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Pulling No Punches

One of the charcoal-and-pastel drawings William Kentridge used to animate his films

William Kentridge's heavyweight exhibit at Miami Art Central ranks best of the season and is a can't-miss ticket for art aficionados craving a knockout.

The display showcases a broad range of the South African's work dating from 1979, including drawings, animated films, sculptures, and a spectacular series of recent live-action films and animated-drawing videos transferred to DVD that have transformed MAC's first-floor gallery into a virtual cineplex.

Kentridge, whose art reflects the tumultuous events he experienced during and following apartheid, harmonizes the desperation and hope sweeping his homeland with a haunting force that speaks to the human condition in general.

The artist is best known for his animated short films unfolding the ongoing saga of Soho Eckstein, a guilt-ridden and pin-stripe-suited industrialist; and his alter ego, the always naked and passive dreamer Felix Teitlebaum, created in a labor-intensive process Kentridge refers to as Stone Age filmmaking.

Many of his earlier films, including the Drawings for Projection series, begun in 1989, are exhibited in MAC's second-floor gallery alongside the large charcoal-and-pastel-on-paper drawings the artist used to animate the films. The drawings themselves are masterful and pack a wallop.

Instead of the traditional animation technique involving thousands of images, Kentridge's films are created from roughly 20 to 60 that evolve in a constant sea change and might be considered mutating storyboard sketches.

He films each drawing as a single frame in sequence, modifying the composition a bit at a time between shots. As the filming progresses, Kentridge erases the pictures, adds new layers, erases again, and then adds again, creating a sediment of smudges and shadows beneath fresh compositions, referencing how the past filters into the present through memory.

For the artist, the erasure serves as a metaphor for how brutal historical events tend to leave society punch-drunk and how many people often respond to civil strife, racism, and social inequity with amnesia.

The painstakingly illustrated films exude a jerky effect while vividly rendering the complexity of Kentridge's drawing process, reflecting his desire to make sense of the turbulence and violence characterizing apartheid.

Felix in Exile (1994), created prior to the general election that ended apartheid in South Africa, depicts Felix naked and alone in a dismal hotel room. He is rifling through a suitcase full of drawings made by an African woman documenting brutal massacres. Violins and the plaintive wail of the woman's voice are heard while Felix flips through the evidence of the bleeding bodies lying in the streets. As many of the drawings begin to fill the room's walls, he stands to shave. His reflection turns into that of the mournful woman, whom he later observes being gunned down. As the spigot from the washbasin inundates the room with water, Felix is transported to a cesspool in a decimated landscape, alluding to the industrial rape of the region — Soho's legacy — and left surrounded by belching smokestacks.

The thoughtful design of the show is impressive, as is the way it has been executed for optimal viewing and intelligently curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev of the Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Torino.

MAC's exhibition crew, Patricia Garcia-Velez and Natalia Zuluaga, as well as the space's director, Rina Carvajal, had individual soundproof rooms built on-site for Kentridge's films so the sound wouldn't leach into the gallery space or interfere with the experience of other films.

The second-floor gallery walls have been painted the powder blue shade that Kentridge occasionally sneaks into his mostly charcoal drawings, and these works are hung salon-style — reminiscent of the setting the artist created in Felix in Exile — adding to the exhibit's luster.

In Tide Tables (2003-04), the newest episode of the Soho and Felix chronicles, Soho is seen seaside perusing tide tables in a newspaper as waves lick at his brogans. The film has a melancholy vibe heightened by an evocative musical score. As Soho oafs in a deck chair, a boy builds a sandcastle. Cows waste away and their carcasses rot in the waves. A cabana turns into a crowded hospital, perhaps referencing the AIDS epidemic raging in Africa. Three generals spy on the beach through binoculars, and night begins to fall. As the music becomes more somber, a man surrenders a shrouded body to the ocean and another group celebrates a baptism.

While the fat industrialist dozes through these occurrences, a woman in a headscarf briefly clutches his hand. For a second she is Soho's only anchor to humanity.

Exiting the viewing room, one is confronted by Procession, 23 bronze figures displayed on a sprawling table. One seems fashioned from an espresso maker, another from a pair of shears. All are lined up in a scene that evokes a political march, a funeral dirge, or a pitiful stream of refugees fleeing a war with their life's belongings slung on their backs.

The sculptures evoke a sense of the shadow figures popular in Kentridge's other films and suggest we often adopt an indirect gaze to avoid observing things ethically.

One also encounters the bedraggled throng in animated films such as Shadow Procession. An unusual shadow work, Portage Leporello Book, depicts a pair of men carrying a wounded fellow on a stretcher among a group of the damned and suffering. Leporello is an Italian term for an artist's book whose pages are accordioned, and might be considered cinematic grammar rendered in frozen form.

Kentridge, who has moved among the genres of film, drawing, and theater during his career, once commented the shadows in Plato's The Allegory of the Cave lead the journey toward knowledge and away from ideology and false consciousness, reminding us to experience the world with open eyes.

Based on this relationship between perception and knowledge, Kentridge created Phenakistoscope, a revolving optical contraption where figures drawn in relative poses appear to be in motion. For the funky wall piece, he glued an etching onto an old LP, cut a series of slits in another record, and then connected both at opposite ends of a two-foot rod. As the device spins and the viewer peeks through the holes carved into the record in front, the retinal impression it produces convinces the mind that the figures drawn on the background platter are actually moving.

The tremendous amount of work displayed in the upstairs space, in addition to the pieces' remarkable inventiveness and provocative content, is too much to absorb in one visit. When I first went to cover the exhibit, I was so bowled over I pocketed the pen and notepad for the sheer pleasure of relishing Kentridge's monstrous talent.

On my second visit, I could have spent the entire day just sitting downstairs in the gallery featuring the artist's homage to the work of French magician-turned-auteur Georges Mélis, whose experimental film extravaganzas pioneered special effects still used today. One need not be a cinema buff to recall a certain enduring image from Mélis's 1902 Le Voyage Dans La Lune: the moon grimacing after a rocket hits it smack in the eye.

MAC is screening nine large-scale projections of Kentridge's Mélis-inspired live-action and animated films shot on 35mm, 16mm, and video transferred to DVD, which immediately captivate the viewer upon entering the space. They are each a delight to experience, and they underscore the artist's investigations into the effects of reversal, with Kentridge himself appearing in many of the films, offering glimpses into his average workday.

Journey to the Moon, Day for Night, and 7 Fragments for Georges Mélis are accompanied by music reminiscent of a Tin Pan Alley piano score, conveying the sensation one has been transported to a birth-of-cinema flicker show.

In Day for Night, Kentridge conjures a gossamer web of illusion, shanghaiing an army of ants to do his bidding. The sorcerer made drawings using sugar water to attract the ants and then filmed them on video, reversing the positive and negative tones so the paper becomes black and the ants white.

The swarm appears as if a whiff of grapeshot loosed from a cannon and then swirled around in tornado formation. As one watches, dazed, the six-leg invaders form words and then cluster in arcs, parabolas, and spheres before bellowing forth unchecked as if a victorious army.

The piece conveyed the sense of lying under a velvety sky in a desert, where the ants substitute the stars and mimic the Milky Way before forming the figure of a swirling man, perhaps Orion.

In Journey to the Moon, an espresso maker becomes a rocket and fires its thrusters before ascending to the heavens. Kentridge is seen in his studio using a demitasse as a telescope, through which he watches his rocket rise. A charcoal drawing becomes a portal, and a nude muse appears behind the artist.

He balances a chair on his fingertip before it floats away. Scattered drawings levitate eerily from the floor and organize themselves in a stack in his hands.

Left reeling as if sucker-punched, and juiced by the adrenaline rush Kentridge delivers with a winning combination of politically relevant themes and beautiful execution, I bet this show will leave you flat on your back and loving it.


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