Pick of the month: the Kentridge ‘festival’


The pick of the month has to be the Kentridge festival coming up with exhibitions of his work opening in three Johannesburg venues in November.  Tomorrow, 9th November, Refusal of Time opens at Johannesburg Art Gallery and runs until 1st February. On 15th November  Drawings: East Rand Proprietary Mines Cash Book opens at the Goodman Gallery until 20th December. And on the 18th November Tapestries, a collaboration with the Stephens Tapestry Studio, opens at the Wits Art Museum  15th December.

Kentridge Goodman 2014The exhibition at the Goodman Gallery comprises approximately 45 mining landscapes drawn on the pages of Johannesburg mine ledger books from the early 1900s. They are a continuation of Kentridge’s concerns around mining and its historical role in the social fabric of Johannesburg and the industrial landscape of the city. While mining seems to be one of his thematic interests, Kentridge has often described drawing as being his primary concern. In an interview in the late 1990s Kentridge said: ‘The themes in my work do not constitute its main starting point, which is to draw.’

The Tapestry exhibiton at WAM will include approximately 20 tapestries, and some related sculptures and drawings as well as film footage of the weaving process (each tapestry is made by five or six weavers sitting in a row along the loom.)  Marguerite Stephens and William Kentridge have been working together on tapestries for the past 24 years producing about 40 tapestries. Stephens adapts Kentridge’s collage drawings for the very different materials and techniques of tapestry-making. This exhibition promises to be a treat as it has been a long time since there has been an exhibition of a major body of these collaborative tapestries.

Kentridge Refusal of TimeThe Refusal of Time is a collaboration with composer Philip Miller, projection designer and editor Catherine Meyburgh, choreographer and dancer Dada Masilo, and Peter Galison, an American historian of science. It comprises a five channel 30 minute video with at the centre of the installation a ‘breathing machine’, along with 5 steel megaphones. The Refusal of Time was first shown at Documenta (13) in 2012 and has since been seen in several countries around the world.  It has been bought by public art galleries including the Art Gallery of Western Australia and is also jointly owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Made in the artist’s studio at Arts on Main over a period of 2 years, it has now returned home.

Cotter’s 28/11/2013 review in the New York Times, introduces us to the visual assault which is so characteristic of Kentridge’s  video projections. ‘Metronomes pound away like a grim marching band. Hands on clock faces spin, spewing trails of stars. Drawings erase themselves. Maps of Africa appear and disappear. In a laboratory filled with what look like giant watch springs, white-coated figures mix potions to the beat of a tuba-intensive score by Philip Miller.’  The 5 steel  megaphones in the installation are formal devices but are functional as well for they direct sound. There is Philip Miller’s general soundscape but if you sit underneath one of the megaphones you can hear the sound of the spoken text very clearly.

In a video discussion (13/03/2104) on the making of The Refusal of Time,  Kentridge speaks of making time visible (playing a film in reverse or fast forwarding) as well as transforming time into material objects – eg representing fractured time with 2 simultaneous images overlapped or synchronized images becoming out of synch.  “If time could reverse itself there’d be a kind of utopian perfectibility – you can take back all the things you wish you hadn’t said, the smashed vase recomposes itself perfectly … but that in some sense is our definition of time – that which you can’t call back.”

Kentridge NY timesThe machine at the centre of the installation pumps slowly up and down, a cross between bellows and pistons. In Kentridge’s trademark language where symbols and ideas transform from one image to another with fish-like slipperiness, the machine is a breathing machine; like human lungs; the rhythm section of the installation (keeping time); the ‘elephant’.  In the 1870s there was a plan in Paris to use regular bursts of air from underground copper pneumatic pipes to calibrate the city’s clocks – a reminder of late 19th century attempts to ‘control time’. This reminded Kentridge of Dickens who, in Hard Times, likened the working of factory machinery to ‘the movement of the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.’   Taking the metaphor of rhythm and time-keeping even further Kentridge likens the human being to a clock which gets wound up at birth and ‘will keep ticking until it winds down at the end of its allotted years’.

Kentridge refers to the concept of the black hole as both a scientific theory of time as well as a metaphor for human states of being and the inevitability of death itself. He says of Refusal of Time: ‘It’s a celebration of making against the fact of our eventual disappearance – that’s the refusal of time. We are not going to escape our journey to the black hole at the end, however fast we dance or run in the way. But that dance and the run .. are what it’s all about’.

So let’s run and dance and get lost in the Refusal of Time.

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Sunday walk and breakfast in Soweto


Alarm goes at 4.45. Hit the snooze button for another  10 minutes of shut-eye. But then it’s up and out the door to collect my 2 walking partners to head off to Soweto for the Nike Soweto 10km run – although we, along with many others, were walking it. The more ambitious and fitter tackled the 42 km marathon or the 21km half-marathon.  After a very  slow start with over an hour in the traffic into Soweto, a fair bit of  hustling with parking attendants,  a  somewhat unorthodox shortcut Startroute to the start through a hole in a fence (only in Jozi –Eish!), we were over the start line at around 7.25 and on the road. The 10km  isn’t a very scenic route (it’s all on the outskirts of Soweto) but when you’re walking and talking, the kms pass quickly. (The full 42 km marathon takes in better known sites in Soweto itself such as Vilakazi St, Regina Mundi and Walter Sisulu Square).  It was great to see all shapes, ages and sizes out there for a good time – 21,000 in all apparently.   A group of young twenty-somethings managed to dance and sing their way along the route and marshals offered water at the refreshment stations with good-humoured banter  of ‘Johnny Runner for you’.  We were amazed to see the speed of the leading finishing runners – including two women running barefoot.

The letters Vilakazi spelt out in sign language

Two kids run to catch up with their friends with Vilakazi spelt out in sign language in the background

At the end of the walk we headed to Vilakazi Street for a much needed coffee and breakfast at NextDor (that’s next door to the better known Zakhumzi’s.)  All in all it’s a great way to spend a Sunday morning – we are even talking of doing the 21km next year.  But please Nike sponsors –  if 80,000 odd concert-goers can get to the FNB stadium via train and buses, why can’t the same arrangements be made for your 21,000 race entrants?

Temporary trash boxes are needed to create awareness around litter

Temporary trash boxes are needed to create awareness around litter




Also, why are there no temporary trash boxes strategically places after the watering points?   We can’t expect no litter after a race but we can at least reduce the quantity. We need to start sending out the message that it’s not OK to indiscriminately drop Coke cups and plastic sachets for somebody else to clean up.

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Pick of the week: excellent exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery


Exact imaginationCurrently showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg CBD is a fascinating exhibition entitled Exact Imagination 300 Years of Botanically Inspired Art in South Africa.  The third in a series of 4 exhibitions at the Standard Bank Gallery which focuses on the elements – the first two being Water : The Delicate Thread of Life (2011) and Fire! The Role of Heat and Light in African Art (2013) – this exhibition uses the theme of plants as a way to access the element of earth.   The curator Cyril Coetzee, who used to be a colleague when I lectured in Art History at Wits and is now a practicing portrait artist and art-teacher, has brought together 3 different themes:  botanical illustrations; contemporary art inspired by botanical subject matter; and art and artefacts that are made from plant matter.  There are several reasons why this exhibition is so extraordinary.  It is not only the quality of what is on show but also the sensitive way in which themes have been juxtaposed and  ‘speak’ to each other,  either through the visual and aesthetic connections or because of subtle thematic connections.   It is also a very rare opportunity for the public to have access to such an

Georg Dionysus Ehret & Jacob Van Huysum Aloe Ferox engraving with watercolour added 1737 SANBI (photograph from the catalogue)

Georg Dionysus Ehret & Jacob Van Huysum Aloe Ferox  1737 engraving with watercolour added, SANBI (photograph from the exhibition catalogue)

outstanding range of botanical illustrations, sourced mainly from the archives of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), as well as seeing rare antiquarian books from the Mary Gunn Library at SANBI.   Coetzee has also included a range of illustrations of South African grasses, tantalizingly juxtaposed with beautifully woven basket-ware, beaded Ndebele and Sotho calabash and wood dolls, and photographs of reed huts and large scale grain baskets.  The botanical illustrations are breathtaking in their observation of minute detail; their delicacy and fineness; the demonstration of consummate skill and patience in the making process; and their remarkable state of preservation.   There are illustrations dating back to the early 18th Century.

Intricate workmanship and skilled handling of medium is also seen in many of the works by contemporary fine artists as well as the producers of more traditional artefacts.   They demand what I would call an ‘absorptive mode of engagement’.  Works by Oltmann (Cactus and Disarticulated Flower ) as well as Esta Zulu’s Spiralling Energy  involve an intricate

Esta Zulu Spiralling Energy 2014 Woven sisal and grass 60 X 120 X 23 (Standard Bank Collection)

Esta Zulu Spiralling Energy 2014 Woven sisal and grass 60 X 120 X 23 (Standard Bank Collection)

weaving –the former with aluminium wire and the latter with woven sisal and grass.  The beautiful surface and exquisite crafting draw the viewer in, demanding an almost bodily empathy and identification with the making process.  Other artists demonstrate an interest in underlying mathematical structures in nature: Stefanus Rademeyer uses generative algorithms (I still haven’t got my mind around what this means exactly) and Keith Struthers draws on the geometry of plants in his architectural designs. Some use plant material as part of the medium of their work (Karel Nel and Gerhard Marx); and some draw on the iconography of plants and flowers (William Kentridge, Helmut Starcke,  Elizabeth Davison, Michelle Thomas).



Willem Boshoff Garden of Words 1982-1997 6 m by 2m

Willem Boshoff Garden of Words 1 1982-1997 6 m by 2m

Willem Boshoff’s large scale installation deals with endangered species, an area Boshoff has been recording since 1982. Entitled Garden of Words 1 (1982-1997) the installation was first shown at the Sandton Civic Gallery. The names (phylum, genus and species) of 4000 threatened species of plants world-wide, were pasted onto small wooden blocks and placed under 12 sheets of glass in 12 rectangles on the floor. Here only part of the work is exhibited.  Alan Crump’s watercolours of what Skawran calls ‘wounded’ landscapes demonstrate a similar concern with the destruction of natural habitat.

The accompanying catalogue is very reasonably priced at R200 and is arranged in the same categories as the exhibition: the first chapters dealing with history of botanical illustration in South Africa, further chapters dealing with the use of grass and plant matter in South African material culture and the final chapters dealing with contemporary art inspired in some way by plant material and botanical art.

A series of lunchtime lectures is also scheduled , although as the programme might be subject to change, it is advisable to phone 011 631 4467 to check there are no changes to the programme.

5th November John Rourke History of Botanical Art in South Africa

12th November Braam Van Wyk Remarkable  Wild Flowers of Gauteng

19th November Ben-Erik Van Wyk Indigenous plant-based medicines; The fiction and the fact

26th November Vivienne Williams The history of medicinal plants in South Africa

And if you are lucky there might still be some posters available. The exhibition closes on the 6th December.

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