The form is one of collage, and the larger proposition is that one needs to understand history as a form of collage
- William Kentridge, 2022
Oh To Believe in Another World is William Kentridge’s first solo exhibition with Goodman Gallery in London and marks thirty years of representation by the gallery.
The exhibition premieres the artist’s latest major work, an immersive five-channel projection made in response to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10. The installation lends the exhibition its evocative title - referencing utopia, our wish for it and the shadow it always casts.
The centrepiece of the exhibition has its origins in a commission by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, leading to a single-channel live orchestral performance in Lucerne, Pompeii and Johannesburg earlier this year.
Oh To Believe in Another World expands on decades of critical engagement with life and culture under the Soviet Union, explored in Kentridge’s I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) and The Nose (2010), based on the absurdist opera of the same name directed by Shostakovich in the 1920s, which was suppressed shortly after opening.
Of Shostakovich’s pieces, his 10th Symphony – composed in anticipation of Stalin’s death – has always been most pertinent for Kentridge because of its humanity: “we can still feel the emotional journey of the symphony, independent of its historical moorings.”
Shostakovich’s life story involved navigating a complex relationship to the state of the Soviet Union, which provides the core inspiration for the projection. While the Russian composer and pianist was initially lauded as a sound voice to project Soviet values, Shostakovich was denounced twice under Stalin’s rule, leading him to fear for his life and compose music under intense state pressure. His 10th Symphony violated many of the Soviet restrictions on cultural production, experimenting formally with contrast and ambivalent tonalities, and was only made public once Stalin died in 1953.
The exhibition brings together a new body of work – charcoal drawings, collaged lithographs, mixed media puppets, bronze sculptures and a cardboard model for the projection – which reference the central projection in various ways and invite audiences to engage with Kentridge’s multidisciplinary practice in the round.
The combination of comic and austere movements that characterise the mechanised body language of the puppets resemble a Constructivist choreography – a distinct visual quality that is shared with the set of bronze sculptures that feature in the exhibition, and which are presented in a procession.
Featured lithographs contain grids of faces which correspond with the protagonists in the projection. They include Soviet intellectuals, politicians and members of the cultural avantgarde and are based on a series of drawings, which was undertaken early on in the project as part of Kentridge’s process for reflecting on Shostakovich’s life and work. The grid format and collaged effect mirrors the way that these historical figures appear in the projection – their intersecting narratives pieced together, disjointed and imperfect.
The exhibition’s centrepiece is the five-channel projection Oh To Believe in Another World which constitutes a retrospective look at four decades of the Soviet Union – from the death of Lenin in the 1920s; the suicide of Mayakovsky
in the 1930s; the assassination of Trotsky in the 1940s; and the death of Stalin in the 1950s. Protagonists include pianist and composer Elmira Nazirova; poet Vladimir Mayakovsky; author Lilya Brik; Vladimir Lenin; Leon Trotsky; Joseph Stalin and Shostakovich himself. The projection is set inside what appears to be an abandoned Soviet museum. It is made of cardboard and sits on a table in the artist’s studio. Using a miniature camera, we are guided – as if in a dream – through the deserted halls into a host of symbolic imagined spaces, including a community theatre hall, a public swimming pool, a quarry and a corridor of vitrines holding stuffed historical figures.
The audio component includes the collaging of music by Russian composers, sampled and sliced to cacophonous effect to create an assemblage of sound. The work leans into the “deliberately dissonant, muddled stream of sounds” that defined Stalin’s damning response to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934). By embracing the creative possibilities of “muddle” and fragmentation, denied to Shostakovich for decades, Kentridge turns Stalin’s denouncement into a quality to be celebrated.
As part of the Shostakovich project, Kentridge created studio still life ink drawings with objects that are both “in and of the studio” and most frequently get “cast” as characters in his productions performing on the stage that is his studio table:
“It’s a bit like commedia dell’arte. You have your set characters and they are sent off to perform different shows every night. [Each object] just standing there waiting to be used in different places” – Kentridge
Oh To Believe in Another World (Studio Still Life) (2022) hangs above the threshold of the installation as a kind of frontispiece. Assembled above a photograph of the celebrated avant-garde author Lilya Brik are four megaphones, employed as conduits for a cacophony of disembodied voices and bare an art-historic reference:
“Cézanne spoke about the world being constructed from cones, spheres, and cylinders. Which is a way of taking the world and formalising it. I like the idea of Cézanne’s cone but I wanted to send it back into the world to earn its keep which it does in the form of a megaphone. They are formally interesting, but they also bring so many associations...” - Kentridge
I Turn Onto My Most Comfortable Side (Studio Still-Life) (2022) contains a personal arrangement of objects: a cup of black coffee and a bowl of ink, drawings of drawings of trees, boxes of pencils and pins, scissors and a 16mm film splicer that Kentridge and South African filmmaker Angus Gibson used to edit his very earliest films. Here, Kentridge splices simple yet poetic phrases, emphasising “history as collage”.
Concurrently, Kentridge’s largest UK survey to date is held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London this September, followed by performances from The Centre for the Less Good Idea at The Barbican in October. Oh To Believe in Another World shares its name with the eighth episode of a new series about life in the studio, titled Self-Portrait As A Coffee Pot (2022), which takes audiences behind the scenes to show the making of the projection and is set to premiere at international film festivals in Toronto and London this season. In November, Kentridge will open another major survey exhibition at The Broad in Los Angeles. Kentridge’s performance The Head & The Load, first seen at Tate Modern in 2018, travels to the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami in December.