“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once,” Einstein said pithily. It certainly takes more than once to digest all the complexities and theatricality of William Kentridge’s five-channel video installation “The Refusal of Time,” a work that takes on Einstein’s theory of the relativity of time. Over a span of two years, I’ve had the opportunity to see the work installed in three venues, and multiple viewings are necessary to process the multi-sensory delights of the piece. Recently, I saw installations of “The Refusal of Time” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, MA, and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, NY. The first time I saw this piece was at dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany, the exhibit at which the work premiered. This poignant work is a reflection on time, space, memory, colonialism, and scientific history. The imagery comes from myriad sources: Einstein’s experiments with clocks, the artist himself, books, text, dancers, silent film, physics. In short, it is a grand piece and addresses grand themes. This vigilance toward tackling the “big issues” is a worthy enterprise that few artists attempt, and even fewer manage as deftly as Kentridge. Since the work itself has been widely discussed elsewhere, I’d like to focus my commentary on the material aspects of these three installations.
Kentridge, who still lives and works in his native South Africa, trained as a painter and printmaker, and produces muti-media works that span film, theater, collage, sound, and sculpture. Kentridge is perhaps best known for his style of stop-motion animation in which he makes charcoal drawings that he alters numerous times, photographing each iteration in order to create individual scenes. The resulting images contain all the traces of the artist’s hand, the erasures, and transformations that underscore the agent of time in the work. In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a major exhibition of the artist’s works, and their website offers a wealth of background information on Kentridge’s work, his biography, and his process. He discusses his methods in this clip on MoMA’s interactive Kentridge website.
For “The Refusal of a Time,” Kentridge brilliantly married the hand-made marks of his charcoal drawings with live action film, a musical score, and installation. In the videos and accompanying sculpture – a breathing machine called the elephant, which alludes to a Dickensian anxiety over industry- he addresses changing conceptions of time throughout history. This central theme of the work resulted from a collaboration between Kentridge and Peter Galison, professor of History of Science at Harvard University. The vision that emerged from their conversations was then realized with the aid of video filmmaker Catherine Meyburgh and composer Phillip Miller. Philip Miller’s soundscape features a metronomic beat, instrumentation, and spoken word, to convey the varied pace of the modern city and different manifestations of time. Kentridge describes the work in this video on the Met’s website.
In the three installations of “The Refusal of Time” at dOCUMENTA 13, the ICA, and the Met, the biggest variable was the degree to which the physical space reinforced the content of the piece. That is to say, the various spaces evoke different ideas about time. The Hauptbahnhof, the train station in Kassel where the work was shown originally, conveys a more fragmented notion of time in industrialized society than a museum like the Met can convey, with its air of permanence, its temple-like architecture, and its hallowed galleries of art spanning the long trajectory of human history. The ICA has yet other temporal qualities, being a relatively new structure. The raw unfinished look of walls and ceilings did not seem forced in the ICA, but typical of such galleries. Exposed sheet rock gave the feeling of a construction site, albeit a manicured one. The floors and ceiling fixtures had a regular grid pattern unlike the haphazard scuffs at the Met or the natural cracks and texture of the Hauptbahnhof. The main drawback at the Met was the size of the space because it required the five videos to be projected smaller, and the main drawback at the ICA was simply the starkness of the space.
Why did the work function better in the Hauptbahnhof? As any student of 19th-century history knows, the tyranny of time originated with the railroad. The space of the train station was more than double the size of the other two installations of the work in Boston and New York, and it was imbued with its own sense of industrialized time and the patina of age. The context fits the subject exceedingly well. Mechanized clocks and schedules all are due to the railroad.
Time gained increased significance with the trains. As train stations go, the Hauptbahnhof in Kassel has all the hallmarks of age. Its worn and textured brick walls painted white in the center gave the video installation added visual interest. In both the Met and the ICA, the look of a well-worn space was contrived. Sheets of dry wall were propped against the gallery walls to form the projection surface. Painters tape was semi-attached on places along the walls, and scuffs and tape marks were added to the floors. Undoubtedly, some of the elements in the room at the dOCUMENTA installation were purposeful, carefully-crafted marks designed to look authentic to the space. However, this contrivance was more expertly concealed. The chairs were bolted down at dOCUMENTA, imposing the artists optimum viewing environment- one of perfect casualness. It appeared as though viewers throughout the day had moved and arranged chairs at whim. In contrast both the ICA and the Met chose to use tape marks on the floor to map the chair arrangements. There was no attempt to hide the predetermined layout of the rooms.
To be fair, the installations at the ICA and the Met did try to conjure the sense of the artist’s studio by adding some of the trappings of a work space. The viewer’s encounter was one of stumbling into a studio where work was being made in haste and the makers had just left. That was a rather successful way to work with the particulars of a given space. The two museum galleries were half the size of the space in the Hauptbahnhof. Naturally, the larger space allowed the videos to be bigger and the sound to be louder. The metal cones that carried the sound and the central machine sculpture were the same in all three exhibitions. However, the larger video projections in the Hauptbahnhof created a more seamless transition in cases like the parade sequence, in which characters march around the room screen to screen. The wider gaps from screen to screen in the two museum installs yielded a quite different viewing experience.
Another main difference among these installations was the ICA’s adjacent exhibition of Kentridge’s drawings. It was a pleasure to see the video work in relation to his works on paper, and helped position the installation within the larger context of the artist’s work. Of the three, the installation at the Met is the only one that is a newly-acquired part of the museum’s permanent collection. While part of me would have liked to see “The refusal of Time” installed somewhere in the Greek & Roman Galleries or near the Temple of Dendur to capitalize on that special relationship to time that only an institution like the Met has, it’s understandable that a permanent installation must be in the contemporary galleries for pragmatic reasons. It’s laudable that the Met has acquired this ambitious video work, and last week the museum received an AICA-USA Arts Awards for Excellence in Curatorial Achievement in the time-based media category. While the Met’s installation closed in May, they do provide a rich online source about this video work, MetCollects.
The strength of the work isn’t reliant on any one particular kind of space. It’s engaging and provocative despite the minor differences from one exhibition to another. Since it was created for the Hauptbahnhof, it understandably functioned best there. Among the many delights at dOCUMENTA, this work was probably the one that delighted me most (along with Charlotte Salomon’s drawings, which I’ll work my way around to discussing in some future post), and it was well worth seeing again… and again.