For those who can get to the Tanks at Tate Modern, there is still just time to catch South African artist William Kentridge’s I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) which closes on Jan 20th. This eight-channel video installation, in the UK for the first time, sits in the cavernous, souped-up Tanks beautifully, showcasing Kentridge’s characteristic and innovative blend of live action, stop-motion animation, archival footage, delightful screenwork, and inventive movement language – human and animated. The music is also superb, thanks to composer Philip Miller, as is the clear skill of Catherine Meyburgh on the video processing and editing. Particularly if you’ve not been to the Tanks before the whole experience is worth checking out (and somehow the currently empty Turbine Hall and the hugeness of its vertical space adds to the intensity of walking into the underground, concrete spaces, where all sorts of details remain as evidence of its industrial legacy, which, I might the curators of I am not me, the horse is not mine have chosen to exploit and have done so brilliantly.) And it’s free (as are the other current exhibits in the Tanks).
For those of you who can’t get to it at the Tate Modern, (you missed out -) here’s a bit more, after my visit last month.
I am not me, the horse is not mine is based on Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist short story, ‘The Nose’ (c. 1836), which satirises the social and military class politics of Tsarist Russia: a man wakes up one morning to find his nose missing from his face. He searches for it, puts out newspaper ads, seeks medical advice, to no avail. When he eventually finds it (in a cathedral), his nose has attained higher ‘rank’ and will not acknowledge him. Even when his nose is arrested, trying to leave the city in disguise, it still will not rejoin his face.
I am not me, the horse is not mine is testament to Kentridge’s abiding interest in Russian modernism and is part of a body of work he developed in the years prior to his own 2010 production of Dimitri Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose (written between 1927 and 1928). It is as much a moving celebration of the inventiveness of the Russian avant-garde, as an elegy for its failure and demise. I am not me, the horse is not mine consists of eight films of equal length that projected on the walls simultaneously. Each film contains flashes of humour and delight alongside disturbing threats, lurking in petty party politics and the dehumanisation of totalitarian rule.
Although overused, the word immersive is appropriate here, aided by the roundness of ‘the Tank’ it is exhibited in – you’re surrounded – both by the films and their superb soundtrack. The corrugated concrete walls of the Tank that each film appears to be directly projected on to lend a gritty, industrial quality; revolution red is the only colour that breaks the otherwise black-and-white, concrete scape.
Noses abound – quite literally, in some cases: in the animated film that lends its title to the exhibition – a translation of a phrase used by Russian peasants to deny responsibility for something – Kentridge himself appears in a kind of a pantomime horse relationship with a huge, black nose that violently climbs over and dismantles other pieces, Kentridge performing the role of either the front or hind quarters of the eponymous horse. The nose also takes a central role in ‘Commissariat for Enlightenment’, silencing loudhailers and masking and obliterating figures on grainy archival film footage; it is the nose that initiates the disassembling of various animated bits that variously construct and deconstruct human forms (‘Country Dances II’ and ‘That Ridiculous Blank Space Again’); and, in the appositely titled ‘His Majesty, Comrade Nose’, it is this big silhouetted nose that repeatedly climbs and falls from a spotlit ladder that seems to lead nowhere.
I found ‘Prayers of Apology’ particularly astonishing as an individual film: sandwiched between flashes in your peripheral vision of the movement-heavy ‘Commissariat for Enlightenment’ and ‘Country Dances II’, it projects a transcript of a committee meeting in which the pleas and reasoned protests of Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin are dismissed and derided without mercy by his previous allies. I was also mesmerised by ‘Country Dances I’, where a huge shadow figure dances repetitively, mimicking and recalling peasant dance and its controlled movement. What’s fascinating is the way the figure is clothed – it shifts; what seems initially in the looming shadow to be a Bolshevik military coat and peaked cap begins to give way to alternative possibilities, of a twirling cape and headdress, or simple coat and hair-up. The ‘truth’ of this figure, what it really is, is almost revealed at the end of the film, as the dancer stops whirling and moves further into the frame towards the space of its dancing shadow, but the glimpse of the human behind the silhouette is fleeting, retreating back to just out of eye’s-reach.
The nose is also one in a procession of figures-as-citizens, following a waving red flag on an interminable march in ‘A Lifetime of Enthusiasm’, and it was in these three films (‘A Lifetime of Enthusiasm’, ‘Prayers of Apology’ and ‘Country Dances I’) that I found the most direct access to the exhibit’s South African subtext, along with the score that accompanies the films, which is brilliantly conceived – blending orchestration reminiscent of early silent films, full of urgency, brass and strident strings – and recognisably South African vocal harmonies. But text and its subtexts are shown always multiple and shifting – all subtly conveyed; much of the brilliance of the medium is in its shiftiness – multiple constructions and deconstructions of multiple noses (that may or not be subject to your control or ownership), multiple horses on multiple screens, looped and replayed.
It is brilliant and the Tanks is a superb space for it. I’d be interested in how it plays in other exhibition spaces and would loved to have seen Kentridge’s performance alongside it – part lecture, part theatrical monologue, part installation – as at previous showings.
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