The Big Frieze – Epic Undertaking

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The banks of the River Tiber in Rome were alive with light, shadow and music in a site-specific performance along the Piazza Tevere celebrating Rome’s symbolic birthday on April 21.
Triumphs and Laments is a massive production,comprising a 550 meter-long frieze, conceived by world-renowned South African artist William Kentridge in collaboration with fellow SA composer Philip Miller, under the artistic direction of American artist Kristin Jones.

This part of the River Tiber has long attracted artistic interventions. Over the years, artists and musicians have been invited to stage performances and projects along the embankment that also attract Rome’s graffiti writers, who regularly add their names to the stone walls in bright spray paint.

Kentridge’s mural uses the same method—large-scale stencils of his drawings are set in place, and the walls around them are powerwashed clean, leaving behind the figure in the dark, natural dirt of the wall. Over time, the frieze itself will gradually vanish, its lines of definition fading as the pollution and organic growth become established again in the porous stone wall. The frieze will probably remain visible for about five years, before it recedes into obscurity.

Dubbed ”the largest work of art created in Rome since the Sistine Chapel”, Triumphs and Laments comprises more than 80 figures, some up to 12 meters tall in a monumental frieze illustrating Rome’s mythological and modern history, such as the figure of Remus, slain by his brother Romulus, to a recreation of the iconic Trevi Fountain scene in La Dolce Vita.

Using ”reverse grafitti” the figures appear in dark silhouette along the wall in a procession-like arrangement, as though marching through history. Shadow processions are recurring elements in Kentridge’s work, found in his work across many mediums, from early animations made using puppets of torn black paper, to recent multi-screen film installations with the shadows of live actors and dancers marching across projected digital scenes.

While Kentridge is best known for his charcoal drawings, paintings, and animated films dealing with the social injustice of apartheid South Africa, his interest in music and theatre has also been a constant presence in his work. Kentridge’s interest in performing arts extends beyond his own artwork; he has created the stage design for operas by Monteverdi, Mozart, and Shostakovich.

For the musical complement to his own work, Kentridge has collaborated with the Cape Town-based composer Philip Miller, who has composed, scored, and performed the original music for many of Kentridge’s films over the past 20 years starting with one of the artist’s earliest animated films, Felix in Exile (1994). For the viewer, Miller’s scores may define the work nearly as much as Kentridge’s aesthetic.

As is true of any epic undertaking, this project has been a long time in coming. Jones enthusiastically proclaims Triumphs and Laments “William Kentridge’s greatest drawing ever—an ephemeral drawing for the Eternal City”.
15 years in the making, it promises to deliver a memorable celebration of the city and a bright gift to its public. ”The magnitude of the unveiling clashes rather poignantly with the transience of the artwork … by presenting Rome with a mirror of itself that will, inevitably fade into darkness”.

Acknowledgement Mutual Art and Jessie Cohen – Financial Mail (April 22 – 27 2016)

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