After five years the PBS series Art: 21 — Art in the Twenty-First Century is still the most enjoyable attempt to show a TV audience what contemporary artists do. It’s just about the only one, at least the only multi-part series, though there’s always the occasional documentary on cable and sometimes even a mini-festival of art docs. The series starts its fifth season tonight at 10 PM. I caught an early look at the first two of its four hour-long episodes, which feature some pretty notable names — William Kentridge, Carrie Mae Weems, Doris Salcedo, Jeff Koons and Mary Heilmann, to name a few.
Gee, did I just put Kentridge and Koons in the same sentence? No surprise — they’re not in the same episode.
Tonight’s episode is called “Compassion”, but I think that’s a title that smooths out some rough edges, because what it focuses on are three artists — Kentridge, Weems and Salcedo, — working with the nightmare of history.
The first part belongs to the South African Kentridge, whose retrospective is still traveling — I just saw it for a second time two weeks ago at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth — and whose production of the Shostakovich opera The Nose debuts in New York next year at the Metropolitan Opera. At one point in the segment Kentridge sounds a note that applies to all three artists when he describes how he feels about his work now that he’s in his fifties.
The first promptings to work as an artist are still there. The questions haven’t changed. How does one find a way, not of illustrating the society one lives in, but allowing what happens there to be part of the work.
Kentridge’s angle of approach to the tragic legacies of apartheid can be pretty oblique. A lot of it centers around his lovely series of hand drawn animated films about two characters, each based on an aspect of himself. His particular brand of enigmatic melancholy is hard to summarize, and I’m not sure his Art:21 segment succeeds in conveying what he’s up to in those films and the charcoal drawings related to them, to say nothing of the visuals for his production of The Nose — which is based on Gogol’s absurdist fantasy about a 19th-century Russian bureaucrat whose nose takes off on a life of its own. If you don’t know that he’s trying to touch on ideas about authority, revolt and personal responsibility in those visuals, I don’t know what you’ll make of watching Kentridge climb up and down a step ladder.
The segment featuring Carrie Mae Weems does a better job of clarifying her latest project. Weems got people to pose in the postures of iconic photographs of traumatic public events of the 1960s — everything from JFK’s Dallas motorcade to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy to the famous 1970 shot of a girl screaming over the body of a fallen student at Kent State. She treats them like Stations of the Cross, part of the long chain of sorrows that were the prelude to a sort of miracle, the election of an African-American president.
Weems doesn’t mention, at least not on camera, the tradition she’s obviously working within — the tableaux vivant, those elaborate party performances in which costumed guests would assume the poses of famous works of art, with backdrops and lighting to match as best they could. What she appears to be doing here is bringing the tabeaux vivant into the age of the news photo, investing it with a different kind of urgency, making the participants re-enact not just a picture but a moment of the genuine historical past, one that most of them were too young to remember. There are also precedents for this work in the staged photographs of the Pictorialist photographer F. Holland Day, who constructed and photographed scenes of Christ’s crucifixion — with himself as Christ, no less.