William Kentridge & The Guerrilla Girls

William Kentridge: Thick Time – Whitechapel Gallery

‘Taking a Joke Seriously: Mickey Mouse and William Kentridge’ by Nienke Boer

The sounds of out-of-synch metronomes, two characters putting together a recipe for  a bomb, silhouetted figures trudging, dragging and shimmying their way across the walls; whilst in the centre of the room a machine labours away, axles spinning nowhere; rhythmic music blaring urging the figures to labour on.  This is the opening scene for “The Refusal of Time” (2012), the first of six large-scale installations by artist William Kentridge currently showing at Whitechapel Gallery, London where ‘music and drama are ruptured by revolution, exile and scientific advancement.’

To come to an understanding of Kentridge’s work, Nienke Boer puts forward the argument that Kentridge’s interest in animation is based upon the following aspects relating to it: the relationship between animation and language; the way animation,as a technique, allows the staging and acceptance of the impossible; its potential for destruction and reconstruction; and the insight it offers one into the optical unconscious: “what it is that we do when we see” (William Kentridge and Angela Breidbach. Thinking Aloud: Conversations with Angela Breidbach. Johannesburg: David Krut Publishing, 2006. p110).  Kentridge’s use of morphing images flowing effortlessly into each other whilst containing a kind of dreamlike logic leans towards the early Disney films although he approaches them less from an angle of amusement but rather from one that is absurd.

Boer states that Kentridge is not attempting to create a kind of “collective dream,” as depicted by Disney, but that he is more interested in taking up the issues raised by the thinking that, Mickey Mouse for instance, is the figure of the collective dream.  In other words, how does film, particularly animated film, train the viewer in new ways of perceiving the world through an understanding of visual cues to meaning whilst accepting that arbitrary cues between scenes are essential in being able to do so.  Kentridge says that “The absurd (is) not… a peripheral mistake at the edge of society, but a central point of construction.  The absurd, for me, is a species of realism rather than a species of joke or fun.  This is what allows me to take the joke of ‘The Nose’ seriously” (William Kentridge: Anything is Possible).

The Nose - William Kentridge (© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera, 2009-2010 season)

Kentridge’s approach to visual metamorphoses appear to operate as a form of rhyming slang but one in which all the conventional connections have been lost.  The loss of this connection leaves ‘a space held between an idea and an image which is not spoken but implied or thought through them.’ (Kentridge and Breidbach, 88).


Whilst I agree, in part with Boer when she says that Kentridge’s work is challenging because it conveys the impression that if you were able to go back to the beginning of the original rhyming slang the whole thing would make much more sense, I can’t help but feel that it is unnecessary.  This loss of connection and metaphor reminds me of Otto Kunzli’s body of work, “Cozticteocuitlatl 1995-1998 B.M.” (1995-1998).  In it he shows a series of gold and silver pendants of various shapes and sizes.  Cozticteocuitlatl translates from the Aztec as the ‘yellow faeces of the gods’ (Contemporary Jewellery in Perspective: What is Contemporary Jewellery? p8. Edited by Damian Skinner. Sterling Publishing, 2016). These pendants explore the same visual metamorphoses as Kentridge’s animations in that they aren’t easily interpreted but they are part of a system of visual representation.

Although Kunzli’s title alludes towards a set of archaeological origins, the actual story in fact shifts when it is realised that the “B.M.” at the end of the title stands for “Before Mouse.” The silhouette alludes towards the Disney animation, Mickey Mouse, but keeps the visual reference very open-ended and mixed up with popular cultures whilst also managing to point to a very different, modern and magical kingdom, much the same as Kentridge’s work.

The Guerrilla Girls – Special Report from Europe 2010 – Slovenia, Hungary and Greece

Is it even worse in Europe? – Whitechapel Gallery

Montage - Guerrilla Girls 2006-2009, mixed media, (courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com)

Heading on a tour of Europe to host a series of female only workshops for artists and students in Slovenia, Hungary and Greece this ‘special report’ gives a first hand account of the Guerrilla Girls’ experiences on their travels and a personal point of view.  They discuss the many issues facing female artists in Europe and the world over; pay equity, apathy, sexism in art alongside ones that are brought up during the student workshops which include bullying in schools and the stereotyping of the female role in society amongst others.  The artists participating are very vocal with their views, but it seems that the students take a while longer to feel comfortable with the discussions.

The content discussed and produced during the workshops are the springboard for public performances held in local squares in both Slovenia and Hungary, alongside another collaborative piece with a local Slovenian actress at a theatre in Ljubljana. The final street theatre workshop in Greece is cancelled due to the protests around the economy.  Their aim was to engage directly with the audience and although obviously difficult to assess or anticipate how it will translate especially where comedy is involved, it appeared to be well received although there were a few dead ducks at points, mainly involving the Q&A session or pies being thrown.

Whilst the material performed and discussed during the workshops and performances was of a serious nature, there seemed to be surprises which they had not necessarily anticipated, not just the lack of skinny lattes,”to-go” coffee and bad time keeping; but more so from the happiness and generosity displayed by the women in the open air market in Hungary, it almost seemed as though they were expecting them to be more down-trodden, but maybe it was the shots being drunk at 10am that did it!

Is it even worse in Europe? - Guerrilla Girls 2016 (© David Parry/PA Wire)

The ‘Is it even worse in Europe‘ exhibition is is a revisit to their 1986 poster and encompasses questions that were raised during their tour of Europe around sexism, especially in art.  The content is based on responses to questionnaires sent to 383 directors about their exhibitions programme and collections throughout Europe questioning the lack of female representation in art.  The responses (or rather lack of them) are obviously the mainstay to the exhibition and there is a certain irony towards those who hadn’t responded, their names placed on the floor to be walked over.

Is it even worse in Europe? - Guerrilla Girls 2016 (© Kate Grimes)

The material presented is so charged, I felt that it could have been delivered in a much more engaging way.  It seemed a shame that all that information wasn’t taken out onto the street in some way to really highlight the lack of representation of female artists.  Jewellery is a highly emotive platform for this and I think can be a real talking point.  The majority of the population would take notice of a piece, particularly if it stood out, it is an ideal way to highlight particular issues and educate people around them rather than potentially relying on the notion that they may attend an exhibition which they could well be unaware of.  It has definitely made me think more about my own practice, the research I am currently undertaking and also looking into different ways of reaching a wider audience through the starting of conversations.


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