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MCA revisits the movable magic of William Kentridge

Handspring Puppet Company: Woyzeck Highveld

Handspring Puppet Company: Woyzeck on the Highveld

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When: Wednesday-March 17

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago

Tickets: $12 (suggested)

Info: (312) 280-2660;

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:02AM

As the violent upheaval in South Africa’s platinum and gold mines hit the headlines recently, it was William Kentridge, the South-African artist, filmmaker and designer of opera and theater who has collaborated frequently with the Handspring Puppet Company (the South Africa-based troupe that devised “War Horse,” the hit London and Broadway show, which opens here Dec. 18), who immediately sprang to mind.

It wasn’t simply that Kentridge, born in 1955 into a family of Lithuanian-Jewish descent (his father was a prominent anti-apartheid and civil rights lawyer), knew first-hand about South Africa’s history, and about the difficult decades since that racially poisonous system of apartheid was officially ended. Rather, it was the brilliant and subtle ways in which the artist captured elements of that world, while simultaneously spinning deeply personal, frequently erotic scenarios that embrace the full spectrum of the human condition.

In addition, by sheer coincidence, there was the fact that Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which presented the first survey exhibition of Kentridge’s work in the United States in 2001, and a larger retrospective in 2009, is revisiting its Kentridge holdings with an exhibition titled “MCA DNA: William Kentridge” (opening Sept. 19 and running through March 17, 2013).

Meanwhile, as part of its Performance Series, the MCA will present the Handspring Puppet Company production of “Woyzeck on the Highveld” (Sept. 27-30), which Kentridge initially directed in 1992.

Drawing entirely on its own collection of Kentridge works, the small but revealing MCA exhibition will feature nine drawings, as well as two of the artist’s best-known black-and-white films, “Felix in Exile” (1994) and “History of the Main Complaint” (1996).

The drawings in the show were studies for “Main Complaint” — the sixth work in his landmark series of innovative stop-motion films comprised of expressionistic charcoal sketches to which he applied his fascinating technique of erasure. Created shortly after the establishment of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, “Main Complaint” investigates the complicated legacy of apartheid by way of the conflicted unconscious of two men — Soho Eckstein, the fat-cat white industrialist with mining interests who dresses in pinstriped suits, and Felix Teitlebaum, the romantic artist, always shown nude, who clearly serves as Kentridge’s alter ego.

Also part of the show will be “Portage,” created specially for the catalogue of MCA’s 2001 show. For this collage series, Kentridge used pages from a vintage French-language encyclopedia as the “backdrop” for a march of humanity populated by various torn-paper characters seen in silhouette — some weary, some stoical, some exuberant — and all suggesting South-African history.

“William Kentridge’s work [the drawings here were initially purchased by Chicago collectors Susan and Lew Manilow who immediately donated them to the museum] becomes more and more important, and its power and timeliness only increase,” said Lynne Warren, curator of the MCA show. “His technique combines so many different forms, and even draws on his early background as an actor. And he puts so much of himself into the work. His nakedness is a nakedness of the soul, and his innermost thoughts and feelings. And even if you have no knowledge of South Africa’s history you cannot help but be moved by his art; it evokes such empathy, reveals such a desire to learn and understand. The question he asks is: How do we human beings try to reconcile with the horrible, harsh truths of our society?”

Warren noted that as she looked at the drawings again she also was struck by the many antiquated machines she saw in them — things like rotary phones that were obsolete even in a country that had faced years of sanctions.

“Many younger people are wholly unfamiliar with them,” she said. “So I decided to put together a special little display case filled with old machines, including a manual typewriter and cast-iron seal press. There is just such a poignancy in how technology changes from generation to generation.”

As for the Handsprings puppet piece, “Woyzeck on the Highveld,” it is a reworking of Georg Buchner’s landmark 19th-century German Expressionist drama about a poor German soldier driven to murder. Here it tells of a poor black migrant worker in 1956 Johannesburg who is undone by an oppressive industrialized society, and by the sight of Maria, his lover and the mother of his child, responding to the advances of a higher-paid miner.

“Much has changed in South Africa, but many things have not,” said Kentridge. “But as I watched rehearsals of ‘Woyzeck’ recently I was struck by how astonishingly apt it feels — how it fits into this moment when there are different levels of poverty, and where the gap between the rich and poor is ever greater, with the mining business an extreme example.”

“I’ve learned a lot from puppets,” Kentridge confessed. “The most minute gestures of those wooden creatures are crucial.”

Told about Warren’s display case, Kentridge observed: “The older mechanical technology just made process more visible; it gave you a physical connection to what was being done. Now we operate on trust, on virtual things.”

Kentridge was celebrated with a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010, mounted in conjunction with “The Nose,” the Shostakovich opera he designed for New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. He is now gearing up for his next big project — a return to the Met in the fall of 2015 with a production of Alban Berg’s sensational opera, “Lulu.”

Performances of Handspring Puppet Company’s “Woyzeck on the Highveld” run Sept. 27-30. Tickets are $35; call (312) 397-4010.

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