Wednesday, May 2, 2007

To Tell the Truth

The PMA recently released a new podcast of the April 12, 2007, conversation between South African artist William Kentridge and Michael Taylor, the museum's Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art, titled “Alfred Jarry/Ubu and the Truth Commission.” (Kentridge’s unrelated Untitled [Man With Megaphone] is above.)

Taylor, who in an earlier podcast spoke on “Painting and ‘Pataphysics from Max Ernst to Thomas Chimes” from March 9, 2007, sees a direct line from Alfred Jarry’s use of his Ubu figure to comment on late 19th/early 20th century France bourgeois culture, to Max Ernst's use of Jarry’s Ubu to comment on 20th century fascism, to Kentridge’s use of Ubu to comment on the Truth Commission, the South African investigation into atrocities committed under apartheid.

Kentridge sees a fundamental paradox in the operation of the Truth Commission, in which those who had committed the atrocities would receive amnesty if they confessed everything. Only those who did not confess would be tried, thus creating a system encouraging truth at the expense of justice. Kentridge uses Jarry’s Ubu figure in etchings, plays, and short animated films to show how the “rapaciousness, greed, violence, [and] self pity” of Ubu was reproduced in real life in the endgame of the South African tragedy.

Just as Jarry felt that the most absurd images could be the most naturalistic, Kentridge finds the most grotesque images exposed by the Truth Commission to be the most emblematic, such as the before and after photos of a pig wearing booby-trapped exploding headphones (a test run for an assassination device successfully used on a political dissenter). Kentridge recreates the Truth Commission-generated race between the “photocopier” (those who wanted to confess and save themselves) and the “paper shredder” (those who wanted to destroy evidence) in one of his plays through the absurd figure of Niles the Crocodile, a living shredder of the evidence Ubu feeds him.

Jarry’s sense of the “complete seriousness of the activity of playing,” Kentridge says, and his belief that “you are played by the game, not you playing the game,” inspired Kentridge to modernize Ubu and his “absurd, fragmented” world to illuminate the world of his native South Africa.

With this great podcast, the PMA continues their excellent presentation of the Thomas Chimes Adventures in ‘Pataphysics exhibit. The depth and variety of the presentation of the works of Chimes and Alfred Jarry, and their continued relevance today, testifies to the excellent scholarship of Michael Taylor and the museum’s commitment to art education.

(One last little note for the great folks at the PMA who make these podcasts available and who have already heard me whine for more of them. During this conversation, two short films were shown in addition to a slide show. Is there any chance of ever doing video podcasts of these presentations as well? Aside from the obvious permission problem videos of art presents, I don’t see much of a difference between what you’re doing now and a video equivalent, especially for art not easily accessible or familiar to most people. I don’t personally have a video iPod, but it’s clearly the wave of the future. The PMA would really score points with the technorati if they were on the forefront of this wave.)

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