Goodman Gallery presents What Have They Done with All the Air?, an exhibition of new drawings and sculptures by William Kentridge. Works featured relate to a new theatre production in the making, titled The Great Yes, the Great No, in which the artist uses the journey of a ship from Marseille to Martinique as a prompt for unpacking power, colonialism and migration.
The story behind The Great Yes, the Great No begins in June 1941, when a converted cargo ship, the Capitaine Paul Lemerle, sailed from Marseille to Martinique. Among the passengers escaping Vichy France were the surrealist André Breton, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, the communist novelist Victor Serge, and the author Anna Seghers. The captain of the boat is Charon, the ferryman of the dead, who calls other characters onto the deck - Aimé Césaire, The Nardal sisters, who together with the Césaires and Senghor had founded the anti-colonial Négritude movement in Paris, in the 1920s and 1930s. Frantz Fanon joins the group along with Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The boat journey is the 1941 crossing of the Atlantic, but also references earlier crossings from Africa to the Caribbean, as well as contemporary forced sea crossings.
The Great Yes, The Great No unfolds some of the techniques put into play in Oh To Believe in Another World (2022), a film that used green screens against which performers were filmed so that they could later be extracted from the background. In both Oh To Believe in Another World and The Great Yes, The Great No, Kentridge also draws on the green paper itself, and the colour assumes prominent place in the final work, rather than disappearing as a green screen usually would.
The exhibition features a series of new drawings that are used as backdrops in the performance. There are portraits of the characters in The Great Yes, The Great No, as well as imagined scenes from the boat’s arrival in Martinique - an idea of the exotic Caribbean, which is in fact the domestic garden of Kentridge’s Johannesburg studio. Densely packed vegetation is punctuated by fragments of text - phrases such as “the house of justice has collapsed” or “we want no prophets in this garden”. The phrases come from the theatre production and prompt the idea of a drawing being what you read as a text, or a text that, in this case, turns into a garden. In Kentridge’s words “How much do you glean from what you read, and how much of what you read is changed by what you’re seeing around it?”
In Kentridge’s words “How much do you glean from what you read, and how much of what you read is changed by what you’re seeing around it?”
Bringing together these sculptures and drawings, the centrepiece for the show becomes the common point of conception for the work: the act of prototyping with raw materials. This can be seen in the experimental trials of costume design, puppets and props imagined through torn paper, and the cardboard models which can become part of the projection of the performance. Through this process, the building blocks of each new and ongoing project are woven from a common thread.
William Kentridge (b.1955, South Africa) is internationally acclaimed for his drawings, films, theatre and opera productions. Kentridge’s work is held in the following major collections around the world: MoMA, New York; Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Haus der Kunst, Munich; Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi and Zeitz MoCAA, Cape Town.
The artist’s largest UK survey to date was held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2022. In the same year, Kentridge opened another major survey exhibition, In Praise of Shadows, at The Broad, Los Angeles. In 2023 this exhibition travelled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Kentridge’s work has been seen in museums across the globe since the 1990s, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Albertina Museum, Vienna: Musée du Louvre in Paris, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea; Reina Sofia museum, Madrid, Kunstmuseum in Basel; and Norval Foundation in Cape Town. The artist has also participated in biennale’s including Documenta in Kassel (2012, 2002,1997) and the Venice Biennale (2015, 2013, 2005, 1999, 1993).