William Kentridge’s new installation at the National Gallery is built of so many elements — audio, video, animation, drawing, sculpture, costume design, dance, music — that it almost seems like the set design for a grand opera.
That won’t surprise followers of Kentridge, the celebrated artist who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1955 (“the same year that Nelson Mandela was arrested,” observe the gallery’s notes). His body of work is confidently diverse in media and format, including the operas for which he created stage designs — and sometimes directed.
The new installation, titled More Sweetly Play the Dance, was created in 2015, acquired by the gallery in 2016 and is now making its Ottawa premiere. Its structure and scale create the sense of the operatic, with a series of seven large, horizontal video screens, arranged in a semi-circle around the viewer. For 14 minutes the screens are filled with the sounds and sights of a procession of people, marching from left to right.
Kentridge had early and direct exposure to the cruelties of Apartheid, and his work is usually focused on social injustices and colonialism in Africa. The backgrounds of the screens in More Sweetly Play the Dance are Kentridge’s own charcoal drawings of the “transforming wasteland of mining landscapes around Johannesburg.” The drawings are scratchy and distressed and drab in colour. In a word, they’re bleak.
The procession begins with a brass band, marching. The music is repetitive and swirling, a dirge for the dead. What follows is a panoply of marchers and dancers and others, all of them real people from the streets of Johannesburg, including “recycling trolley pullers, musicians, dancers, politicians, mourners and Ebola patients pushing their IV poles…”
Some carry Kentridge’s elaborate sculptures, including flora, musical instruments, cages, or vaguely recognizable busts of historical figures who have influenced the artist (one was distinctly Roman, perhaps Cicero?) The sculptures are cut from cardboard and in the dim light of the room they resemble stencils.
Kentridge incorporated traces of other projects he was working on at the time in his collaborative studio — one character shows up in an outfit that is unmistakably from Maoist China.
He also brings the viewer into the piece, breaking down walls between creator and consumer. Numbers fade in an out on the screen — likely created for Kentridge’s reference during the drawing and construction process, and left in to create a sense of an unfinished draft, to give the viewer a sense of “being part of the cycle that is ongoing,” says senior curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois. The viewer’s sense of being an integral part of the piece is also fostered by a pair of large, metal megaphones that are seen both on-screen and atop metal stands in the viewing room.
Those megaphones appear in the video in the hands of two figures on a sled, the first of several sleds to be pulled by straining humans. Another sled carries three dancing skeletons, while another totes a white man with business suit and podium, a politician who appears to be in full rhetorical flight.
Flags and slogans appear — “Eat Bitterness,” says one, “Bombard the Headquarters.” Another references “the Grammar of the Wound,” and declares, “A Nicely Built City Never Resists Destruction.”
The penultimate sled bears a body, and behind it a ballet dancer, topless and in Crinoline skirt, who dances a trance-inducing circle, and carries a spade to dig the grave. Behind her, the procession ends with the final sled, and another ballerina, this one turning on the tips of her toes, while holding a military rifle over her head.
It’s almost overwhelming how much Kentridge has packed into 14-plus minutes. More Sweetly Play the Dance is full of acts of collaboration, both in its creation and performance, which speaks to the power of people who work together, fight together, and persevere together. As a political statement it is not pedagogic, as Kentridge believes inherent contradictions and an openness to interpretation are essential.
“It is,” Drouin-Brisebois said, “more about what you read into it that’s important to him.”