I'll begin with a strong suggestion that you immerse yourself in William Kentridge's Five Themes now, while you have the unprecedented opportunity. Kenneth Baker's assertion that people tend to bookmark their first experience of Kentridge's work struck a chord; I remember mine well. During a college field trip to SFMOMA, my professor saw me glance blankly at a looping film in the gallery. Seeing that I was about to walk away, he glanced at me so sharply that I knew I'd better stay and watch it. I watched, and I didn't understand it. But then I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I returned to the museum many more times to see it again, dragging others along with me, trying to decipher the narrative and making sure to note African guitar legend Franco's soundtrack, so I could listen to it later. At least I'd have the song, since I couldn't have the art. I once saw a copy of this same film, Tide Table, on the desk of a local video editor and entertained the idea of swiping it. I didn't do it, so don't judge. I'm just trying to point out that Kentridge's work is so powerful, it has the potential to make an honest person debate thievery. Lucky for you, YouTube has expanded enormously since then, and you can see a bit of the film there. Especially nice is this bootleg version with a live performance of Franco's song scored by Kentridge's frequent musical collaborator, Philip Miller.
But YouTube is just for out-of-towners. The rest of you need to get over to SFMOMA because Tide Table has returned after a long break. This spring, the museum wisely let Kentridge shine in a multiple-gallery exhibition of his drawings, animated films, installations, and sculptures. A satellite Kentridge puppet Opera was staged at Project Artaud Theater in San Francisco (he's staging another one for the NY Metropolitan Opera in 2010), and the artist lent his likeness to the sides of Muni busses everywhere. It's the Kentridge motherload.
In the museum, two black-box model theaters with moving sets add theatricality and depth to the Kentridge films projected on them. Surrounded by the mini theaters and a third film, you will adjust your position on a bench in the center of the gallery to watch each one in succession. One of the stages has mechanical figures reminiscent of Indonesian shadow puppets that move through the set and participate in the film. Another film is projected onto a mirrored cylinder in the center of a circular steel table. Finally, after viewing the drawings that comprise the films, you can watch over an hour of Kentridge's past animations, which are surely unlike any you've seen before. Hand drawn using a reductive process of erasing and redrawing, each frame of each film is an artwork in itself.
One film is spliced with real clips of violence in South Africa, clarifying the subject of much of Kentridge's work -- the struggles of post-apartheid communities. His films' other subjects include studies for his operas, and his own artistic practice. Working in multiple media, Kentridge provokes a range of emotion, reflection, and serious contemplation about universal problems, while preserving his own voice and lightheartedness. According to Mr. Baker, Kentridge tackles his subject matter "with an ingenuity and heart found almost nowhere else in contemporary art."
I've also bookmarked my second and third experiences seeing Kentridge's work. In 2006 I pressed my face up to the window of a packed cafe and stood in the rain, straining to hear a simulcast of Kentridge's lecture where he discussed brilliantly how light is represented and perceived. Last year, I sat on the floor of an L.A. museum for an hour watching one of his films projected on a blackboard. I watched it over and over, trying to soak it up completely. Who knew when I'd see another one? Don't starve yourself like I did. Get your fill of Kentridge and catch up on the last several years of his work before he's back with a slew of new tricks up his charcoal-smudged sleeve. Opera is a fitting avenue for Kentridge because, like opera, his productions are a "Gesamtkunstwerk" (total artwork) with multiple layers of high-quality craft, not to mention a heaping helping of metaphor, symbolism, and theatrics.
William Kentridge: Five Themes is on view as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through May 31, 2009.