William Kentridge at The Serpentine

By Ruth Lingford

william-kentridge.jpgHistory of the Main Complaint, 1996

Any independent animator will view this exhibition with mixed feelings – the first response is envy – “it shouldda been me” – but there is also a feeling of elation and gratitude. This is a historic breakthrough – a one-man show at a major art institution foregrounding animation.

The installation in the middle room shows the immediacy and potential of animation in a gallery setting. When you stand in a dark space in front of three large projections, the visceral power of the animation catches you with your guard down. The physical proximity of the work makes for a very different experience from that of a cinema viewing, where work is somehow framed and distanced.

william-kentridge-3.jpgHistory of the Main Complaint, 1996

The screening of films also works well in the gallery space, which becomes almost devotional such is the absorption of the audience. The body of work is an extremely impressive one. Recurring images and characters gain strength through successive films. Kentridge’s themes include the conflation of the personal and the political, the manifestations of political culpability as bodily pathology, landscape and exile. The films seem weaker when seen singly in the context of other animation – Kentridge sometimes sabotages himself by his refusal to look at ways of making animation work. The soundtracks tend to lack subtlety and modulation. The animation sometimes looks stiff, awkward and wobbly, the drawings, mostly beautiful, sometimes verge on the cheesy.  

Kentridge describes his working process as a constant walking between the paper and the camera, changing the drawings a little at a time. He works straight ahead, without planning, thinking on his feet, letting unconscious material emerge and shaping it towards the ends of his constant preoccupations. This way of working has its dangers – Kentridge is often travelling the well-trodden paths of his chosen medium – but at its best it is sublime.

william-kentridge-2.jpgHistory of the Main Complaint, 1996

For me, the strongest work is the Ubu sequence, made for a theatrical performance with puppets and actors. The use of cut-outs gives more freedom and spontaneity, and the dark wit of the piece adds a mordant edge to the agit. prop. of Kentridge’s political comment. This work has striking similarities to the work of Phil Mulloy, but with the greater subtlety that comes, I think, from daring to be personal and particular.

What irritates me, as an animator, about Kentridge as an artist is his purposeful distancing of himself from the world of animation. He locates himself, as if in isolation, in opposition to the mainstream of Disney and the studios. The gallery colludes with this, stating in its accompanying leaflet that: “Kentridge has evolved a unique technique for creating his animations.” This is quite erroneous, and speaks of a wilful ignorance of the medium. Kentridge affects not to want to bother his pretty head with the difficult technical aspects of animation, saying that he is most interested in the drawings, and the content of his work. It is difficult not to read this as an expression of superiority over the rest of us, whose priorities are not, in fact, different from his.

If he looked at the work of other independent animators he would, I think, find a true peer group, and might even learn something to his advantage.

Ruth Lingford teaches Animation at the National Film and Television School and the Royal College of Art.