Smoke of the Failed Utopias, Ashes of the History, A Fable Mumbled

“Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.” The contemporary interpretation of medieval Dance of Death, 'More Sweetly Play The Dance' by South Africa’s renowned artist William Kentridge’s reminds me of German choreographer Pina Bausch’s words. We breathe as much as we dance, and the moment we abandon dancing, we are lost, we are dead. Often referred as South Africa’s Picasso, William Kentridge’s exhibition 'Smoke, Ashes, Fable' can be seen in Bruges these days and we could not be more lucky to see, hear, fully feel his works revolving around the themes of trauma and healing. Kentridge’s mesmerising exhibition brings together a striking selection of his masterful works in Sint-Janshospitaal at the very center of Bruges.

Born in 1955 in South Africa, William Kentridge witnessed the indescribably tragic dissolution of apartheid first hand. Having experienced one of the most outrageous periods of the twentieth century, his moral outrage is a driving force and a source of inspiration to his works. Thus, Kentridge became engaged with the history as an artist, possibly as a result of the unsettling political environment and his traumatic experiences. The diversity of Kentridge’s works - to name but a few drawings, installations, videos, tapestries - are all intertwined with the past which is erased and rewritten, silenced and expressed, forgotten and inescapable simultaneously.

'Smoke, Ashes, Fable' beautifully displays a brilliant selection of Kentridge’s works, specifically chosen for this exhibition in Sint-Janshospitaal. Founded in the 12th century, the building is one of Europe’s oldest surviving sanctuaries for the suffering and dispossessed. Hence, this ancient hospital concept serves as a perfect setting for Kentridge’s creations. One of the most spectacular selected works, also the exhibition's highlight piece, is Kentridge’s recent video installation 'More Sweetly Play The Dance'. It could well be related to its setting, Bruges, in a sense that the Dance of Death shown in the installation is actually 'the medieval form where death takes everyone, from king to priest to farmer to child', as Kentridge recalls. What’s more, in order to fit Kentridge’s works perfectly to the environment, successful works from a Belgian artist is also exhibited in the same space. Marcel Broodthaers has a lot in common with Kentridge, as their aesthetic stance and the use of media are quite relatable. Here, I believe the connection made between the works and Bruges is what makes the exhibition even more attractive.

The instant you take a step into the exhibition space, you are already captured by the intense air of the exhibition. Kentridge’s works are breathtaking yet hard to digest - all the torture, portraits of politicians, migrants, porters are overwhelming to the eyes of the visitor. The exhibition has a wide range of Kentridge’s works, yet, two of them made my personal experience a unique one.
The first one is 'Triumphs and Laments'. It rooted from the idea that one person’s victory is another one’s loss, is actually Kentridge’s largest procession to date, stretching along more than 500 meters of the wall of the Tiber in Rome. The artist first had images recalling the triumphs and losses on paper and then the images were transferred to the wall. In the exhibition, you have a chance to see these actual drawings. The drawings of Giuseppe Garibaldi, a hero of the Risorgimento (reunification of Italy), the death of Aldo Moro, Italian Prime Minister from 1963 to 1968 and from 1974 to 1976 and the portrayal of Jewish citizens are all powerful demonstrations of how Kentridge uses the history, especially the history of tortured, suffered and the history which has been continuously attempted to be erased by the governing powers.

'Soft Dictionary', a recent video by Kentridge shown in a small room in the first floor of the exhibition, is a flip-book film juxtaposing the prominent moments in South African and Chinese history. An unexpectedly joyous music is playing in the background, where you see portraits, pages of newspapers, glimpses of Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 or the Soweto Uprising in 1976 fastly running and flipping in front of your eyes. The poster of the exhibition also takes its image from this short video clip - a boy, as if drawn with smoke and ashes, running through the lines of a newspaper, or maybe a fable. During the video, we see tragically flying sparrows, which are used by the artist as an allegory of failed utopias.

Soft Dictionary

One feels how the art is used as a means of working through the layers of history during the visit to the exhibition. As one of the vital creators of our time, Kentridge brilliantly displays the overwhelmingly brutal pages of history. From the medieval Dance of Death to the portraits of iconic figures in history and from South Africa’s significant milestones to the tragedy of migrants, he succeeds in covering our perception with smoke and ashes and burdening us with the past we often desperately attempt to erase. On top of these, as the works in the exhibition are a special selection, they also give interesting ideas about the beautiful creative process of Kentridge.

The exhibition can be seen in Sint-Janshospitaal, Mariastraat 28, 8000 Bruges until 25 February 2018. The price of the exhibition is € 8.00 (permanent collection included) | Red. : € 6,00 ( > 65 y. And 12-25 y.) | Free: -12 years & schools.