Thick Time at the Whitechapel

By Gemma Tadman, Arts Editor

Legendary South African artist William Kentridge is back for his first solo presentation in the UK for the first time in fifteen years, and he certainly has not returned quietly. He brings his quirky but insightful artistic prowess to Whitechapel Gallery in London, between the 21st of September 2016 and the 15th of January 2017. Known for his short films and animations, drawings and lecture performances, the artist uses his expanded skill set to explore notions of colonialism, apartheid, the industrial revolution, and time and relativity, in a spell-binding showcase made up of six immersive works, titled Thick Time.

When one first enters the exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in London, they are greeted by a towering sculpture built from a brass megaphone and bicycle parts atop an old-school photographic tripod. The piece immediately sets the scene for what is to come and what Kentridge is all about. Past this, one enters a darkened room exploding with elephantine sounds. The Refusal of Time (completed 2003), which is the shows central installation, arranges six screens unfolding half-an-hours’ worth of collaged images, short films, and brush-and-ink moving pictures. In the middle of the room sits an overwhelming wooden mechanical device that pumps infernally, which sits in line with the exhibition’s focus on the industrial revolution and scientific progress, as the screens relay content surrounding colonial expansion and capitalist production.

It is hard to concentrate on any one aspect at one time, be that a particular screen, the bellowing music, or the thrusting of the machine in the rooms centre. This stands in line with the way that life, and time, works. One cannot concentrate on any one thing at once because life is a mishmash of comings and goings, crises, conflicting emotions, and progressions and backslides. There will always be something pumping away in the background of your own life; out of your control. In this way, the piece is dramatically relevant. Kentridge himself features in many of his animations, himself helping to explore the wacky world of his art.


The central piece was inspired by conversations that took place between Kentridge and American scientist Peter Galison discussing theories of time. The Refusal of Time was accomplished with help from Galison, along with composer Philip Miller, and projection designer and editor Catherine Meyburgh.

The final piece of the exhibition, a five-channel video installation, is titled O Sentimental Machine (originally commissioned for SALTWATER, 14th Istanbul Biennial, 2015). The work stands in critique of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, contesting his belief that people are ‘sentimental but programmable machines.’ Five retro chairs stand in a line in the middle of the installation, whilst subtitled videos of speeches by Trotsky, as well as videos of his exile in Istanbul, are projected onto the closed glass of doors either side of the installation. In this way the viewer is invited to take a seat and enabled to observe what happens behind the closed doors of revolutionary politics, as well as the closed doors of Trotsky’s mind.


Thick Time is curated by Iwona Blazwick, the director of Whitechapel Gallery, and Sabine Breitwieser, the Director of Museum der Moderne Salzburg. The thought provoking and, quite frankly, at times, boggling exhibition is organised to be shown at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek in Denmark (16 February – 18 June 2017), Museum der Modern Kunst Salzburg (22 July – 5 November 2017), and the Whitworth, University of Manchester (2018). Thick Time will be showing at the Whitechapel Galley until the 15th January 2017, so be sure to catch it in London before time, quite literally, moves away.


Photography by Gemma Tadman

This article was published in our November 2016 issue.

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