A riot of music, movement and political immediacy; Louisa Buck takes in William Kentridge’s vast and ambitious film installation at the Marian Goodman Gallery.

By Louisa Buck.

William Kentridge’s epic new film installation More Sweetly Play the Dance fills almost the entire first floor of Marian Goodman Gallery. A motley procession of life-sized partly-silhouetted figures march, spin, sway and shuffle around the room from one enormous screen to the next. Some carry bundles, some shout through megaphones, others bear aloft the heads of Roman, Chinese and unknown heroes. A few are pulled along on trolleys and a number are hooked up to hospital drips. Looking at this ragtag trail of itinerants from every walk of life, many wrapped in sheets of plastic and carrying or dragging their assorted belongings, it is almost impossible not to view them through the filter of the current refugee crisis.

But although now grimly topical, this rhythmically moving cavalcade – accompanied by bursts of song and a harshly jubilant South African brass band – also evokes the forced movements and exoduses that have become a tragic commonplace throughout Africa and beyond for generations. At the same time they tap into a multitude of other sources ranging from carnival traditions to the Medieval danse macabre, (there’s even a row of jiggling skeletons) along with Dada performance, Goya’s procession paintings and the shadows of Plato’s cave. As Kentridge says, “the image of a procession of people pulling or carrying their baggage is both a contemporary and immediate image and one deeply rooted in our psyches.”

Now 60 and internationally acclaimed, William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg where he still lives and works. Both his parents were liberal lawyers staunchly dedicated to opposing Apartheid – his father defended Nelson Mandela at his 1956 treason trial and went on to represent Desmond Tutu and the family of Steve Biko – and his native South Africa infuses everything this artist makes. Yet at the same time as he grapples with his ambivalent feelings for his homeland, Kentridge is also one of the most widely knowledgeable artists working today; and a wide and diverse range of references – literary, artistic, historical, anthropological – resonates throughout every element of this terrific show of new work– his first in the UK for 15 years.

He’s recently been working in China (there is currently a major retrospective of his work on show at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing) and in the drawings, text pieces, enormous paintings and another three-screen film installation (also in the Goodman show), Maoist slogans and Model Revolutionary operas meet Manet’s flower paintings and the 1871 Paris Commune. This rich mix all feeds into what Kentridge declares to be “a series of projects looking at the despair at the end of Utopian projects…the probable impending failure of the Utopian hope”.

However, all is not gloom and doom. Running counter to this weary pessimism is a keen and invigorating sense of the comical and absurd. In one text work Kentridge adopts the style of Revolutionary sloganeering to address and admonish himself: ‘Keep your hands in your pockets’; ‘430 laps of the plunge pool’; ‘You will lose the key’.

Another of his personal slogans is, ‘Find the bad drawing’, but this is more of a doomed enterprise. For, apart from his erudition, what characterizes Kentridge’s work is his consummate draughtsmanship and need to make his physical mark, whether in paint, ink or charcoal. However big the idea or wide the historical sweep, as he puts it , “the form and the material is the starting point” and the source of all his ideas. He even prefers to call his films “drawings for projection”.

And, from his earliest 1980s stop-motion animations painstakingly built up out of repeated charcoal drawings up to the multitude of drawn elements incorporated into More Sweetly Play the Dance – including the cut out, brush-stroked hero’s heads and the smudged and sketched-in charcoal backdrop to the figures – it is Kentridge’s hand and eye as well as his formidable intellect that charges his work with its exceptional energy and profound sense of humanity.