Making Meaning: Kentridge’s “Refusal of Time”

"Refusal of Time" with elephant, William Kentrdige
“Refusal of Time” with elephant, William Kentrdige

I tried to come up with a better title for this blog, but honestly, the one above says it all. Recently in class we’ve been discussing how visitors make meaning, and how we as museum professionals and educators can better facilitate opportunities for visitors to create meaning. The basic concept of Hans-Georg Gadmer’s interpretation of meaning making, where a visitor connects their prior knowledge of an idea with new and evolved ideas presented to them in an exhibit or learning space, has really stuck with me, as well as his notion of bringing people and objects together to have a conversation and, consequently, create meaning. I think, in some way, we have all had this sort of experience (whether or not it was in a museum), where we have knowledge of some fact or notion, and when new information that builds upon and expands that notion is presented to us, we have that moment of, “whoa, no way, I had no idea!”

I had a moment like that during my visit to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston last week.

I went to the ICA last Thursday to see William Kentridge’s “Refusal of Time”. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary art, but from reading about the exhibition online it sounded new and different, something I had not seen before. It helped that it was a gorgeous sunny day out, the first we have really seen in months, and I was desperate to get out of the house. It took me a solid 2 hours just to get to the ICA because I was too busy enjoying the Harbor Walk along Fort Point. But I finally got there, and after securing my #ITweetMuseums pin and making sure I could take pictures in the exhibit (yes, but no video), I made my way up to the 4th floor galleries to check out the exhibit.

It starts out in a small gallery, with a dozen or so of Kentridge’s charcoal and mixed media pieces. My favorite was “Untitled”, a large charcoal sketch of a waterfall in a jungle. What immediately caught my eye were the red lines throughout the otherwise grayscale piece. The lines had two meanings, both of which I found incredibly interesting: they could be either the line of a surveyor’s instrument, or the laser of a gun sight.

I learned this before reading the introductory text to the multimedia show, “Refusal of Time”. What I learned was that the show was done in response to the British imperialism and domination of South Africa (Kentridge’s home country) and other African nations, and to the notion that because Britain had the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian, that Britain controlled time. It took the idea of Einstein’s declaration that time is relative, and expanded upon this to destroy the notion that Britain could control time, and therefore shook the foundation of its imperialistic dominance. This intro text spoke of a plot to destroy the Royal Observatory in 1894, something I had never before heard about. With all of this information in mind, I settled in to watch the 30 minute long, five-screened multimedia show.

To describe what I saw would a) take forever, and b) ruin the experience for anyone thinking about seeing the show. Let me tell you: you should go. Kentridge plays with the visual and auditory to create an entirely immersive experience. You don’t want to leave mid-way through, because you are completely enthralled with the action on each screen. The elephant in the room (sort of literally; Kentridge created a breathing machine to represent the machines that pumped air into clocks in Paris so each would be exact and precise) wasn’t as loud as I thought it would be; in fact, I didn’t hear it at all. Kentridge collaborated with Peter Galison, a professor of the History of Science at Harvard, on the project, and together they created an experience that outlines the changes in how we view space and time. There was live-action, sculpture, sketches, and Kentridge himself walking on chairs in the show. At one point, Kentridge describes the event horizon of a black hole, and compares it to Charon ferrying souls across the River Styx (just go see the show I can’t explain this to you). Megaphones placed throughout the gallery project conflicting sounds and voices (so be careful where you sit). Kentridge narrates throughout, taking us on this mad journey to bring down the Royal Observatory and take back time.

So, how did I make meaning from this?

I majored in history in undergrad. I have always found history to be amazing, especially history that often goes overlooked. Guys, I had never heard of the 1894 plot to destroy the Royal Observatory. I want to know more about this. All I have found so far is this one article from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where even they admit there is little known beyond manuscript notes and contemporary newspaper articles. I walked away from that exhibit desperate to know more, and I still feel that way. I was almost overwhelmed by sensory overload during the show, but I could not look away because I had to know. At one point, a hand flips through an atlas, listing cities and towns in Africa that revolted against British oppression during the early 20th century. I walked away wishing I had paid more attention during my History of South Africa class. I walked away feeling like I had learned something new, from art that I generally don’t go out of my way to see (contemporary art). I walked away with new appreciation for how contemporary art can take the most amazing backroads to bring you to your final destination.

I guess to explain meaning making would be a futile effort; we can’t define meaning making beyond a vague inclination, because meaning making is different for every individual, based on experiences and prior knowledge. For me, my experience has been to absorb history, to learn more, to seek out the information I don’t have so I can share it with others. Perhaps it would be fair to say that I don’t always view art as art, but as a vehicle for communicating history. To me, history is central to the human condition; without it, what are we? How do we learn if we can’t learn from the past? How can we reach forward if we don’t know what brought us to the present? These are the questions that drive me, that push me to be a better researcher, that make me look at the world a little differently than others.

I’ve just deleted a paragraph several times because I don’t want to continue to speculate and sound redundant. Everyone has their own method of meaning making. Let’s just leave it at that. But to become better museum professionals, to create a welcoming environment for our visitors, we must create an engaging, accessible, universally designed space for the greatest amount of enjoyment possible. We must create an atmosphere of energy and excitement, and work with multiple learning styles. If we can do this, we can help more visitors have meaning-making moments. And that’s really the point, isn’t it?




Making Meaning: Kentridge’s “Refusal of Time”