William Kentridge at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1

This show, Thick Time, presents six installations created over the past few years, all involving multiple media and some kind of drama.

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The Refusal of Time, 2012

On the ground floor is The Refusal of Time, a five-screen video with sound track and in the centre of the room, a ‘breathing machine’, a kind of large bellows which provides the rhythm of the piece. The film is a typical Kentridge mix: drawn backgrounds, dancers,  silhouettes – but also specific scientific material about 19th century experiments in physics. Although I didn’t understand it all, I was intrigued and interested throughout.

The piece I liked best was Second-hand Reading, 2013, an animated ‘flip book’ made of hundreds of drawings superimposed on pages from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and other lexica and encyclopedias. The drawings include some of his meaningless slogans; portraits of himself pacing about; squares that become birds; shapes that become tree; people with flags who morph into trees. It felt like a rummage through his brain.

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In an upper gallery, was 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon, all 2003: a series of short films all showing drawing of some kind. In some of the fragments, Kentridge himself is shown ‘drawing backwards’: wiping off ink and charcoal to arrive back at a blank sheet of paper. Or repeatedly having to push back into place trees that keep falling down to the bottom of a landscape scene. Méliès was a pioneering French film-maker of the late 19th and early 20th century, so these shows of technical virtuosity were intended as a tribute. One of the things I found interesting was that Kentridge seemed to me much more convincing when he was playing himself, the artist, in these films than in the work next door, O Sentimental Machine, when he played Leon Trotsky.

This last piece was made initially to be installed in a hotel on an island in Istanbul where Trotsky was exiled when he was expelled from Russia in 1929. It sounds like an intriguing idea based on Trotsky’s description of how revolution requires individuals to become sentimental but programmable machines. But for me the film had too much of the ‘amateur dramatics’ about it. Especially when actual footage of Trotsky making a political speech was being shown just to one side.

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Drawing on the stairs at the Whitechapel

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A silhouette on the wall