Putting William Kentridge on a tabletop is tricky business. The South African polymath — whose skills include drawing, painting, filmmaking, theater, opera, shadow play, and puppetry — is certainly accustomed to grander scale. In 2016, his “Triumphs and Laments” performance on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome spanned half a kilometer while “The Head and the Load,” his 2018 epic on the First World War in Africa, took place across stages about half the size of a football field at London’s Tate Modern and later New York’s Park Avenue Armory.
But small-scale Kentridge is what you’ll find at the Institute of Contemporary Art, which this week opened “KABOOM!,” a miniature version of “The Head and the Load” on a set the size of a large dining table. If you’ve seen a life-size Kentridge piece in person, you might wonder how that would work — how an artist with such lofty ambitions can scale down without a reductive hit to his vision.
That was much on my mind when I saw “KABOOM!” recently. I had the good luck of sitting in on a few days of rehearsals in spring 2018, when Mass MoCA opened one of its industrial-scale spaces to Kentridge and his cast of dozens to prepare for their London debut. ”The Head and the Load” was Kentridge’s ferociously captivating take on the Great War’s much-overlooked impact on Africa, tipping the continent toward its bleak and violent descent into full-blown colonial rule.
The production was, quite intentionally, orchestrated chaos. In that vast and echoing Mass MoCA space, Kentridge unfurled a tale of savagery both on the battlefield and in the selective tale of official history. The war in Africa has been largely a footnote to the carnage that took place on European soil: 8.5 million soldiers were killed in battle over four bloody years of war, with nearly 8 million more unaccounted for. In Africa, European forces initially pegged the death toll at just 30,000. With “The Head and the Load,” Kentridge set out to exhume the shameful exclusions in that narrative. The real numbers are devastating: In Africa, 300,000 Black porters were killed, used as fodder for the European soldiers and officers to whom they were assigned in bunches. Another 1 million African civilians died, collateral damage in the European campaigns raging across their homelands. It was an obliterating sideshow to the main event, deemed for much of the 20th century to be too insignificant for history’s attention.
In North Adams, Kentridge, a white 65-year-old who used to agitate against Apartheid, told me the story of being a schoolboy in Johannesburg, where, on Armistice Day, the names of the old boys killed in the war were read aloud. “What was missing was all those other names,” he said, explaining that the piece was his way “to take note of that which we have chosen not to remember.”
Onstage, “The Head and the Load” was consuming; multiple scenes overlapped simultaneously, the clatter of as many as a dozen languages, European and African, tumbling into one another. (The title was borrowed from a Ghanaian proverb: “The head and the load are the troubles of the neck,” a nod to porters torn from their homes.) Everything was in perpetual motion: Complex projections and shadowplay dwarfed the human players. Kentridge’s distinctive, gestural charcoal swipes brought kinetic life to the set itself. It mirrored the fractures and disconnects of a culture’s unraveling at the hands of its oppressors.
A few recognizable moments emerged from the show’s haze. At the drawing up of the Treaty of Versailles, for example, where an African delegation made the trek to France, expecting a seat at the table as reward for their sacrifice to European war efforts. Instead they were excluded, left to watch as their continent was carved up into winners and losers. In that moment, you could almost see the African characters freefalling into the abyss, swallowed whole as modernity’s full weight crashed over them.
At the ICA, I worried that “KABOOM!” would diminish the artist’s vision in proportion to the work’s scale. Not so. The table-top multimedia installation is intimate where “The Head and the Load” was overwhelming, a sonnet next to an epic poem. And there is poetry to both, lyrical and raw, insisting that narrative alone could never capture the horror of human beings brutally used up and cast aside. Both pieces make the case that chaos was the crucible from which the modern world emerged, its discordant strains finally tamed into one dominant chord. Kentridge denies simplistic storytelling by simply allowing no place for it; his is a world of everything at once.
Even so, “KABOOM!” is spare and elegant where “The Head and the Load” is riotous. The newer work is not quite comprehensible in the usual sense, though it does have an eloquence the original elided. On the miniature stage are four jagged forms, which fracture the projections Kentridge aimed for the screen behind. At times, the eye strains to make sense of it all — enough to remember this is a world torn to pieces, never to be made whole. Antiquated maps of the African continent fade in and out, with text projected on top: “ANNIHILATE THE BRUTES” or “Where are our former lives? Where are our former kingdoms?”
Old-timey music, like from a silent film, sets the tone, from nostalgic to urgent to, in the work’s most moving passage, heartbreakingly mournful, as the silhouettes of African porters lope across the screen, carrying ships and cannons and artillery as a Xhosa choir sings. (Thuthuka Sibisi, Kentridge’s music director for both works, is a young South African whose fluency with both ancient and modern musical forms, European and African alike, gives the work as much shape as Kentridge’s imagery.)
“KABOOM!” is more contemplative than chaotic, more evocative than assaulting. Still, it does the same work as “The Head and the Load” in casting history as a cacophony, not a melody. “Let us try for once not to be right” are the last words you see onscreen as “KABOOM!” fades away. It makes its point. There is no right; only endless versions, most of them kept forever out of sight.
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: KABOOM!
At the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. Through May 23, 2021. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org