Although William Kentridge is still best known as an animator, his new exhibition at the Whitechapel reveals a far more diverse body of work than that. A survey of his work from 2003 to the present, the show contains six installations, but it’s hard to consider them as separate entities. The same themes appear again and again – apartheid, time, revolutionary politics – as do the same motifs: bicycle wheels, conical old-school megaphones – and Kentridge himself, always in the same white shirt and black trousers. The South African artist is a serious, scholarly-looking bloke, but he’s not averse to a bit of slapstick: he trained as a mime in Paris in the 1980s.
Never one for labouring away in solitude, Kentridge is a seasoned collaborator who’s worked with musicians, dancers, weavers and scientists, and everything on display here feels as much a production as an artwork. The exhibition opens with showstopper ‘The Refusal of Time’, about humankind’s attempts to measure and control time. Featuring ticking metronomes, a booming score by composer Philip Miller and a huge set of mechanised bellows, it’s classic Kentridge: a dense, layered bundle of sound, images, objects and ideas.
A lot of his work celebrates the obsolescent. ‘Second-Hand Reading’ makes a flipbook out of a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, the kind of reference work that’s been outmoded by internet search engines. Featuring a sequence of imagery – basket-carrying figures, birds, trees – that morphs across its sepia pages, this ode to the cyclical nature of life has a wonderfully analogue kind of lyricism.
Kentridge’s references are plucked from far and wide: early French cinema, nineteenth-century physics, Soviet radicalism. But, paradoxically, maybe he’s just too good at what he does. All of his work’s subject matter feels trapped inside its own intricacy. Like a film of dust across one of his beloved reference books, something always seems obscured.