Images from <i>Learning from the Absurd: The Nose</i>, a video projection by South African artist William Kentridge.

Images from Learning from the Absurd: The Nose, a video projection by South African artist William Kentridge.

FIVE THEMES
William Kentridge
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Federation Square, until May 27

MOST artists sample the world and reflect an aspect that they hope deserves our attention. Other artists build a world all of their own, an imaginative realm where every cell belongs to the artist's dream.

William Kentridge is one of them: his vision is uncannily entire, from its iconography and narratives to the technique and studio method. As in a dream world, images arise organically and inexplicably; they morph in unstable lineaments and break out into obsessive phantoms, full of predatory and destructive intentions. The visions undo themselves in transformations grown within the drawing process itself.

The large exhibition at ACMI contains about 60 works, comprising drawings, constructions and sculptures and several films that are collectively the centrepiece. Kentridge's films are mostly built with drawings as a means of animation.

The South African Kentridge rose to international fame in the 1990s through a suite of animated films that are in the current exhibition, Ubu Tells the Truth and 9 Drawings for Projection. These works set out the nightmare of South African inhumanity, exploring the fatal power of demonic bosses and the evil influence of their technologies over the dispossessed.

One of the signal images in Ubu is a malicious tripod that variously supports a camera, a radio and a cat. The legs behave like sinister tentacles and the camera shoots lethally. This disturbing image makes you lose faith in the privileged viewpoint of the camera or projector or any other ocular or broadcasting system.

Kentridge's way of creating moving images is to make a drawing and then photograph it, alter the drawing, rephotograph it and repeat the sequence scores of times, shifting figures or objects by small increments and copious erasures. The movement of anything leaves an ominous trace, as the presence in a previous location has to be rubbed out, which is never perfectly achieved.

Kentridge's inner world responds strongly to a political world beyond, which includes the immoral establishment that justified apartheid for so many decades. The drawings narrate unsettling stories that reflect the greed and caprice of people with unethical plans.

The fictional character Soho Eckstein, in the series of films in 9 Drawings for Projection, is a rapacious antihero who owns a mining empire and half of Johannesburg. From his desk, he heartlessly consigns people to slavery and, swelling with conceit as a civic patron, he naively erects a statue of a slave. Kentridge reflects on the ghastly machinations of the powerful in a remarkably intimate medium, subjectively feeling his way through each action via drawing and rubbing-out.

Kentridge's earlier work has an element of caricature, which trickles into the charming performance videos of 2003. The artist is seen miraculously restoring a torn portrait of himself or catching flying books. They're made by running videos in reverse.

Political terrors return in the later work, especially one sequence of I am not me; the horse is not mine from 2008, which records the chilling interrogation of Nikolai Bukharin by the Stalinist Central Committee in 1937. The Bolshevik Bukharin, a principled intellectual, would be executed.

But Bukharin was also complicit in creating the Stalinist monster; and this double-side of good or bad people already emerges with Soho Eckstein, who ends up physiognomically resembling the artist himself.

My only criticism of this mighty and unforgettable experience at ACMI is that the rooms with the early films have provision for about five people to sit down, so we have to huddle on the floor or alongside draughty vents. The sound insulation is poor and the Monteverdi or Dvorak is unpleasantly corrupted by interference from next door.

robert.nelson@monash.edu