William Kentridge’s New Exhibition is a Powerful Reflection on Man and Machine

"O Sentimental Machine" at Liebieghaus Skulpturesammlung questions technological progress by staging a dynamic intervention in the museum.

William Kentridge. Image courtesy of Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung / Norbert Miguletz.

“Machines permeate my pictorial world”, celebrated South-African artist William Kentridge tells SLEEK. The metallic clatter of machinery rings out across the entirety of his latest exhibition —  a vast and sprawling collection of over 80 new and older works at Liebieghaus Skulpturesammlung in Frankfurt am Main. Entitled, O Sentimental Machine, the exhibition embodies an attempt to work through man’s complex relationship with machinery and the double-edged sword of technological progress. Through Kentridge’s trademark range of artistic mediums — charcoal drawings, sculpture, objects and film — O Sentimental Machine explores the nature of the machine, particularly in relation to the concept of movement and motion, and industrial development from the nineteenth century onwards.

Stretching across 27 rooms, O Sentimental Machine stages a remarkable intervention into the order of the museum, prompting a dialogue between Kentridge’s work and the institution’s infrastructure and permanent collection. Drawings run up stairs, busts mingle in the portrait gallery, and video works bounce off sculptures dating as far back as 5000 years ago, transforming the museum into an lively arena for debate and stirring conversation. The potency of Kentridge’s works and motifs are brought into sharp relief in the historical surroundings of the Liebieghaus — a former sanctuary of the wealthy Liebling family, who made their fortune in textiles during the industrial revolution, built in 1896. In the museum’s foyer, for example, torn paper reliefs from Kentridge’s originally steel cut sculptures, Processione di Riparazioniste, are arranged beneath a cog intended to celebrate industrialism. In contrast, Kentridge’s figures pay homage to the unpaid and underpaid workers, who were integral to the success of industrialism, but are forgotten in the annals of history. Throughout O Sentimental Machine, Kentridge instigates important questions regarding the advancement of humanity, revealing the injustices that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Blue Rubrics (2016). Photo: Thys Dullaart © William Kentridge.

“The man is a programmable, but sentimental machine”, supposedly said Leon Trotsky. Taking its name from this quotation, O Sentimental Machine — which also refers to a video installation about Trotsky in the exhibition — contests the utopian potential of the machine. “O Sentimental Machine was prompted by an essay I read by Trotsky where he describes a human being as a semi-manufactured product,” explains Kentridge about the initial inspiration for the exhibition. “It was at a time in the Soviet Union when there was a lot of interest in the mechanisation of human beings and in the perfectibility of industrial machines — a bit like artificial intelligence today. In one novel, a perfect machine was made. This machine could do anything: it could fire a gun, it could cook you breakfast, it could change your opinion, it could build a house. Anything was possible, but then, the machine went awry. The machine — called Ophelia — fell in love and started singing sentimental love songs from the last century, which was a disaster. Ultimately, it was about this view of the perfectibility of human beings and the necessary fallibility of all utopian projects.”

The failures and inadequacies of mechanised advancement runs throughout this exhibition. Contrary to the popular view of machinery and technology as an unquestioned benefit on humanity, Kentridge suggests the link between mechanical advancement, or “knowledge”, and brutality and oppression. Since industrialisation, technological expansion have been a catalyst for the exploitation of workers and furthering the gap between rich and poor, for colonisation and bolstering the power of white people. For example, the horrors of colonialism are brought to the fore in a standout piece in the exhibition,  Black Box/Chambre Noire. Here, the massacre of Southwest African tribes, hailing from modern-day Namibia, at the hands of German colonists at the turn of the twentieth century, is presented in a harrowing series of charcoal drawing projections.

The topics spotlighted in this work, and the exhibition as a whole, call to mind German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” — a meditation on the concept of “progress” inspired by Paul Klee’s drawing, Angelus Novus. Of this seemingly innocuous angel, Benjamin wrote how a storm “propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress”. O Sentimental Machine reenacts a similar premise, but through the allegory of Plato’s Cave, a common trope in Kentridge’s work. “Plato’s Cave is very significant (within the exhibition) because it is the founding myth of Western philosophy and the founding myth of the Enlightenment”, clarifies Kentridge. “It’s the idea that humans beings have to move from darkness into light, but more than that they have a moral duty to bring other people into the light. So, this was always part of the justification of colonialism. I’m interested in what we can learn from the dark, from the shadows, and am very nervous of the authoritarianism that accompanies claims of ‘bringing people into the light’ by force.”

Although Kentridge says that he is not interested in his art having “a take home message”, O Sentimental Machine does provoke a thought process on what the past means for the present, and the necessity to challenge the knowledge projects of history . The video installation, The Refusal of Time, situated in one of the museum’s halls dedicated to Roman art, provides a compelling example of how Kentridge desires to escape the dictates and hegemonic structures of modern life. The video projection interrogates the systematicity of time as a concept, which was promoted largely by industrialism. By refusing the rhythm and order of time, Kentridge is exploring the possibility of a radical departure. It is a thought process that is integral to O Sentimental Machine as a whole — as Kentridge confirms it is a matter of “revolutionary thought”, and revolutionary it certainly is. 

William Kentridge. O Sentimental Machine runs through to August 26 at Liebieghaus Skulpturesammlung in Frankfurt am Main.

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