Crossing the threshold into William Kentridge’s puzzle box of a touring exhibition, presently awaiting discovery at the edges of Manchester’s Whitworth, is a subtly, if pleasurably, disorientating experience, as though its terrain was the lens of a kaleidoscope at the moment a determined shift of the instrument brings the same fragments into a different focus. There’s more to it than meets the eye.

The Johannesburg-born thwarted actor, son of anti-Apartheid lawyers, directs and animates a compendium of works, shrapnel that, though entire in themselves, refract one another like the magic mirror maze at the climax of The Lady From Shanghai, suggesting – as embodied in the uncanny gramophone hybrid of his Heartbeat Sewing Machine – a breathing, pulsating whole.

Commonplace motifs (horses and coffeepots) recur from work to work, as does Kentridge himself; a benign Hitchcock, the ghost in his own machinery.

If the themes are momentous – the banal epilogues of revolutionary utopianism, the dehumanising cycles of colonialism – the best of the pieces unravel them with a lightness of touch that nevertheless sidesteps the trapdoor of kitsch. Strange to say, but neither does their charm compromise their gravity.

Their enchantment arises in part from the deployment of the techniques of early animation, from the subtle flipbook skip through the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary of Second-Hand Reading (which brings to mind textbooks defaced on bored primary school fridays) to the Button Moon coffeepot of Journey To The Moon, an explicit homage to the stop-motion invention of its French-titled silent predecessor that is also a premonition of the mortality that never troubled baked bean cosmonaut, Mr Spoon.

Like the wall hangings that comprise his Tapestry Library, each exhibit is at heart a patchwork, Kentridge’s media mixed in a dance of appropriation and reappropriation, speaking in many tongues of reference, irreverence and irrelevance. Neither one thing nor the other, its singularity is akin to the gnomic hook by which The Dream Warriors failed to describe their ‘Boombastic Jazz Style’:

“My definition. My definition. My definition is this…

By Desmond Bullen

(Main image: William Kentridge, in collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh and Peter Gibson. The Refusal of Time, 2012) 


William Kentridge: Thick Time is at The Whitworth in Manchester until March 3, 2019.