Visual Arts Preview: Nick Cave and William Kentridge at the ICA

Both of these exhibitions challenge our very notions of time and identity and the social structures around us.

William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time and Nick Cave (Soundsuits, Rescues), at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, May 4.

William Kentridge

Detail of William Kentridge’s “XA XA XA (unknown man),” 2009.

Nick Cave

By Rob Ribera

Opening this week at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston are two vibrant, thought-provoking exhibits. The first, from Chicago artist Nick Cave, is a group of his Soundsuits, along with a new exhibit of mixed media installations entitled Rescues, cave-like forms welded around ceramic or plaster dogs and adorned with thousands of found objects. The second is from South African artist William Kentridge, and includes prints gathered from private collections in Boston as well as a stunning new installation, The Refusal of Time. Both of these exhibitions challenge our very notions of time and identity and the social structures around us. (Extensive Fuse coverage of Kentridge’s 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University.)

Nick Cave continues to create his massive Soundsuits. First assembled in the early ’90s as a response to the Rodney King beating, these giant works make for dazzling viewing. Composed of thousands of tiny parts — buttons, rugs, sock puppets, bags, twigs, wire, cloth and various other materials, they are fantastical uniforms designed for a faraway land. Standing ten feet high or taller, they embody color and movement, music and dance, identity and mask. You stand in awe of the imposing size of these creations, yet you can’t help imagine putting them on. They are wonders of expression; each mother-of-pearl button is a piece of the puzzle, each tiny mirror a reflection for our lives. Also, They present us with the artist’s notion of the second skin, challenging us to think about what is behind our own constructed selves.

William Kentridge

While Cave presents us with vibrant colors that ask us to look under the surface, South African artist William Kentridge explores the darkness around us. One room of the exhibition contains various prints created over the course of Kentridge’s career. They reflect his engaged political consciousness as a White South African; there is little joy to be found. In the next room is a massive installation piece, complete with a multi-layered soundtrack booming from various corners of the room, five separate screens onto which are projected a complex treatise on time and space, including maps and metronomes, Einstein’s theory of relativity and South Africa’s adoption of colonially-imposed time and rejection of a traditional agrarian clock.

At the center of the five simultaneously projecting screens is a giant “breathing machine.” Part pistons, part giant bellows, the machine keeps moving throughout the installation’s thirty-minute run time, echoing the continual movement of time itself, perhaps reminding us that no matter how we perceive our clocks, the organic machine of life keeps ticking around us.

The piece ends with a fantastic dirge, the shadowy performers banging on drums, blowing on horns, and presenting us with a giant clock, as if to deliver a climactic challenge to what we know about the construction of time. As all the screens fade to black, we are left with more questions than answers. What is time after all? Who is in control here? How do we mark each day — by labor or politics, by struggle or complacency, or by the interactions between the ones we love?

All photos by Rob Ribera. Ribera is a filmmaker and music video director in Boston. He is the co-creator of the music website, and is currently working on his American Studies at Boston University.

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