Kentridge’s work covers many formats, from charcoal drawings, and film animations to complex video installations and multimedia performances, in which he explores painful histories, humanism and science. Here, I will examine his work in the light of its transition through and beyond postmodernism, from 1989 until present and reflect on his interpretation of culture in his art.
2 WILLIAM KENTRIDGE AND POSTMODERNISM (80’s – early 90’s)
After studying drama, art and politics in Johannesburg and Paris, Kentridge joined the South African art resistance movement against apartheid in the 80’s, when postmodernism was at its height in the western world. Kentridge’s fascination with the narrative of the triptych lead him to animation and the possibility of expressing time, space, memory and change on paper. He established his charcoal drawings at the heart of his animation films and his process was simple – make a mark, film it, then make another, erase some and film it again until movement appeared.  His work during the early 90’s gained international recognition as he reflected on his memories of apartheid in Johannesburg and its sporadic breakdown in an anti-apartheid culture.
Between 1989 and 1996, his animation films were thematically aligned with postmodernism’s skepticism of metanarratives and depicted South African society’s fragmentation, diversity and multiplicity under apartheid. He questioned metaphysical abstracts, such as freedom, justice and truth, through pathos  within a framework similar to Plato’s dialogue structures.  Visual dialogues between fictitious characters allowed him to comment on thorny issues, so that over time their conversations reflected his personal search for meaning within the socio-political milieu of South Africa.
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s retrospective on postmodernism, dated its end as early as 1990 in western culture.  However, postmodernism lasted longer in South Africa until apartheid was abolished in 1994 and it continued to influence a post anti-apartheid culture thereafter. This culture was tainted by a new influence that tolerated a return to metaphysics, on postmodern terms of skepticism, as was evident in Kentridge’s approach. Jean Francois Lyotard in his appendix to The Postmodern Condition, explained the relationship between Postmodernism and Modernism as follows, ‘Where modern art presents the unpresentable as a missing content within a beautiful form, postmodern art, exemplified by James Joyce, puts forward the unpresentable by forgoing beautiful form itself. Furthermore, a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern, for postmodernism is not modernism as its end, but in its nascent state, that is, at the moment it attempts to present the unpresentable.’  It explains why Kentridge’s work starts out as being postmodern, but as soon as he appropriates meaning to it, it transforms to modernism, only to collapse under the weight of the meta-narrative and revert back to being postmodern once again.
3 KENTRIDGE AND THE MODERN ROMANTIC AESTHETIC (late 90’s to early 2000’s)
The next group of animation films between 1996 until 2001, were made as Web 1 became commercialized, the technology inspired Dot-com boom erupted and Wikipedia was launched based on the concept that users can add content to the internet.  It was therefore no surprise that he became interested in digital communication during this time. By 2002, Web 2 was all over most of the world and it significantly influenced a digital culture. Alan Kirby believed that it was at this point that a new cultural aesthetic developed.  It was in this climate that Kentridge made two films in 2003 and both were childlike and playful, focused on himself at the center of the story. In Tide Table, it is about Kentridge the young boy’s relationship with his older self, Soho, who is awkward and out of place in his suit on the beach, while reading the Tide Tables.  In Journey to the Moon, Kentridge is again the main performer, but this time in live-film, comically playing games by walking backwards, speeding up or slowing down time and looking through miniature gadgets at things, searching even the night skies, as if looking for God, but seemingly disconnected from reality, because he does not see his wife standing right beside him.  A sense of feebleness and profound loss are experienced in his self-centeredness, amidst technology in a world where God is absent. These films embraced a romantic nostalgia for his childhood expressed haphazardly, perceived as honest and truthful, similar to the style of YouTube videos.
Just like The Enlightenment paradoxically helped to create a new wave of emotionalism, which came to be known as Romanticism (early 1800’s), a similar mood now followed postmodernism. There was a spread of earnestness and a turn towards endless narrative. Kirby noted that the top 10 grossing films worldwide, between 1999 and 2007, were increasingly more than half children stories and he coined the new mood digimodernism. It was characterized by haphazardness, evanescence, anonymity and multiple authorship and its traits were earnestness, endlessness and the apparently real – as seen in Disney children films. 
4 KENTRIDGE OSCILLATING BETWEEN POSTMODERNISM AND MODERNISM (late 2000’s to 2013)
Similarly to Romanticism of the early 1800’s, which favoured the revival not of one style, but of potentially unlimited styles through the rediscovery of old forms previously neglected or scorned upon, more and more, contemporary artists now began to pursue revivals after postmodernism. Likewise, in 2010 Kentridge returned to old modern themes of colonialism, born under The Enlightenment, and the absurdity of politics, in the production of two operas, The Magic Flute and The Nose. He also returned to old forms used by the Russian Constructivists, by making paper cut out figures and combining it with old footage and live film as combines on film. This was further elaborated on in Refuse the Hour performance and the Dancing with Dada operetta. 
Together with science historian, Peter Galison, they commented on Science as an authoritative modern theory. In collaboration, they performed The Refusal of Time , at Documenta (13). ‘It was about our fascination with the abstract notion of time, embodied in the material world,’ said Galison.  The installation incorporated multimedia i.e. old and new film footage, animation, books, machines, music and theater into a chaotic collage of the meaninglessness of modern life.  This shift towards science could be compared to Phillip Pullman’s Dark Material series, where he justified his children stories by the science of quantum mechanics.
Mary Holland in her recent book, Succeeding Postmodernism, described our western culture as challenged by narcissism and self-reflexive solipsism. Kentridge’s work now also turned progressively towards a kind of self-reflection-theme between the passive-authoritarian self and the child-adult self in his performances and operettas.
Kentridge developed his later works increasingly out of the tension that existed between modernism and postmodernism, between the over abundance of meaning and the absolute lack of meaning that prevailed in our western culture. Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen referred to it as the metamodern culture – constantly oscillating between modern enthusiasm and postmodern irony. 
Kentridge’s growing international recognition, especially amongst art students, reflects his ability to interpret contemporary western culture into honest and playful personal experiences, which are easy to relate to. This was especially true of his encounter with Romanticism which was authentic and delicately balanced between what was yearned for and what was present in the prevailing culture, at the time.
However, from his lecture series, it is obvious that he has a strong interest in philosophical theories because he relates his work to so many diverse theories on culture (from metamodernism, digimodernism to altermodernism, the latter describing a synthesis between modernism and post colonialism, otherness and elsewheres – all favourite themes of his) and one wonders whether it is theory that drives his art.
It is my contention that culture is significant in driving art, but that alone it is not enough. Kentridge’s authenticity ultimately remains the most important contributor to his success as an artist.
- SFMOMA. 2009. William Kentridge on his process [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/356. [Assessed 7 November 2014]
- Kunst Halle Krems. 2013. Exhibition: Deep feelings from Antiquity to the present. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.kunsthalle.at/en/kunsthalle-krems/exhibitions/grosse-gefuehle. [Accessed 11 November 14].
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2013. Plato. [ONLINE] Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato/. [Accessed 15 August 2014].
- Docx, E. 2011. Postmodernism is dead. Prospect magazine. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/postmodernism-is-dead-va-exhibition-age-of-authenticism. [Accessed 8 October 2014]
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. Postmodernism. [ONLINE] Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/. [Accessed 11 November 14].
- Wikipedia. 2014. History of the World Wide Web. [ONLINE] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_World_Wide_Web. wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_World_Wide_Web. [Assessed 1 November 14].
- Kirby, A. Digimodernism: How new technologies dismantle the postmodern and reconfigure our culture. Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2009. p2,
- SFMOMA. 2009. William Kentridge on his film Tide Tables. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/355. [Assessed 7 November 2014]
- Jeu de Paume. Exhibition: William Kentridge Five Themes, 29 June – 5 September 2010.
- Kirby, A. Digimodernism: How new technologies dismantle the postmodern and reconfigure our culture. Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 2009. p3.
- Jeu de Paume. Exhibition: William Kentridge Five Themes, 29 June – 5 September 2010.
- Breidbach, A, 2011. Refuse the Hour. Artsouthafrica, p38-41.
- Koerner, M. 2012. Death, Time, Soup: a Conversation with William Kentridge and Peter Galison. The New York Review of Books. p3.
- Vermeulen, T., van den Akker, R. 2010. Notes on Metamodernism. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, p1, p4, p14
LIST OF FILMS, OPERAS AND LECTURES
- 1989 Johannesburg: 2nd greatest city after Paris – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpamsEdCbX8
- 1990 Monument
- 1991 Mine – http://vimeo.com/66486337
- 1991 Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old – http://www.frequency.com/video/william-kentridge-art- piece–sobriety/78789489/-/5-63091
- 1994 Felix in Exile – http://vimeo.com/66485044
- 1996 History of the main complaint- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oWt89CPOpc
- 1996 Ubu tells the truth – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGWEMIyzKQ4
- 1998 Weighing and wanting
- 1999 Stereoscope
- 2001 Automatic writing- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmvK7A84dlk
- 2001 Medicine chest
- 2003 Tide Table – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZcQbOPUw9Y
- 2003 Journey to the moon – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPf63b6Glz8
- 2005 Preparing the flute – Animated sequences from the full scale production of the Magic Flute
- 2007 What will come (has already come) – Anamorphic projection around Assan stick http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOelLd5bQDo
- 2008 Repeat from the beginning – Kinetic sculpture http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uctUGTbPpr0
- 2009 Five Themes – Process, The Magic Flute, Art Changes, Felix, Magic http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/95/557
- 2010 The Nose (based on Shostakovich’s opera) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nD_oW9pb3O8
- 2011 Other faces (animation can be viewed in part 1 of I am not me – Mumbai lecture series)
- 2011 Refuse the hour – Series of performances at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg
- 2012 I am not me the horse is not mine http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Py86U9gS6k
- 2012 Lecture series at Mumbai Volte: (includes Other faces, The Nose, Flip books) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jl2r_08jT40&list=PLrRaPXv3LuuMErT_runHDbu_9hT-ghgPx&index=3
- 2012 The Refusal of Time – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0a3vTrPGgk
- 2012 The Refusal of Time Lectures as Six drawing lessons at Harvard University & Five drawing lessons at Wits University (Includes: In praise of Shadows, A brief history of colonial revolts, Vertical thinking, JHB, Practical epistemology: Life in the studio, Anti entropy, Can we avoid the end of all potentiality?) http://www.films.com/ecTitleDetail.aspx?TitleID=30894