With the works of William Kentridge being packed and crated for the journey to their next destination, I feel fortunate to have spent some quality time with the exhibition. And having just spent the better portion of the past two weeks with William Kentridge: Five Themes, I am grateful to have been surrounded and informed by the responses of over one hundred local high school students! During this time, I was able to recalibrate my perception of Kentridge’s work – a valuable thing to do when you have the galleries at your fingertips each day. While I sometimes fall into the dangerous trap of thinking I’ve seen what there is to see in a particular exhibition, I know enough to jolt myself out of this false sense of surety. There is always something I’ve not looked at closely enough. Being with these high school students – participants in the Museum’s High School Repeat Visit Program – allows me to talk with them about the many aspects of Kentridge’s work I find relevant and meaningful. But, and perhaps more importantly, we get to discuss what they find interesting, bizarre, perplexing, difficult, humorous, and absurd. New connections are made and fresh questions posed; all of this jolts me and makes me more aware of the complexity of this (and every) exhibition.
So the things that make these teenagers linger a little bit longer in front of a piece are often surprising. They make me re-evaluate what I think I know from all of my catalogue reading, lecture attending, and art history studying. After watching the decidedly disturbing Ubu and the Procession, one student matter-of-factly asked if the artist was crazy. Why, after all, would he draw such horrors? This one, simple question made me stop in my tracks; I’d never even considered the thought. So we talked about how the political and social systems in place during apartheid (and any type of social injustice) are pure insanity, while the artist addressing such issues may be the sanest of any of us. A great dialogue was begun and we all got to consider our personal definitions of sanity, objectivity, and normality. Another teenager pointed out that in the Kentridge’s drawings of himself in the belly of Ubu, he is bloodied and bruised – worse for the wear but somehow trudging along amidst the turmoil and incoherence of evil. Given that the artist rarely uses color, we discussed how it is striking that he incorporates shades of red (and brown?) in these beautiful, large scale drawings. This insight provided a portal through which the students really questioned and engaged with what Kentridge is addressing in this body of work.
Later, we all went to our studio space and, with the guidance of Dallas-based artist Jeff Zilm, created gestural drawings related to the themes of erasure, reversal, and (im)permanence that course through Kentridge’s work. This process, which was decidedly painful for many of the students (they had to erase their precious creations!) allowed many to consider the sort of sacrifice that Kentridge, and many, many artists, make each time they work in the studio. To tear and deconstruct a nice drawing is hard. But something new and even more interesting comes from the act of erasure. Physically, we all learned to let go of our work; metaphorically – well, I am still thinking about what this means.
So you don’t get a broad range of perspectives from a catalogue, or maybe even from the artist himself. But you do get it from talking with others about their experience of artworks – both looking at them and making them. It would be nice if we all talked a bit more about how we take in what we see. It has definitely made me pause to consider what I am not considering every time I explore the galleries.