We all have our own ways of holding time at bay. Some watch sport. Some smoke cigarettes. Some sit at the piano or pick up a book. If you’re South African artist William Kentridge, you evidently go to your studio. where you make things, think, draw, erase, draw again, take photographs of your drawings, drink coffee, and all the while reflect on what it is to draw, to erase drawings, to take photographs, to drink coffee, and so on.
Kentridge is one of the world’s most brilliant and ambitious artists, and his latest work, “The Refusal of Time,” can be seen at the ICA, in a dark room filled with mysterious moving images. There are rudimentary loudspeakers mounted on stands emitting music, a disembodied voice, and all sorts of haunting blips and beats. And at the heart of it all, a strange wooden structure, a sort of industrial machine with mechanical parts moving like clockwork.
Kentridge is best known for his animated films, his sculptures and drawings, and, increasingly, his collaborative film installations, set designs for operas, and other theatrical projects. He collaborated on “The Refusal of Time” with the Cambridge-based historian of science Peter Galison, as well as the composer Philip Miller, and the filmmaker Catherine Meyburgh.
Kentridge himself is descended from Lithuanian Jews and the son of lawyers who were active in the antiapartheid movement. He was raised as a privileged member of a small liberal elite in a country riven by injustice. He took to acting and drawing early on, training in African history and fine arts, before studying acting and mime in Paris. He found his métier — and renown — in visual art in the late ’80s and ’90s. But his creative pendulum has of late been swinging back in the direction of performance.
Over the years, in films and in lectures, Kentridge has reflected intelligently on the pleasures and the importance of procrastination. And yet he can seem almost dementedly industrious. He generates more ideas and more ingenious modes of presentation each year.
Yet even when working with collaborators, his work never loses its inimitable Kentridge look: homespun, black-and-white, slightly polluted (one thinks of smokestacks over a mining town), gleefully anarchic, slightly nostalgic, and always spectacularly inventive.
Like much of Kentridge’s recent work, including his opera collaborations (he worked in 2010 with New York’s Metropolitan Opera on a production of Shostakovich’s “The Nose”) and like his brilliant Norton Lectures delivered a year ago at Harvard University, “The Refusal of Time” combines autobiographical elements with politics, history, music, dance, film, and — in this case — a good dose of theoretical physics.
It’s all about Time. And more than that, it is about how we try — and often fail — to escape it.
But it goes deeper. And this is where Galison, the historian of science, comes in. He wrote a book about 10 years ago called “Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empires of Time.” It fleshed out a fascinating link between Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – his discovery that time is not a universal constant – and the late-19th-century rush to standardize time and synchronize clocks.
This effort became an urgent concern as industrialized life and modes of transport sped up. Synchronized clocks made possible everything from the scheduling of trains to the making of maps (measuring longitude depended on them). And of course, maps and trains and military coordination made possible the conquest and colonization of Africa – a longstanding theme in Kentridge’s work.
Ironically, however, another upshot of this drive to control and dominate time was Einstein’s discovery that time was not, in fact, so easily fixed. His theory revolutionized physics.
Standardized and synchronized time, and all the conquests it helped bring about, encountered heavy resistance. Anarchists in Europe and colonized peoples the world over protested. In 1894, an anarchist even attempted to blow up the Greenwich Observatory — home of Greenwich mean time.
People didn’t like governments telling them when it was noon: They had the sun to tell them that. And they had their own pulse to measure duration: They didn’t need a standardized measure imposed on their heartbeat.
And that’s the context in which we should read the show’s title: “The Refusal of Time.”
Kentridge begins his screening by setting metronomes and military drumbeats against increasingly lively, syncopated music, maps of Africa and newspaper headlines announcing local revolts and rebellions. The words “GIVE US BACK OUR SUN” appear at one point.
He goes on to show footage of himself in his studio repeatedly clambering over a sofa, like one of the models in Eadweard Muybridge’s famous stop-motion photographs studying movement. Later he stands on a chair turning clock-like circles as a black woman repeatedly moves chairs for his foot to land on — an image that, as an eloquent indictment of colonization, is hard to forget.
In another sequence, though, it is the figure of Kentridge who moves the chairs for the black woman as she walks forward in a straight and regimented line. Such inversions are typical of this artist’s approach: Kentridge thrives on ambivalence and complication. His work, like his clipped South African accent, promises lucidity — and delivers. But you can no more pin down its meanings than you can fix time.
Some of his wittiest and most moving works have hinged on the nature of life in the studio. It’s there that time cannot only be refused, but reversed, speeded up, and slowed down. In the studio he is in command and capable of anything — a magician, an Einstein, a God. But it’s in the studio that he is also reminded — too much perhaps — of himself, his mistakes, his mortality.
All the while, and throughout the screening, the huge kinetic sculpture in the middle of the room pumps away like a robot’s heart, or a giant bellows. It is supposed to remind us of the pneumatic tubes used in Paris to send signals that synchronized clocks across the city. Kentridge calls it The Elephant – as in “the elephant in the room.” But it’s also meant to conjure the steam engine in Charles Dickens’s “Hard Times,” with its pistons “moving up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.”
So you see how Kentridge works — how broad and encompassing his allusions are, how he will take on anything — from theoretical physics to procrastinating in his studio – and give it a moral urgency and compelling artistic form.
Part of his knack is that he knows how to use humor to bring potentially ponderous subjects to life. This screening has plenty of slapstick. He also has a conductor’s feel for shifts in tempo, and here that sixth sense dovetails, of course, with the overriding theme. Throughout the screening, as the bellows pumps away, metronomes fall in and out of synch, music speeds up, beats are syncopated and rhythms dismantled.
Kentridge has always been interested in “machines that make you aware of what it is to see” — like the stereoscope, or like his very own animations, which are often no more advanced than crude silhouette puppet theater. They make you conscious of how they’re working even as they cast their spell.
Kentridge has expressed a sense of marvel at the “agency we have — whether we like it or not — in making sense of the world.” And his art, which is founded on drawing, invites us to take up that agency almost as an artist takes up a piece of charcoal.
In a way, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, too, helped us achieve this kind of agency in our struggle to cast off the shackles of time. By dislodging time from its former centrality — by undermining its imperial rule — he created the possibility that time could no longer contain us.
The screening ends with a procession of black silhouettes — a kind of parade of the overlooked, the factored out, the downtrodden, the dispossessed. It’s a motif that comes around and around in Kentridge’s work, like a planet circling a sun. As they proceed from one frame to the next, carrying equipment and instruments, they remain in silhouette. Some of them seem blind and cling to one another.
In one sense, then, they are like the prisoners in Plato’s cave who have been led out into the sun. In Plato’s allegory, these prisoners were forced to climb a steep slope so they could see the sun and have all their illusions shattered by the wise philosopher-king.
As Kentridge suggested in the first of his Norton lectures last year, the allegory reminds us of a connection that has always existed between enlightenment, emancipation, and violence. The light at the end of the tunnel, as he said, turns so quickly into the interrogator’s spotlight.
What is remarkable about the procession of figures at the end of the “Refusal of Time” is that they are not on their way up a hill or toward any light. They are just moving. And as they proceed, they struggle, they sing, they turn, and they dance. Some of them seem even to laugh.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.