top of page
  • Christian Hain

Draw Bill 2 – No it is the Genius of William Kentridge at Martin-Gropius-Bau

(Berlin.) We knew beforehand what to write. We even had prepared some lines: “We cannot recommend anyone to visit Martin-Gropius-Bau as long as they uphold their impertinent pricing policy for minuscule shows”, or “Is it a good show? Yes. Would we spend x Euros on it? Definitely not.” Or something like that. We were wrong!

William Kentridge: NO IT IS! (capitals in original) is the best exhibition we’ve seen in a long while, and not just in Berlin. And if M-G-B‘s entry fees would equal the price of spare parts for a historic MGB roadster, we would still advise you to go. Definitely.

This despite it starting in the worst possible way to put us in a benevolent mood: Arriving late for the opening and without an invitation, we had to join a massive queue. Now, once you’ve lived in a city for a while, you begin to recognize the opening faces, not yet overtly greeting anyone, but hesitating knowingly, “That ponytailed guy again – what’s he got to do with that smug New Economy %$/& – a dealer maybe?”, “Hey, where’s the retiree with his film camera, always dressed like a circus clown ‘cause he believes artists dress like circus clowns?” (most don't) &c. Making ourselves as comfortable as possible, we took our book but had time only to read a few pages, the queue advancing much faster than expected. And then, suddenly, we were in.

NO IT IS! AT MARTING-GROPIUS-BAU STARTS WITH A... sorry: NO IT IS! at Martin-Gropius-Bau starts with a prelude in a small passageway that has only one Self Portrait as a Coffee Pot and three more labels for undiscoverable artworks. But turn around the corner and you find yourself in darkness, surrounded by seven films on cinema-size screens. One has glow worms squirrelling around, or bacteria in a petri dish; eventually, the light patterns turn out to be objects filmed in negative as the forms evolve and disappear again. The rest is less abstract. Constantly changing between the spheres, the artist draws himself into his work, his world; wandering through the studio, being distracted by apparitions of a woman who keeps vanishing again (we double-checked, but his wife is still alive). The main topic of these animated movies is the artist art-ing or art and its –ist, the act of creation between art and life as they increasingly become one. Kentridge morphs into cartoon characters to erase drawings with his hand and create anew, smudging the grey with a feather duster; ladders seem indispensable (as a symbol of passage?), and caffeine his drug of choice. Sometimes it’s just cheap card tricks, a big magic show with Bill balancing a chair on his finger and paper sheets flying into his hands, or a black cloth transforming into a cup of espresso. Yet it all works together to the accompaniment of piano music.

Later in the show, a second screening room showing ten movies made between 1989 and 2011, not simultaneously but one by one, focuses on Kentridge’s other favourite topic beside him being an artist (that sounds harsher than it’s meant): his native country, South Africa, its identity and transformations. Silent and almost wordless animated films (the exact opposite to that show of Basim Maghdy’s at Daimler Contemporary: with William Kentridge, images are everything, and words left to the viewer - that’s how it ought to be in visual arts) carry titles like Society, Obesity and Growing Old or Johannesburg is the Second Greatest City After Paris. Who would dare to object?

Now, the music is Jazz and the rare moments when Kentridge uses colour stand out like blue (and rose) notes. His recurring characters, Soho Eckstein, Eckstein's wife (“Her absence filled the world”) and Felix Teitlebaum, feel like close friends to most of us. Maybe William Kentridge is what Walt Disney could have become if he had not been a “greedy fascist” (ok we’re probably not allowed to say this in public, so we’ll change it to “politically objectionable businessman”). By the way, Kentridge’s animated movies are not created with Korean slave labour or soulless computer software, but only with the hand of the artist and his personal s̶l̶a̶v̶e̶s̶ assistants.

The largest exhibition space got transformed into a recreated studio, almost a gesamtkunstwerk with wooden classroom chairs and desks (under glass protection). Among the countless drawings in here, we found some pieces that were shown at Kulturforum lately - Double Vision stereoscopics and the Parcours d’atelier.

A wall of inspiration features Dürer (that Rhino...) together with Goya, Beckmann, Pablo, Hopper, Pironesi, but also South African photographer David Goldblatt.

William Kentridge continues to draw the world into his art, space is a drawing too, with duct tape on the floor and shadows to mirror a piece on the wall. Not all is paper, some sculptures make use of wood and steel, one of them a half hollowed out Rhino, while the artist’s sense of humour shows in A Guided Tour of the Exhibition. A film documents the creation of several large drawings, an assembly line calligraphy where assistants hold the paper roll and the hand of Kentridge takes the place of an industrial robot. Again, the creation process is part of the art and a performance.

But all this is not the most impressive part of the exhibition - The Dance (2015), an installation, a seven channel film, is. To solemn tribal music, a procession of dancers like Chinese paper cuts - This is a drawing? NO IT IS a real – i.e. filmed imaged of a - person! – advances from left to right to nowhere. Nostalgia is ever present, not least in large megaphone shaped speakers. The carnival includes the sick and the dead, some are carrying furniture with them (a bath tub e.g.), and William Kentridge approaches that other Bill, video art’s undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, Mr Viola.

Approaching the screens close, you discover patches, and very probably they don’t hint at improper storage or handling. Cuts, bruises, scars, covers and healings point to the circle of life, and South African history, again. In the upper right of one screen we read the number “42” scribbled on the canvas, only the greatest may add jokes like this (as long as we got it right, it could be a less significant “22” as well - it was dark, and the writing really small).

There’s still more, a second hall with single pieces, and a second monumental installation featuring a nonsensical machine, a sort of pump station, or weaving loom, or oversized accordion. Around it, more animation films get projected onto paper rolls, and, once again, duct tape on the floor continues the drawings. It’s overwhelming.

When we left, it was almost ten p.m., and – all praise Martin-Gropius-Bau – they had not closed the show at nine as was previously announced, but duly waited till everybody was in. All is forgiven, M-G-B, we’re converts. This is a huge show in every respect. William Kentridge is not only a brilliant draughtsman, but he seeks to break the boundaries of the discipline, to explore the possibilities, the frontiers between drawing, film, performance, art and life even. This sounds like, no: it even is, a commonplace stereotype, alright, but in the case of Kentridge it’s also the truth. His art might be compared to filmed performances that never “actually” happened, but with Kentridge art is no less real than life. From flip book to monumental, his moving drawings invade the real world.


William Kentridge, NO IT IS!, 12 May-21 August 2016, Martin-Gropius-Bau Berlin



bottom of page