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Cross-Departmental Dialogue: The Rock and the Revolution

At the moment, we have on two different sides of the Museum great examples of contemporary artists who have created works that deal with history, politics, and social realities in their respective regions using stop-motion animation: The Refusal of Time (2012), an installation by William Kentridge (b. 1955) currently on view in the Modern and Contemporary Art galleries, and a selection of videos in the exhibition Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China by artists Chen Shaoxiong (b. 1962), Qiu Anxiong (b. 1972) and Sun Xun (b. 1980). Qiu and Sun in particular have acknowledged Kentridge as a source of inspiration. I spoke with Ian Alteveer, associate curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, about the connections between Kentridge's film and several videos in Ink Art.

William Kentridge's The Refusal of Time

William Kentridge (South African, born Johannesburg, 1955). The Refusal of Time, 2012. Five-channel video installation with steel megaphones and a breathing machine ("elephant"). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Roy R. and Marie S. Neuberger Foundation Inc. and Wendy Fisher Gifts and The Raymond and Beverly Sackler 21st Century Art Fund, 2013 (2013.250). © William Kentridge. All Rights Reserved

Xin Wang: Since you spearheaded the acquisition and exhibition of The Refusal of Time, why don't we start by talking a little bit about this work and what time meant for Kentridge?

Ian Alteveer: William Kentridge's Refusal of Time is his most recent major installation; it was commissioned for dOCUMENTA(13), the exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. It was a long process for him—he has been working on this for some two years. It's a five-channel video, with a moving sculpture and sound. And already by winter 2012, he had produced some of the video segments, which were used in his sixth Norton Lecture at Harvard University that spring. And he was thinking very much already about these issues of time—in particular, a moment in history when the inner workings of machines were very visible—not like they are today, covered in plastic. You could see the way they worked, and in a way, that made time visible for people. 

One of the things William was reading was a book by the Harvard historian Peter Galison called Einstein's Clocks and Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time (2004). Both Einstein and Poincaré, the French mathematician, at around the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, were experimenting with controlling time: Einstein, for example, was trying to figure out how to synchronize train station clocks, because previously in the nineteenth century, they were all linked along the telegraph line, resulting in time lapse when signals were sent down from the central station. I guess I'm saying that, in a way, trying to figure out how to centralize time is to control time. Poincaré is the mathematician who was in charge of laying out the world's time zones—another way of trying to regulate time for the world. William, I think, sees this as a nostalgic idea, a way of systematizing and trying to control the world during a period of European colonial power. There's a sequence in the video installation where you see all of these vignettes of laboratories—they were based on real events, where anarchists or anticolonial activists were trying to disrupt things. There's a famous episode from 1897 that William uses, for example, when an anarchist tried to blow up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, which is, of course, where Greenwich mean time is centralized. And he ended up just blowing off his arm, I think; he didn't make it to the observatory. But this was his attempt to disrupt time, perhaps to try to plunge the world into a timeless place.

Xin Wang: When you mentioned Greenwich mean time, I immediately thought about a series of character/concept designs by artist Sun Xun, who created the video Some Actions Which Haven't Been Defined Yet in the Revolution (2011), on view in the Ink Art exhibition. For an earlier piece, Mythos (2006), Sun Xun identifies a series of recurrent motives explored throughout his creative output. There is, for example, the magician who is the only "legal liar," which can be read as a metaphor for the artist as well as the state apparatus that produces politicized truth. In his illustration of Greenwich mean time, Sun Xun offers the explanation that the world's standard time revolves around perceived time differences. Interestingly, in Some Actions—this stop-motion animation consisting of six thousand individually carved woodblocks—there also seems to be an ambiguous sense of temporality: it takes place in a sleepy town in China, not exactly in the present day but not so distant in the past either. Furthermore, Sun Xun wrote the script for the work when he was still in college, around 2000.

Sun Xun discusses his work Some Actions Which Haven't Been Defined Yet in the Revolution (2011) as part of the artist interview series conducted for Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China.

Ian Alteveer: Interesting. So in a way, it references that time that's past.

Xin Wang: That and further back, particularly to the Cultural Revolution. Sun Xun was born after it ended, but it's the aftermath—its visual legacy and ideological remnants— that's inflicting confusion and pain. For one thing, he is deeply unsatisfied with how that historical period was buried or presented in distortion, so there's that urge to unearth what had actually happened. In Some Actions, he condenses that struggle with history into one day in somebody's life, which is fragmented, disorienting, and filled with dark, even sinister symbolism. His protagonist wakes up in a lethargic town, aimlessly walks around, and goes to class and a hospital's psychiatry department, where knowledge and ideologies are injected. The classroom scene features episodes of masturbation, as an angry gesture in response to it all. Elements of industrialization are also frequently visible in his works—he was born in a coal-mining town in Northern China, so a lot of those bare-boned industrial and mechanical structures were part of his childhood memories, and those mechanomorphic structures in his videos easily conjure up the Industrial Revolution. So time for him seems to be this incredibly supple and elusive medium. I'm not certain whether he shares Kentridge's view about the futile attempts to control time, but there's definitely that real struggle with time's delusory qualities.

Ian Alteveer: In a way, you're pointing out something that works really well in that video, which is a certain collapsing of time. You have this kind of stop-motion animation, which has, built into it, this idea of unfolding. As frames move in front of your eyes, you are very aware of time's elapsing.

Xin Wang: The inherent dimension of time in a time-based medium.

Ian Alteveer: Exactly. But then added onto it is an anachronistic use of a medium such as woodblock, ink, or charcoal, as opposed to something digitally rendered, to make an animated movie. That already adds a layer of strangeness. And then there are the ink wash films you've mentioned to me before from the sixties in China [by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio], which are comparable to the golden age of Disney in the thirties and forties: like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), beautifully hand-painted, handmade animation. For someone to be doing that now is very anachronistic, in a way.

Xin Wang: Indeed, and I think that's a deliberate choice by these artists. The fact that William Kentridge went against that technological advance of digitization in animation techniques was a very powerful thing for artists such as Qiu Anxiong, who quickly developed his own approach to this kind of hand-wrought animation. This is the artist who conjures up the civilization allegory New Classic of Mountains and Seas I (2006) with "actors" who are half beast and half machine, sometimes even weaponry, to simulate creatures and phenomena of modern times. Qiu saw Kentridge's work while studying at the University of Kassel (1998–2004), but for many artists in China, the 2000 Shanghai Biennial was their first encounter with Kentridge.

Qiu Anxiong, Still from New Classic of Mountains and Seas (2006)

Still from Qiu Anxiong's New Classic of Mountains and Seas I, 2006

Ian Alteveer: William's entry there was a work called Shadow Procession (1999). It's one of his most famous videos, and it was exhibited all over the world in those years. It was in the Istanbul Biennial, the Berlin Biennial. But it's fascinating that it was in the Shanghai Biennial. This was the third one and the first to include international artists. It must have been a very momentous occasion, in a way, especially for Chinese artists who hadn't traveled abroad or seen works by non-Chinese artists. I can see how that film must have had quite an impact.

Xin Wang: Right. Around that time, there were many other international artists active on the biennial circuit who were introduced to China via publications or exhibitions, but few came to the level of Kentridge in terms of influence. And I think perhaps a big part of it has to do with how Kentridge's works confront the social and political conditions in his own home country, which struck a chord with these artists in China, even though apartheid-inflicted sufferings are of a different nature. This is quite fascinating because sometimes artists would try to eschew making works so steeped in a particular situation or identity, be it national or cultural, but Kentridge confronted this head-on, even though he recognizes the immense difficulty in doing that.

Ian Alteveer: It's very true. I think Kentridge's works, especially from the eighties and nineties, are hugely political in that they can also be about universal human suffering. And William always looks at classic tropes, like Plato's Cave. With Plato, for example, came the inspiration for his use of shadows. In Plato's text, prisoners who are trapped in a cave and can't see outside, except for the shadows of people passing by, projected through an aperture into their dark space. You can allegorize that as a history of the moving image and of cinema. But it's also a kind of allegory for people trapped in the horrible political systems, in apartheid. Another inspiration is the French Absurdist drama Ubu Roi (1896), by Alfred Jarry, which is very important for Kentridge. He used that in theater works of the later 1990s to allegorize the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (established circa 1995), a public forum for talking about atrocious things that happened during apartheid. It was meant as a way of airing trauma, but perhaps in an ambivalent way that left much unresolved.

When one comes from a deeply flawed society where people are oppressed, everyone suffers. Kentridge's family was very involved in the anti-apartheid movement—his father, for example, was one of the attorneys for the family of murdered activist Stephen Biko (1946–77). As an artist who deeply feels political, social inequalities, this sort of processing of traumatic events is something that's very pervasive in the work. So, in a way, I can see how a young artist living in China would take Kentridge's process as a model for confronting the painful legacy of the Cultural Revolution. Maybe it is still to be unpacked.

Xin Wang: I also think that Kentridge not only had this influence of encouraging an engagement with the difficult subjects of political trauma, but the formal and aesthetic elements in his works are also incredibly seductive.

Ian Alteveer: Absolutely. Sometimes it can be difficult if violence or another sort of painful history is aestheticized or dramatized in an ambivalent way. I think as an artist who comes out of theater work and television work, though—Kentridge was trained as an actor—this idea of dramatization is an important one, and a way of dealing with issues that are painful to confront. There's this amazing arsenal—I am sorry to use a military term—an amazing variety of techniques that Kentridge uses that other artists can pick and choose from. For instance, there's charcoal animation, where the medium is pushed around on the paper but leaves a trace behind. You can see shapes forming and then their ghosts left behind as Kentridge uses the same sheet of paper over and over again as he's moving things around the page. But then there is also live action, silhouettes, shadow puppetry, found objects, solarization…all sorts of different techniques.

Xin Wang: The way he works with the materiality of these various media often facilitates the narrative of his works. Likewise, in Sun Xun's Some Actions, the flickering, grainy texture of the wood also seems to reinforce this prevailing sense of unease. I wonder, though, when you are looking at the selection of videos in Ink Art, what are some of the things that really jumped out, having worked so extensively with Kentridge and his materials?

Ian Alteveer: I think it was really interesting to see that these artists also invent or repurpose stories that are instructive or political. In a way, this kind of make-believe is strangely familiar.

Xin Wang: This is certainly true of Qiu Anxiong's New Classic of Mountains and Seas, and he talked about wanting to make it as easily accessible as possible, which is why he appropriated The Classic of Mountains and Seas, a famous ancient text that provides fascinating accounts of strange beings and locales. He was particularly drawn to the fact that it did not attempt to make sense of those strange beasts encountered; instead, the approach was to portray them in a very straightforward manner—based on what's already known and their resemblances. That's one of Qiu's explicit goals: to look at the modern world's myriad phenomena from the intuitive perspective of the ancients. And through this fanciful lens, he's able to pack in a great deal of grave or thorny issues, if you will, about our civilization. There is one not-so-implicit scene where figures dressed in black burqa fly—arms stretched—into what looks like Lower Manhattan. But through allegorizing, he renders these events as distant spectacle that still resonates but doesn't seem so shocking.

New Classic of Mountains and Seas I

An example of Qiu Anxiong's original designs of modern beasts, shown here as a woodblock print and realized later in the video New Classic of Mountains and Seas I, 2006. Qiu Anxiong (Chinese, born 1972). New Classic of Mountains and Seas I, 2008. China. Portfolio of twelve woodblock prints; ink on paper; Sheet (each): 19 3/4 x 16 1/2 in. (50.2 x 41.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2013 (2013.944a–l). © Qiu Anxiong

Ian Alteveer: An allegory is a way to speak to something without being explicit about it, no?

Xin Wang: Right. But I always wonder what the American audience would make of it, when they see a foreign artist making use of that material, even though arguably the impact of September 11 had a profound, global reach.

Ian Alteveer: I'm still waiting for the time when it's not such a painful thing to talk about. I think part of what makes it still painful for me is also that it was used to justify so many other horrible things that happened in its aftermath. My favorite work so far regarding September 11 was an amazing and mysterious installation of Robert Gober's at Matthew Marks Gallery (2005). It was full of his signature objects, which look so real but are actually made out of things that they're not usually made out of. There were two doors at the back of the space, each propped open, and if you peeked in, behind each was a bathroom with someone taking a bath—very haunting, mysterious work, redolent with an underlying trauma. I think it's still really hard to take that theme as a subject, though.

Xin Wang: I remember that Chen Shaoxiong—the artist who made those punchy, three-minute videos consisting of ink drawings depicting the everyday visual influx—once remarked that September 11 didn't feel like thousands of miles away when it happened, but literally two meters away from him, because the reports and footage were looping endlessly on the TV. That kind of mass saturation made the event and its associative images so very indelible or even unbearable for many. This makes me think of Kentridge's notion of "the rock"—that is, apartheid—this weight of history and the whole political situation that are inimical to any sort of artistic interrogation; this is perhaps also representative of the challenge many politically minded artists are faced with today.

Chen Shaoxiong, Still from Ink Diary

Still from Chen Shaoxiong's Ink Diary, 2006

Related Links
William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time (on view through May 11, 2014)
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China (on view through this Sunday, April 6, 2014)

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