The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) proudly presents “William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera,” a comprehensive retrospective that marks the artist’s largest exhibition in Asia to date. Displayed across a two-story edifice designed by Kentridge’s frequent collaborator Sabine Theunissen in the UCCA Great Hall, the show includes works from nearly every major project the artist has undertaken from 1988 to the present. The exhibition spans a vast array of media: two-dimensional artworks in India ink, charcoal, linocut, and silkscreen print on paper; kinetic sculptures that evoke the Duchampian ready-made tradition; several multi-channel video artworks comprising dozens of projections; and a large-scale installation in the form of an operatic model complete with mechanical puppet actors.
The core of the exhibition is its titular piece Notes Towards a Model Opera. Rooted in extensive research into the intellectual, political, and social history of modern China, from Lu Xun to revolutionary theater, that Kentridge undertook in preparation for this exhibition, this three- channel projection explores dynamics of cultural diffusion and metamorphosis through the formal prism of the eight model operas of the Cultural Revolution. The piece considers these didactic ballets both as a cultural phenomenon unto itself and as part of a history of dance that spans continents and centuries. Starting from its origins in Paris, Kentridge playfully overlays the aesthetic and ideological transformations of ballet as it is transplanted across the globe, an arch of influence juxtaposing contexts as disparate as Moscow, Shanghai, and the artist’s native Johannesburg. Dada Masilo is choreographer and dancer, and the score composed and soundtrack designed by Philip Miller. As is true of many of his projects, Notes Towards a Model Opera is accompanied by a series of two-dimensional pieces inspired by this course of research and production, in this instance a set of calligraphic India ink drawings on paper from Chinese books.
Another centerpiece of the exhibition is William Kentridge’s “Soho Eckstein” cycle, a series of hand-drawn animations that helped establish his presence in the 1980s and 90s. Set against a backdrop of the harsh realities of the private mining industry in modern-day Johannesburg, the films recount the love triangle between the business titan Soho, his wife, and the lowly,
￼daydreaming Felix Teitlebaum—a stand-in for the artist himself. Here Kentridge’s notion of “provisionality” is embodied not only in the film’s metamorphosing figures, but also in the artist’s process of production, as marks of erasure gradually build up over the scene. On view at UCCA are all of the ten “Soho Eckstein” films to date. These and other films including Shadow Procession (1999), Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), and Second-Hand Reading (2013) together encapsulate many of the visual and narrative motifs repeated throughout his career: drawing as palimpsest, genocide as the legacy of the Enlightenment, the interdependence of shadow and light, and the hope of revolution supplanted by the terror of its collapse.
Like animation, William Kentridge views opera as an ideal artistic form, capable of staging multiple views of a subject simultaneously for the consideration of auteur and audience, the voices of each character combining (dis)harmoniously in the final work. Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005), a project that grew out of the artist’s staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, is here rendered as a theater performance-cum-video installation, where mechanical puppets dance to Sarastro’s Aria while scenes of the 1904 Herero genocide unfold in the background. The artist reframes the Enlightenment not as the triumph of reason, but as a failed faith in rationalism that led inexorably to the perverted logic of colonialism and Apartheid. This interest in the delusions inherent to idealism is also found in his I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008), a project born out of Kentridge’s 2009 take on Shostakovich’s rarely performed opera The Nose. Combining video and installation with a lecture-like filmic performance, the artwork is an elegy for Russian Modernism in the face of political upheaval, the rise and fall of the avant-garde during the 1917 revolution ultimately revealing the perils of utopianism. The music for both works is by Philip Miller.
Other sections of the exhibition highlight the breadth of artistic practices William Kentridge has engaged over the past three decades. First exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13), The Refusal of Time (2012) considers historical conceptions of time through a series of kinetic sculptures. A five-channel video surrounds viewers and the mechanical “elephant” installation breathing at its center. This work, which grew out of a dialogue with historian of science Peter Galison, probes the origin of geographical time zones brought on by the proliferation of telecommunication cables, beginning in nineteenth-century Paris with the use of steam—itself reminiscent of breath, a human clock of sorts—to (imperfectly) standardize city clocks. Kentridge uses the inaccuracies inherent to all human calculations of time to explore the inexorable progress of entropy, treating scientific innovation as a metaphorical body. Here
￼time’s “refusal” carries layers of individual and political meaning: for the individual, it is through breathing that time is refused until the end of life, and for South Africa, it is the refusal of Eurocentric time from which strength arises. Philip Miller is composer of the music and soundscape. Catherine Meyburgh is responsible for the video editing and construction. Dada Masilo is responsible for the choreography and dance.
Finally, accompanying Notes Towards a Model Opera on the second floor of the exhibition hall is a reading room where viewers can page through a selection of William Kentridge’s artist books and short films. Among them, a set of flipbooks including the monumental 2nd Hand Reading offer a new format for the artist to explore the relationship between drawing, filmmaking, and photography. The reading room also incorporates a group of Kentridge’s Drawing Lessons, quasi-didactic short films on making art in the studio that, in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek style, contain equal parts pedagogy and art.
The exhibition “William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera” is accompanied by an English catalogue of the same title. The book contains essays by Andrew Solomon, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University; sinologist and renowned historian of Chinese visual culture Alfreda Murck; and UCCA Director Philip Tinari. At the core of the catalogue is a text by Kentridge himself entitled “Peripheral Thinking,” a reproduction of the artist’s notebook for a lecture on this project and his engagement with China. The text follows in the tradition of the theatrical lectures best exemplified by his 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard, whose associated publication Six Drawing Lessons will also debut in Chinese in conjunction with the UCCA exhibition.
Curated by UCCA Director Philip Tinari with Assistant Curator Zoe Diao, “William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera” opens to the public June 27 and runs until August 30. The exhibition has been made possible with the generous support of Rolex. Barco is the video equipment sponsor; GENELEC is the exclusive sound equipment support. Additional support comes from Goodman Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery. Promotional videos for the exhibition were co-produced by UCCA and Action Media.
UCCA has organized a diverse assortment of Public Programs in conjunction with “Notes Towards a Model Opera.” Coinciding with the public opening on June 27, “A Day of Peripheral Thinking” convenes a series of forums and performances that expand the critical scope of the
￼exhibition, touching on William Kentridge’s methodology, his impact on Chinese contemporary art, and the social and political topics he explores. The program opens with a dialogue between the artist and his former protégé, Mateo López. Paired together through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in 2012-13, Kentridge and López both share the artist studio as crux of their conceptual practices. Later in the day, sinologist and renowned historian of Chinese visual culture Alfreda Murck, artists Liu Heung Shing, Wang Jianwei, and Qiu Zhijie, as well as UCCA Director Phillip Tinari review Kentridge’s impact on Chinese art practices since his first appearance on the mainland in the 2000 Shanghai Biennale. Kentridge will then deliver “Peripheral Thinking,” his newest lecture that teases out a relationship of aesthetic, political, and philosophical concerns connecting South Africa and China. “A Day of Peripheral Thinking” culminates in “Pulling Numbers: A Ciné-Concert by Philip Miller and William Kentridge.” Longtime collaborator and musical composer Phillip Miller leads this two-part concert inspired by a Chinese gambling game, featuring several of Kentridge’s films, the vocals of Ann Masina, and the talents of seven local musicians. For more information regarding Public Programs related to the exhibition, please visit the UCCA website.
About the Artist
William Kentridge’s work has been seen in museums and galleries around the world since the 1990s, including Documenta in Kassel, Germany (1997, 2002, 2012), the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1998, 2010), and the Metropolitan Museum, New York (2013). A substantial survey of Kentridge’s work opened in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. This summer Kentridge will direct Alban’s Berg’s opera Lulu in a co-production of the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Opera in New York (November 2015), and the English National Opera in London. More Sweetly Play the Dance is conceived as an 8-channel video projection and is currently being exhibited at the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam.
About the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) is an independent, not-for-profit art center serving a global Beijing public. Located at the heart of Beijing's 798 Art District, it was founded by the Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens and opened in November 2007. Through a diverse array of exhibitions with artists Chinese and international, established and emerging, as well as a wide range of public programs, UCCA aims to promote the continued development of the Chinese art scene, foster international exchange, and showcase the latest in art and culture to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.