Malevolent Birds and Opera

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Bwog staffer Julia Butareva reviews the Marian Goodman Gallery‘s exhibit featuring William Kentridge’s preparatory drawings for his production of the opera The Magic Flute.

In Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Sarastro, priest of Osiris and Isis and champion of the Enlightenment, triumphs over the mysterious and irrational Queen of the Night. Sarastro is first presented as a malevolent figure: he has kidnapped the Queen’s daughter, and the prince Tamino is enlisted by the Queen to rescue her, in exchange for her hand in marriage. When the prince discovers that Sarastro abducted the princess to protect her from her mother’s poisonous influence, he is won over by Sarastro’s mildness and wisdom and becomes his disciple. Choosing knowledge and reason over superstition helps him overcome multiple trials and win the hand of the princess.

Now, what is a South African artist living in the modern world supposed to do with that? How does he stage an opera that celebrates the Age of Reason in the West? Well, if he is William Kentridge, he uses it as an opportunity to treat his favorite theme – the uncertainty and contradiction inherent in Enlightenment ideals.

On display at the Marian Goodman Gallery is a working model and a series of drawings Kentridge made in preparation for his production of the opera. The model includes projections and sound, and the drawings incorporate charcoal and collage.

The drawings are amazing. Many of them are of birds and cages, a reference to the bird-catcher Papageno who befriends Tamino, but also to irrational forces that are locked up under the Enlightenment. One drawing shows a bird flapping in a cage, but the cage has been partially erased and the flapping wings are almost entirely gone. The viewer can’t be sure whether the bird was, is, or will be caged. “Preparing the Flute (Traces of Bird Flapping I – III)” shows what it’s title indicates: a bird in different stages of flapping its partially erased wings. Like photographs, they are indelible physical recordings of an event – the act of drawing – that took place over time.

Another, “Preparing the Flute (Landscape with Dead Trees),” shows a barren landscape, and a partially erased gallows. The gallows is a ghostly, eerie element. And the landscape looks like the African veldt, hardly the most likely setting for an idealistic German opera. The territory of the Queen of the Night, on the other hand, looks like a simple, generic jungle landscape. It’s confusing at first that Kentridge would draw such a thing. It looks naïve – the jungle according to someone who’s never seen it, though without the symbolist element – until you notice the ferns. They’re cycads: living fossils, contemporaries of the dinosaurs that are found in South Africa. Kentridge weaves a complicated web of associations between the Queen of the Night, the irrational, and the non-Western. He challenges the legitimacy of Flute’s ideals even in his stage design.

Since this is stage design, it’s easy to dismiss the strange numbers and dotted lines that slice and circumscribe the drawings as just part of the plan. Look closer, however, and you find that many of them are not quite straight or elliptical. The numbers, on closer inspection, turn out to be meaningless. And then you come to the drawing of birds smugly sitting on a ruler. It seems solid, but the illusion collapses on closer inspection. Reason fails and falls in this world’s indistinct structures and vaguely malignant birds.

Kentridge is South Africa’s most famous artist, known for his wonderfully creepy charcoals and his subtly allegorical short films about poor, harassed Soho Eckstein. His interpretation of The Magic Flute can’t be seen in New York, but it’s clear that he pulled off the project. Even as he takes down the Enlightenment in this show, he reminds you that Mozart’s music – and art, beauty, and mystery – is still tenable.

William Kentridge: The Magic Flute: Drawings and Projections

On view until February 25th

Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57th Street

1 to Columbus Circle, then walk east along 57th Street

Hours: 10am-6pm Mon-Sat

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