As he stepped onto the specially constructed stage in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall to welcome the audience to the premiere of his major new work The Head and the Load, last night (11 July), William Kentridge wryly acknowledged that “this is not the only event taking place this evening” and entreated all present to refrain from checking the score of the England vs Croatia world cup semi final. He need not have worried: his epic gesamptkunstwerk kept even the most obsessive footie fans from thinking about the game.
Working with his long-time collaborator the South African composer Philip Miller and the dancer-choreographer Gregory Maqoma, Kentridge conjured up an evocative extravaganza that he described as “an interrupted musical procession” that drew on all the strands of his wide ranging practice—including music, dance, projections, mechanised sculpture and shadow play—to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of largely forgotten African porters and carriers who served the French and German forces during the First World War.
Kentridge’s view that “history is collage” was expressed by his characteristically multifarious pulling together of a multiplicity of sources ranging from chilling historical ledgers and military drills to the words of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara translated into isiZulu, and the writings of Frantz Fanon. More layers of meaning and emotion were added by Miller’s similarly eclectic score that swung between a cacophonous wall of noise to a single barking dog and the haunting sound of a single kora. Dancers, musicians and actors all paraded against an ever-changing backdrop of drawn, animated and printed projections, further animated by the brilliantly orchestrated shadows of the performers themselves.
Among the audience witnessing this ambitious and emotionally charged smorgasbord were the artists Yinka Shonibare, Isaac Julien and Jenny Holzer but also, and most significantly, the artist’s father—the legendary anti-apartheid lawyer Sydney Kentridge, who nipped into his seat and at the end jumped up to join the standing ovation with an energy that belied his 95 years. Truly a landmark evening and, as it turned out, an infinitely better option than the football…
- William Kentridge’s The Head & the Load is at Tate Modern from 11-15 July as part of 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Commissions