William Kentridge puts politics of the absurd on stage

South African artist William Kentridge will stage his unique performance work ?I am not me, the horse is not mine,? exploring the themes of violence, absurdity and identity at Garajistanbul this Thursday as part of this year?s iDANS İstanbul International Contemporary Dance and Performance Festival.

The artist has an eclectic oeuvre, including animation, printmaking and opera direction. Printmaking, however, has a special place in his artistic imagination, informing his other pursuits. ?It is a process of revision and adjustment, like my technique of animation,? he explains in an interview with Today?s Zaman. ?The different proofs produced in the process recall the different frames of animation. There is a narrative element in the tradition of printmaking, making series of prints that contain the suggestion of a story or a world,? he adds.

Thursday?s performance represents part of Kentridge?s engagement with the Nikolai Gogol short story ?The Nose,? the bizarre tale of a 19th-century Russian bureaucrat whose nose abandons him and subsequently manages to move up in the state hierarchy beyond the level of its former owner. Kentridge has also directed a performance of Soviet Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich?s opera based on the story at the New York Metropolitan Opera. Thursday?s performance will not be an opera, but in it Kentridge will continue to explore the issues raised for him by the strange tale of the bureaucrat?s nose.

The story, of course, seems to have taken on even more significance with time, especially in relation to the rule of Stalin in Soviet Russia some 100 years after it was written. ?The trial of [Nikolai] Bukharin and the prelude to it, his interrogation by the Central Committee, was an extraordinary example of the absurd, the grotesquely humorous, in action. Bukharin (standing in for so many of the victims of Stalinism), stands as a practical example of language and logic taking their belongings and going on their own journey — showing that violence and the grotesquely comic are close bedfellows,? he explains, adding, ?This is something that seems very familiar from both the history and current situation in South Africa.?

But while Kentridge?s work addresses political themes, he does not conceive of art as a tool of political activism. Instead, he stresses that art?s significance runs much deeper in individual lives: ?It?s not a question that art can change people?s minds. It?s that we have to understand that we are constructed to such a large extent by things that we?ve heard, that we?ve seen, books we?ve read, films we?ve seen, music we?ve heard and that we are so much made up of them. It?s not as if we are something and that art can add a little bit to that. It is rather that art can be one of the fundamental building blocks of who we are. And I don?t believe that art can instrumentally affect a society or provoke a public outrage or something like that, but individually it?s completely fundamental to who we are. And so that?s the basis for understanding the importance of working, or continuing to work.?

This close connection between art and life is reflected in the unique reflections on identity in Kentridge?s performance, in which the artist stars on stage alongside himself through a video projector. ?The idea of the divided self comes from the work, not the other way round. I try to discover who I am from doing the work, rather than starting from knowledge of who I am to make the work. The divided self came after ?The Nose? — even the description of a divided self is an analysis after the event,? he explains. Tickets can be purchased from Garajistanbul (www.garajistanbul.org) or at www.biletix.com. For more information on the festival program, visit www.idans.info.

Rumeysa Kiger, İstanbul

first published at Today’s Zaman on 5/10/2011

 

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