The Refusal of Time: William Kentridge at The Met

By Becky Rynor on February 07, 2014

William Kentridge (South African, born 1955), The Refusal of Time (installation view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) [2012], five-channel video with sound, megaphones, and breathing machine (‘elephant’), 30 minutes. A collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh, and Peter Galison. Jointly owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase, Roy R. and Marie S. Neuberger Foundation Inc. and Wendy Fisher Gifts and The Raymond and Beverly Sackler 21st Century Art Fund. 2013. © 2012 William Kentridge


Standing within the multi-layered soundscape of South African artist William Kentridge’s newest video installation will leave you mesmerized, transported, technically awestruck and intellectually tickled—all at the same time.

“It is a real masterpiece,” says Ian Alteveer, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where The Refusal of Time is being shown until 11 May 2014. “It consolidates many of William’s ideas that he has been working with over his career. But it’s also just a wonderfully immersive and exciting environment for the viewer. It has everything one would want in a Kentridge work.”

It also marks a continued foray by Kentridge into increasingly sophisticated and complex video work. What Will Come (2007)—in the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection—is still widely considered to be a technical feat and good old-fashioned storytelling.

The National Gallery also owns Procession (1999–2000), one of Kentridge’s bronze sculptures, again illustrating the creative range of an artist who has achieved international recognition for printmaking, sculpting and video work.  

The Refusal of Time is a joint acquisition between The Met and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

William Kentridge (South African, born 1955), The Refusal of Time (installation view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) [2012], five-channel video with sound, megaphones, and breathing machine (‘elephant’), 30 minutes. A collaboration with Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh, and Peter Galison. Jointly owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase, Roy R. and Marie S. Neuberger Foundation Inc. and Wendy Fisher Gifts and The Raymond and Beverly Sackler 21st Century Art Fund. 2013. © 2012 William Kentridge

At the heart of the installation is a moving sculpture—the “breathing machine” or “elephant”—an organ-like automaton with a pumping bellows. Kentridge was inspired by plans from the 1870s for copper pneumatic tubes under the streets of Paris, which would pump regular bursts of air to calibrate the city's clocks. The plans reminded Kentridge of a passage from Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times (1854), which describes a factory machine moving "monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.” Kentridge uses this as a metaphor for the often convulsive modern-day developments in science and industry, which he feels are vain efforts to control time.

Alteveer calls it “a marvelous, multi-layered work,” that builds on Kentridge’s roots. “He’s really a draughtsman first,” Alteveer says. “So the five channels of video have sections where they are animated by William’s drawings. There is live action, there is also animation and silhouette. The work ends with one of his very beautiful silhouette processions. So I think drawing, work on paper and books are always part of his work. Williams is this kind of ultimate bibliophile and uses pages from old books and encyclopaedias as the backdrop of some of the sections of the film.”

Kentridge collaborated on The Refusal of Time with artist Catherine Meyburgh, Harvard science historian Peter Galison, and South African music composer Philip Miller. He also worked with choreographers, filmmakers, and stage designers to create the animations and live-action sequences, including the final shadow procession that ends the 30-minute work. 

The Refusal of Time is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC until 11 May 2014.


By Becky Rynor| February 07, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor is a journalist and editor based in Ottawa.

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