William Kentridge: Echoes of ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’

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William Kentridge: Echoes of ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’

Artist’s new exhibition in Johannesburg has many interlacing threads of references and preoccupations

Tymon Smith


William Kentridge returns to SA with a new exhibition, Kaboom!, which opened at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg last weekend. Like much of Kentridge’s work there are many interlacing threads of references and preoccupations that make up this show.
First there is Kentridge’s interest in German playwright Georg Buchner’s unfinished but much performed 19th century play Woyzeck, which inspired the artist’s collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Theatre in the 1990s.
Buchner’s play, which deals with the dehumanisation and psychological pressures of the military and medical establishments on a young man’s life, leading to intense feelings of jealousy, betrayal and ultimate tragedy, was reimagined by Kentridge and Handspring as a tale of a young migrant labourer arriving in Johannesburg in the 1950s for their play Woyzeck on the Highveld.
In 2017 Kentridge returned to the play for a production of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, produced for the Salzburg Festival in Austria. Several of the drawings produced for the opera form part of Kaboom! and the work also served to provide material for Kentridge’s mammoth stage show The Head and the Load, performed at the Tate Modern earlier this year as part of the centenary commemoration of the end of World War 1.
Taking its title from a Ghanaian proverb which says “the head and the load are the troubles of the neck”, Kentridge’s production examines the plight of over two million African porters used by the British, French and German forces during World War 1 as a departure point for broader considerations of the legacy of colonialism and its shaping of the geography and political economy of Africa in the post-war period.
While local audiences will still have to wait before the full production can find a large enough venue for its performance in SA, the current exhibition includes a three-channel video that gives a taste of the production before it heads to New York in December.
Even though the elements of various shows shown here are divorced from their performed contexts, there are as always with Kentridge’s works several strong themes and a complex unpacking of these that traverses a wide range of philosophical questions and geographical locations. Kaboom! provides a tantalising glimpse into the current preoccupations of one of contemporary art’s most intelligent and curiously interrogating practitioners.
• Kaboom! is on show until November 10.

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