William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time

The City Gallery, Wellington, presents William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time.  In collaboration with composer Philip Miler, director and editor Catherine Meyburgh and Professor of Science and Physics Peter Galison, Kentridge has created an immersive art installation consisting of five simultaneously playing films, and a moving sculpture, the Elephant.

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The Refusal of Time (2012) incorporates five video works that are projected on to the back of metal facings (criss-crossed with the metal struts and supports). These surfaces have the traces of paint, paper stuck on and ripped away, as well as irregular shapes cut from red card that have been taped on and left. The projected videos are linked but not identical, and are further interrupted and transformed by playing out across this patchy canvas that has been created for them.

A number of wooden chairs (like those I remember from high school) are set out seemingly at random, but actually, they are placed carefully, directed at different screens and underneath megaphones that seem to play slightly altered soundtracks, here talking is heard more clearly, there the music takes over, so that the experience of the viewer is different depending on where they choose to sit.

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It begins with five metronomes keeping time, until they don’t, and the consequent syncopation sets the scene for the duration, where the five screens alter between working in a series (movement happening across all screens in sequence, left to right, or outwards from the middle) to showing similar scenes slipping out of synch with each other creating the effect of moving forwards and backwards in time, or being stuck in a single moment replayed.

Kentridge interrogates the abstract notion of time, and its ownership by the West through the theories of Newton and Einstein to the central control of the Greenwich Meridian.  While the music sets the pace, the soundtrack also incorporates a voiceover lecture (the viewer’s position in the room determines which comes to the fore, and which becomes background), that at one point wistfully tries to take us backward, ‘to undo, to unsay, to unhappen, to unremember.’

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The visuals alter constantly throughout.  Here is Kentridge walking, stepping over a chair, walking, stepping over a chair.  Is it the same chair or a series of chairs endlessly laid out before him? Is the motion circular or linear or somehow both?

There are strange overlaps, and distortions of scale, for example where the action of full scale figures (Kentridge himself doubled) appear as if on the pages of a book and is overlaid by a giant hand writing and drawing over the top.

There is a sequence where we see the night sky appear like chalk on dark paper, creating the spinning cosmos, engulfing the room in the boundlessness of space and then diminishing it again as the artist hands are exposed.

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There is a sense of being overwhelmed, of not being able to keep up with what is happening in the space.  With the screens positioned on three walls, it is impossible to have them all in view and as a consequence the viewer must choose to either look in one direction (aware that they are missing out on something behind them) or to constantly move their head, from one screen to the next as movement catches the corner of the eye.

The soundtrack builds from the initial rhythmic ticking of the metronomes into an eventual cacophony of sound: turbulent, almost triumphant as silhouettes dance into the abyss.

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Throughout it all the sculpture, The Elephant, resolutely keeps time. It is truly the elephant in the room: it is giant, but its consistent rhythm settles it easily into the background.  It is a breathing apparatus, a stand-in for our own lungs, keeping time for our body. The forgotten, but vital, underlying percussion.


In the pocket between the door outside and the door into the gallery, that odd threshold, that no-mans land between coming and going, I meet Riley.  Opposite doors open at the same time and in that strange synchronicity that life sometimes throws our way (as if to mock the order of time and space) we meet in a doorway in a city that neither of us calls home.


  1. Ha! yes that was a rather random but very nice moment to meet in time. Especially as we had battled the sunday train timetable missed a train and survived several windy tantrums to get there. Great and very thorough description of the exhibition too.

    1. It seems apt to have an unexpected meeting after seeing the Refusal of Time! Just think, if you hadn’t missed your train, or I hadn’t decided on the spur of the moment to go back for a second visit, we would never have been in that doorway at just the same moment.

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