William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time at the ICA


South African artist William Kentridge’s recent installations have skillfully integrated moving image, sound, theater and sculptural elements in order to explore themes of science, globalization, colonialism, and memory.

The 30-minute, five-channel video installation The Refusal of Time, which features live action, song, and the innovative animation for which Kentridge is known, came out of years of discussion and collaboration between Kentridge and Peter Galison, professor of History of Science at Harvard University, about different historical conceptions of time.

Viewers of the work are met by a “breathing machine,” called an elephant, and a platoon of projected metronomes, each asserting its own inescapable tempo. The elephant is a reference to Dickens’s Hard Times, in which machines move “like an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.”

Kentridge and Galison outline a history of our changing comprehension of time, from an early celestial understanding to Newton’s absolute or mathematically precise time, to the subjective influence of Einstein and his theory of relativity. Contrasting the version of time once performed by a town jeweler, who used the sun and his best instruments to fix the correct time on a village clock, with Britain’s imposition of a universal time throughout its empire, Galison writes that time shifted from the realm of “metaphysics to coordinated signals.”

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