Exploring the Materiality of Time

In September this year The Refusal of Time, a multimedia installation by South African artist William Kentridge, comes to City Gallery Wellington. 
The artist spoke to Dan Chappell about this spectacular work, which attempts to make visible the abstract idea of time.

A nondescript shed by an empty railway siding at the Kassel Hauptbahnhof seemed an inauspicious venue for South African artist William Kentridge’s latest work The Refusal of Time at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. Walking inside the dimly lit interior I saw a centrally placed, curious wooden contraption, haphazardly positioned chairs bolted to the floor, megaphones and screens. What followed was a half-hour multi-sensory experience, as five screens flickered with animation, processions, acrobatics and bursts of visual dazzle. Disembodied music eddied around the room, slowing, echoing, and reverberating. Giant metronomes clicked and swayed, the wooden device stirred into life, sucking and wheezing, flailing and convulsing. The immersion was total, yet fragmentary as my view of the images swirling around the room was limited by the fixed seating. Visual vignettes bombarded me from every angle—Kentridge on screen talking, gesticulating, moving, dancers swirling, a shadowy melancholic procession, a bomb plot, black holes, the pace speeding and slowing, voices, static and music ebbing and flowing.

Acknowledged as the artist’s most spectacular work to date, The Refusal of Time attempts to address the different ways we understand and measure time. It’s a bold, inventive installation with contributions from long-term collaborators sound artist Philip Miller, film-maker Catherine Meyburgh, set designer Sabine Theunissen and dancer-choreographer Dado Masilo. Since it was first shown in Kassel, major public institutions, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, have acquired it. That gallery has lent it to City Gallery Wellington, where it will open in September this year.

Visitors will also be able to view Kentridge’s ten-film series Drawings for Projection(created between 1989 and 2011). Set in post-reconciliation Johannesburg, they trace the fate of the protagonists, property tycoon Soho Eckstein, and his romantic alter ego Felix Teitlebaum. In these evocative works Kentridge starts with a single charcoal drawing, progressively altering the image through erasure and overdrawing, all the while photographing over and over with a 35mm movie camera. In this way, the artist creates flowing often dreamlike sequences, and captures the narrative of the act of drawing.

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time
William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012. Five-channel video with sound, 28 minutes, with megaphones and breathing machine (‘elephant’). Image courtesy of the artist

Dan Chappell: How did your ideas behind The Refusal of Time first arise? And how did the project develop?

William Kentridge: I’d been interested in the prehistory of relativity in the way one could be interested in the prehistory of cinema. The first technologies and thoughts of 19th-century Europe, out of which cinema emerged at the end of that century, were the same as the experiments and questions that were a preamble to the work of scientists like Poincaré and Einstein and the question of relativity. In particular the idea of the sky as a universal archive of images of everything that happened on Earth—of images zooming out from Earth at the speed of light—as we know they do—and so being visible in space if you were at the right distance or right time away from Earth. So that instead of thinking of space as a huge void you could think of it as dense with images. I mentioned this to someone and he said, “Oh, you need to speak to Peter Galison, he’s studied this history and the science”. So Peter and I spoke initially for Projections on a Ceiling where we visualised an archive of images—coming out from a projector—but we never found a satisfactory ceiling. We tried a version in Paris in the Laboratoire Institute for Scientists and Artists, then Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev invited us to dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel and I decided to expand the project. Initially we were going to do the project in an old burned-out theatre that had been bombed in 1943 and never restored, but then a neighbouring hotel put their air-conditioning unit there. Reluctantly we were forced to leave this beautiful burned ruin and were pushed into – what I thought at the time was—a miserable shed at the end of a railway line. Once we started working in it, I realised that in fact it was a godsend. Firstly, because the space meant people would see the work, not just the drama of the burned-out theatre, and secondly because of all the associations of time with railway lines—there’s a connection with Einstein who worked in the Patent Office in Berne on patents coordinating railway station clocks throughout Europe. His metaphors for relativity have to do with people on trains, and platforms and stations—so it was a fortuitous find for us.

And many of the elements of this project—and of all my projects—have to do with not just serendipity but also with an openness that allows us to seek what the project itself tells you it’s making—or you’re making through it.

How did you translate these ideas into an artwork?

We looked at the science as it was described, and found it was productive of extraordinarily rich metaphors. Now, obviously all argument and all science have to proceed through metaphors—there’s no such thing as non-metaphoric science. I mean, there’s a ridiculous case where a scientist might dispute this, saying: “There’s no metaphor in string theory,” not hearing the very words he uses. But within all these different ways of approaching time – as a great river for Newton, as people on trains setting their watches or sending signals for Einstein—are visual images which come out of the world that scientists need to make sense of. After that a complicated mathematics may well be developed around them—but it’s not as if the mathematics are done and then a metaphor is found to explain the mathematics to a lay public—for a scientist, the metaphor arrives together with the mathematics.

The Refusal of Time references the idea that metaphors are at play even in science. Why is metaphor so important?

I can’t imagine working without it. The key thing in working with The Refusal of Time was how do we take this abstract idea of time, this invisible medium through which we move in the world, and make it into a material that one could experiment with, or show? That provoked the idea of different ways in which time could be turned into material. Sound was the most obvious, musically – by reversing it, slowing it down, speeding it up or holding a note for an ongoing time, one could work with sound as if it were time, and do things that you can’t do with time, like reversing it. Film became another area in which time becomes solidified into that roll of film, that spool of celluloid that is also the materialisation of eight minutes of time. You can run this backwards and forwards and you can scrutinise different fields. So the project, through music and film, was immediately connected to this investigation of time. But the question of time itself is not so much a scientific question that I was interested in, but a larger one of “can one escape one’s fate?” Although we think we’re running to make something new, we’re in fact running to something we’ve already done. That question is there for me as an artist, and has been there since I was a child, so it’s always there in the background.

You are prominent in The Refusal of Time—stepping on and over chairs, acting in various scenes, walking, standing, in a moving cart, and in front of large images of printed text. What does having the figure of the artist so involved bring to the work?

I’m in the project a lot, partly because of a lecture I’d given to the group, trying to work out how one could turn the words into visual images. This lecture became the libretto for Philip Miller’s music for the companion performance piece, Refuse the Hour. And so willy-nilly, with my voice in the performance piece, I became the performer in The Refusal of Time. The presence of myself in a lot of the films—in the zoetrope, stepping over the chairs, walking around—had to do with the sections of the project that were about the writing of it, the making of it, the studio as a space in which these questions can be worked out. So the space in which the exhibition happens is in a way a metaphoric studio—the projections on the walls are similar to the silhouettes projected on the walls of the studio. It was also embarrassing to ask the actors to do it, so I was able to do it on my own, just with a camera in the studio, endlessly climbing over the chair. There are other circular activities, doubling up, echoes and shadows. And I’m not a novelist; it’s not as if I can place myself into the head of another person, and I’m not making a feature film with actors performing roles necessary to the project.
I’m not sure what it brings to have the artist so involved, but I’m there.

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time
William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012. Five-channel video with sound, 28 minutes, with megaphones and breathing machine (‘elephant’). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibition view, 2013.

With five screens, chairs fixed to the floor, an asynchronous soundtrack, and a mechanical ‘lung’ in the middle of the space – the viewer is likely to come away with a fragmented, disjointed narrative. Was this your intention when you thought about how to present the work, and if so, why?

The viewer can come away with a disjointed narrative – that’s fine. The one thing I’m interested in is showing in a lot of my work is how coherence, clarity and simplicity is always constructed from fragments. But we’re so good at it that we naturalise it – unaware that we’re constructing a possible coherence. Each time we’re making possible sense out of fragments – we hear a sentence but we miss three words, so we construct a possible sentence that could have been said. And that’s what the piece is saying – here are all the different fragments from which some image will be emerging – even if it’s only an image of incoherence that corresponds to the way, by necessity, we have to go through the world and understand it.

Do you think this highly collaborative way of working comes from your early theatre background? What are the advantages of working like this, and is there a downside to it?

There is a way of working—adding an actor to a drawing, an animation or a piece of music—that makes opera, for example, a very wonderful way of working. There’s also a sense of camaraderie and collegiality that comes from working with a designer, a composer, dancers and actors, yet it’s also a pleasure to be absolutely on my own in the studio. And, yes, there is a downside. I think what became important for me, even in the collaborative work, was making a protected space for uncertainty—to allow my own uncertainty to hold its own against other people’s statements and clarity. I discovered in earlier collaborative work that often the uncertain ideas, which I couldn’t justify and demand that people follow, in retrospect were better than the stridently certain ideas that people proposed, and which we all in the theatre group had followed. So it’s not a collaboration of equals—in the end there’s a sense that I will decide how it will fit together—not only in terms of using other people’s technical skills but also changing the drawings in light of hearing the music, or changing the music in light of the images made, and the design of theatre sets changing what actually happens on stage.

At City Gallery we’ll also be able to see your series Drawings for Projection. The final film in the series (Other Faces) was made in 2011 after an eight-year break. Were you looking back on South Africa’s reconciliation era with more detachment than in the earlier nine films?

I don’t think so – all the films come from one or other particular image of South Africa. Other Faces starts with observing a fight between a white man and a black middle-class man over a parking spot in a shopping centre garage and understanding the unbelievable rage and anger that was boiling below the surface of the black man, even though he was driving a smart Mercedes Benz, and in one sense was competing on equal ground with his white antagonist over who should be in that parking space. That was enough to start the film off, then I spent weeks looking at Johannesburg as it is now—in the streets, in different areas—and that was enough of a starting point to see what the film would become, knowing at some point that this slanging match would be a part of where we are now. And that’s without trying to say it’s a metaphor for the unresolved—and enormous—questions of race in South Africa, all of which are undoing the gloss of the Rainbow Nation which has always, and not just now, been a thin veneer on top of a much harder, more intractable problem.

William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012 (Installation view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013)
Music and Soundscape Philip Miller
Video Editing Catherine Meyburgh – Dramaturg, Peter Galison
Five-channel video with sound, 28 minutes, with megaphones and breathing machine (‘elephant’). State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the TomorrowFund, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 2013

William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time is at City Gallery Wellington from 6 September to 16 November 2014. The film series, Drawings for Projection will also be shown throughout the exhibition. For screening times and other information, visit citygallery.org.nz.

Published in Art News Spring 2014

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