‘More Sweetly Play the Dance’ at Marian Goodman Gallery is the first major exhibition of work by William Kentridge in London for 15 years. In fitting with Kentridge’s long career of multi-disciplinary work the show combines film installation with elements of sculpture and drawings. The first gallery presents a series of works that link the Cultural Revolution with Tang dynasty poetry, the student protests of 1968 and the Paris Commune of 1871. Found pages are daubed in ink and revolutionary slogans are printed across seemingly innocuous paintings of flowers. He takes the black and white print, loads his brush with their revolutionary ire and methodically paints his enormous bland flowers in the same monochrome palette. ‘Bombard the headquarters’ one petal declares above the printed words ‘EAT BITTERNESS’, a Chinese saying which encourages humility and the endurance of hardship. Kentridge draws upon these contradictions, painting birds over pages of Chinese calligraphy and drawings of Eurasion Tree Sparrows: a reference to Mao’s demand that peasants kill all sparrows, without which the locust population thrived leading to the Great Chinese famine that killed an estimated 20-43 million people.
Kentridge conjures waves of revolution and shows a human impulse towards protest, as these different revolutions mix they lose their distinct edges and become one jostling fray. Kentridge renders them impotent, their purpose becomes confused and they meander and tangle. The rousing slogans of the Cultural Revolution which caused such extensive social and political upheaval in China are softened by his banal flowers. Inflammatory words are printed on pages and lined up next to each other, and in so doing they lose their meaning and their power to provoke, rather there is something absurd about their earnestness.
The conscious mingling of Chinese revolutionary text with that of the French student uprisings in 1968 reflects Kentridge’s own confused absorption of print media as a young boy. He describes how the South African press viewed the Cultural Revolution as a kind of addition to the student uprisings in France: “So there I was, a boy in Johannesburg wishing I was 18 in Paris. But now I realise that both the French students and the people in the party in Beijing were hankering after the Paris Comune of 1871. So there was the periphery longing for the centre; a kind of dissatisfaction in each space as to one’s place in history.” It is indeed a truly universal sense of dissatisfaction that these works draw upon: disparate movements united by a common discontent.
In the upper gallery Kentridge’s video More Sweetly Play the Dance is displayed across eight screens that span three sides of the room. The artist refers to his video work as ‘filmed drawings’ and creates them by recording charcoal marks made on paper, in this case overlaid with real figures. The backdrop of charcoal scratches flickers and judders, the landscape is barren, across it a strange procession marches. A marching band plays a brassy tune as a peculiar throng of disparate individuals lope across the landscape. The music is discordant: part triumphant, part topsy-turvy, it fits the mismatched procession. Likened by the gallery to a mediaeval procession, there is a spiritual and political ambiguity to this strange ritual. The figures trudge onwards, dragging their feet along with raised platforms on which silhouettes of skeletons swing macabrely, politicians gesticulate from podiums and a row of secretaries bend over their typewriters. A ballerina dressed in a military uniform and carrying a gun pirouettes on a platform, grimly bringing to mind the futurist Filippo Marinetti’s celebration of war ‘Dance of the Machine Gun’. Further on a man carries the sketched silhouette of a bath, another carrying a typewriter, a group carrying the heads of miners. Visual and musical motifs are echoed throughout the march and in the accompanying room some of the sculptural silhouettes are displayed. The silhouette of a globe is held high, a reminder that this death march, this uninviting parade, is universal.
Kentridge’s work is made acutely important and upsetting by its current climate. His work is informed by his interest in migration: ‘My concern has been both with the existential solitude of the walker, and with social solitude – lines of people walking in single file from one country to another, from one life to an unknown future’. As the migrant crisis in Europe becomes increasingly desperate, Kentridge’s work becomes a bleak mirror.
Kentridge questions the impulse both to process and to protest, the former so firmly associated with the establishment and the latter its curiously comparable antithesis. Revolutions interweave and, divorced of their context, lose their purpose. With this exhibition Kentridge shows us an absurd no man’s land, across which incongruent displaced individuals trudge. Revolutions rise and fall and the grim procession marches on.