathy:

a baptism of suffering and Social Darwinism

poured through a veritable

speeding train of Dr. Fiberoptician’s pixel-peepers

-all concocted with pure christened geld

-all for your prolonged and ecstatic contemplation

-all projected by none other than

Big Brother’s sureveillance State of the A.R.T

(Aesthetic Recognition Technology) Screen Screener Team(TM)!

 

It’s the latest of the latest Never-Breaking Noose!

Bump and grind against that stuff

like a moth humping a light bulb!

 

It’s can’t miss!

 

So strap on those googles

for the Virtue-lessly Virtual.

It won’t hurt ya!

 

You’re the next contestant on the fleece is right!

 

Tonight’s the night of many abject attractions

my little lambs to the hell or high water.

 

Stick your head in the Lyin’ Mouth mam,

surrounded by the caress

of that beautiful hu-mane.

 

See the Black Panthers

fisting on the ramparts

to that drunken calliope fugue!

 

Suckers getting borne astride

a water slide

emptied out into an open grave!

 

In a flash before your eyes,

bodies shot from a cannon

rained down like chemtrails on killing fields

-an eternal return of fertile fodder

poured into a matrix of 1’s and 0’s

that can easily be undone with the click of a button.

 

Right?

 

Watch our Monsanto Sponsored Agrobat

create a terminal seed from scratch

to plant in his dying Mother Earth

while walking that ever fecund tightrope

between that ying and yang of arch enemies

 

-Archetype and Stereotype:

no safety net needed!

 

Whoa is me!

Father, Son and Holy Gross:

a righteous Ubermensch will carve

smiles onto anarchists.

 

Pestilence ridden bodies will be piled

like chord wood and bonfired

with books, money and controlled explosions.

Round and round and round

this Merry Christmas goes

where it stops only the reaper knows!

 

We’re on a speeding train

to nowhere on a loop,

belching out cyclon-B,

but who cares when

you’re in a titanically air-conditioned

nightmare sleeper car

pulled by the four horsemen…right?

 

And don’t miss the half-assed

half-time climax:

The National Pornographic

real-live real-time flash in the pan

satellite scan bearing witness

to our ever more plastic fantastic Mother Earth

(aka Mz. Apokalips)

turning her bawdy curves

like an abandoned private dancer’s disco ball

beaconing in the black void of space!

 

So dance baby, tanzen, and dans!

Grab a tab of that S&M Rapture Ecstasy

from your closest Dr. Feel-good!

 

Nothing for you to do

but the glazed gaze on the dais

till Kongdom Cums,

hanging from atop the tallest skyscrapers of Babel!

 

So, without further adieu! Adieu! Achoo! God bless you!

 

Your spirit just may have escaped…

–Regan Brown

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