Kentridge nose his history

William Kentridge’s interpretation of Shostakovich’s 1930 opera, The Nose, scheduled to open at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2010, has been so extensively prefigured in gallery exhibitions, film screenings, public lectures and grapevine accounts of various workshops, it is as if it already exists.

A full 18 months before opening night, the silhouetted nose with human legs around which the opera’s narrative will develop is easily as familiar to Kentridge’s audiences as past signature characters, such as Soho Eckstein and Ubu Roi, and already there is a catalogue that documents significant parts of his work thus far on The Nose, titled I am not me, the horse is not mine.

This text works well as a handbook for an exhibition by the same name, an installation of eight short films, or “film fragments” as Kentridge calls them, at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town until the end of March.

Some would call Kentridge’s extensive pre-emptory delivery of material simulacral, others would call it a gratuitous tease. Whichever it is, the chronological disruption of his current output matches the arrangement of content in his installation at the National Gallery, a chaotic stream of simultaneous film projections that manage to stand alone as a compellingly vague web of textual traces rather than a trailer for The Nose.

The intertextuality of Kentridge’s work — its allusion to layers of preceding textual and artistic material — is well documented, even from the time of his earliest film and theatre productions. What comes to the fore in this project, ostensibly even more so than before, is his particular taste for European modernist culture.

The opera and I am not me, the horse is not mine are based on a short story written by Nikolai Gogol in 1837 called Nos, or The Nose. In this absurdist fable set in St Petersburg a barber wakes up one morning to discover the nose of a colleague, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyev, hiding in his breakfast. The nose is on the run, trying to flee the city in disguise, and when Kovalyev eventually finds his nose in a cathedral it is of a higher rank than he is and refuses to rejoin his face.

Gogol’s story has a formal history reaching back more than 200 years before it was written. Its roots are in a piece of writing from Laurence Stern’s 1759 novel Tristram Shandy, and this text takes its cue, albeit indirectly, from Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

In its original form Gogol’s story comments on the crippling bureaucracy of Tsarist Russia, but in Kentridge’s films history also looks forwards and the focus shifts to the Soviet era. The film, titled The Commissariat for Enlightenment, establishes the anthropomorphic Comrade Nose as a trace to — and sometimes a stand-in for — various Soviet leaders. Stop-frame animation is integrated with documentary film snippets and photographs of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin leading revolutionary parades. Their noses are effaced or replaced with paper prosthetics that keep reappearing in the film on their own terms — sometimes as big as a head, sometimes a whole body.

In his short introductory essay in the catalogue Kentridge suggests that these films expand the history of Gogol’s short story, looking both to its past and its future as the basis for a lamentation of the demise of the Russian modernist avantgarde, which was crushed by the state shortly after the establishment of the USSR in 1922.

As the films play raucously in a small, dark section of the gallery they layer detailed political and literary allusions with visual approximations of Russian constructivist artworks, suggesting the ubiquity of the state’s control of culture. Two short abstract films, Country Dances II and That Ridiculous Blank Space Again, mourn the premature dissolution of Russian abstraction, which was routinely weeded out of official art schools because of its mysticism.

Kentridge’s past homages to history, particularly South African and colonial histories, have been tenaciously critical, but his work towards The Nose seems to mark a shift in his quotation of historical forms. To suggest that he is evaluating the historical narratives he is working with now — as he does explicitly in his work on the history of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — would be off the mark.

Instead, he seems to be touring through the morass of official history and following a strand here or there, more or less for history’s own sake. International recognition comes with a licence to ignore the expectations of parochial, politically obsessed art audiences and critics. In I am not me, the horse is not mine Kentridge uses this licence and slouches comfortably into his long-held infatuation with the avant-garde absurd, because finally he can.

I am not me, the horse is not mine runs at the South African National Gallery until March 31. The catalogue is available at the gallery or the Goodman Gallery

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