The concept of time has been developing since the dawn of reason. Through various ways of attempting to measure, control, and understand it, theories have come and gone, from the first sundials to modern string theory. In a video installation titled The Refusal of Time, South African artist William Kentridge examines humanity’s encounters with time, influenced by his conversations with Peter Galison, professor of history of science at Harvard University. Interweaving his South African roots with the history of time theory, the installation serves as a poignant reflection on how human contemplation of time has led to its refusal. The installation runs through May 4 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, with an exhibit of Kentridge’s various drawings being shown in the room preceding the video.
Upon entering the room, the viewer is met with darkness. There is one spotlight, aimed at the very center of the space. Bathed in its light is a “breathing machine” called an “elephant.” Silently, the automaton’s arms move up and down, and nestled within it is a pumping bellows. Scattered about are pairs of chairs for the audience, with four large, silver megaphones set up on tripods looming over them. The video, which runs at just over 30 minutes, is projected on the walls in five separate channels, each depicting its own version of the scenes within the piece.
The video opens with a metronome, the first of the five projections starting at a steady walking tempo. Each subsequent metronome then joins in with a different pace, with instruments then collaborating with the fray of tick-tocks jumping from one metronome’s tempo to another. This begins Kentridge’s examination of time, with the ticking continuing on as a motif for each progression of human understanding of time-from early, celestial-based knowledge, to Newtonian theories, to Einstein’s own findings, finally ending in black hole theory. Each section is accompanied by a combination of music or song, live action footage, and animation-Kentridge is most celebrated for the latter.
Amid the rather chaotic feel of the imagery in the installation is a calculated understanding of human interaction with time. Repetition is littered throughout scenes and, more often than not, is the focal point. Moments are reversed and then played again, usually in groups of three, while others are endless loops of one repeated action. Each of the five channels also plays its own version of the video, each telling a slightly different narrative, though the repetition never fails to make an appearance. Voiced over these are explanations of the different theories, providing a context and cohesion to each segment.
While knowledge of time theories is not necessary in understanding the work as a whole, an awareness of Kentridge’s South African background and the history of the country’s past tainted by apartheid are crucial prior to viewing. The culture of South Africa is a constant presence in the actors, some of the music, and the dancing portrayed throughout the piece. Also necessary is the knowledge of what Kentridge means by the “refusal” here: he means to examine humanity’s resistance to the pressure of the inevitability of death. This is not to mean escaping mortality-it is the escape of its implications, of the restraints it applies to humans, bound to limited time.
Unsettling and self-reflective, The Refusal of Time as a whole engulfs the viewer in the world of time. Although the scenes are obviously split into their own respective theories, standing alone they would not be as poignant in getting Kentridge’s message across. Especially effective is the black hole theory sequence, one of the last in the video. The white streaks falling down a black background are almost ominous in the context of black hole theory, with what they may be depicting being left to the viewer. With the final parade sequence bound to echo within the viewer’s mind long after leaving the Institute of Contemporary Art, Kentridge’s attention to detail as well as expertise in video and animation pull together into an installation that is equally as thought-provoking as it is discomforting.