Kentridge transports London back to the WW1 trenches
The master South African artist gives forgotten soldiers their due at the Tate Modern
South African artist William Kentridge’s vast, multimedia live work – one of the last in the 14-18 Live series of commissions – commemorates the hitherto ignored contribution of African soldiers in World War 1.
The precise numbers of those conscripted will probably never be known, but 200,000 are believed to have fought for France, while as many as a million were forcibly enlisted in the British army, 100,000 of whom are thought to have died. There were even more casualties on the German side.
Kentridge’s work serves as a performed monument to these cruelly neglected people. But the sheer weight of the subject held an emotional gun to the viewer’s head from the outset. If you didn’t like the work, would you be doing yet another wrong to the African missing of the Somme?
Kentridge is an artist who thrives on extremes of scale: from illustrations to his innumerable books to full-blown opera productions. Often these extremes are conflated. His 2016 production of Berg’s Lulu at the ENO, for example, seemed to draw the viewer into an animated sketchbook.
The immensely long stage for the Tate Modern production, which ran half the length of the Turbine Hall, was empty save for an upright piano, a large steel megaphone and the silhouette of a stepladder.These modest elements have featured frequently in Kentridge’s work, and take us back to the world of early 20th-century avant gardism he loves so much, suggesting we might be in for a dadaist – anti-art and anti-war – cabaret of the sort that took place in obscure backrooms during the war itself.
That in effect was what we got, but with all the benefits of current audiovisual technology.
An African woman’s voice created a haunting drone emanating from total darkness, before an African MC in a yellow suit launched into poetic dialogue with a kepi’d Frenchman seated on an improvised watchtower.
On the screen behind came a hypnotic stream of semi-abstract imagery, whirling wheels and rolls of film, overlain by the looming shadows of the protagonists, whose dialogue broke down into a conflict of pure abstract sound.At one point they appeared to be conversing in chunks of the Ursonate, dadaist Kurt Schwitters’s epic sound poem, which replaced the “sensible” language that he believed promoted the war, with a jittering, alliterative “no-sense that is not nonsense”.
If there was a notional narrative about a lad from the bush forcibly conscripted to be mown down on the Western Front, the emphasis was less on the story itself than on the emotional language with which it unfolded.In a truly mind-bending sequence, a long train of bearers moved across a shimmering hand-drawn savannah, apparently scanned straight out of one of Kentridge’s sketchbooks.
All the while, a superb opera singer kept up a haunting recitative backed by the tinkling tones of a West African kora and the squawking of a ragged Kurt Weill-flavoured band.
An extraordinary stamping war dance in heavy army boots floated effortlessly into silent ballet and back, while scenes of carnage in the trenches were backed by a cinematic flash-forwards to post-independence Africa which hinted at the chaos and corruption that were to come.
I’ve always thought of Kentridge as something of an overblown illustrator, full of graphic cleverness. Tonight, however, he carried that cleverness to a truly sublime level, where the mind was constantly entranced, just as the body was engaged in uproarious physicality.
Like everyone else there I was utterly engrossed and fabulously transported.
- © The Daily Telegraph