In the basement of Marian Goodman, William Kentridge has conceived an office-like installation and 'archive performance' themed around a speech that Leon Trotsky recorded. As he was in exile in Turkey, Trotsky was unable to travel to Paris to give the speech but hoped to somehow get it delivered, but failed to do so. Kentridge came across the speech when he was in Amsterdam in 2015. Through this exhibition, the South African artist has belatedly fulfilled Trotsky's wish and explored Trotsky's belief about the limited programmability of human beings: Trotsky wrote that humans are “sentimental but programmable machines” but believed that machines and human beings became unreliable if they fell in love.
While Trotsky's speech about Soviet communism plays out on one video screen, Kentridge parodies it in a comical performance on a second video screen. Kentridge, as Trotsky, barks orders to his secretary who becomes increasingly crazy, printing endless sheets of paper off her typewriter that swirl around in the air. This particular slapstick refers to how Trotsky's secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, fell in love with Arthur Ransome, the British author of the 'Swallows and Amazons' children's books, and supposedly became less reliable in her secretarial role. Interspersed with such vignettes is historical footage of Bolshevik marches.
Office doors, a desk with three pairs of glasses and an accounts book, a clock set at 10 o'clock, a coat rack with a coat, umbrella and hat, and a plain sofa and chairs all evoke a sparse office environment.
Kentridge's investigation into 19th-20th-century thinkers continues on the ground floor in a series of multi-part portraits, including Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, as well as Trotsky.
Also on view are appropriations of Manet's flower paintings, but in Kentridge's works the hyacinths are in Consol jars, used in South Africa for homemade jam. This idea grew out of his curiosity as to why Manet, who once depicted 'The Execution of Maximilian' (the Austrian Archduke installed in Mexico by Napoleon as a puppet emperor who was executed by Mexican forces), turned to painting flowers in the winter of his life. Next to these are double-portrait ink and collage diptychs of Manet and his wife.
Altogether, the show is revealing of Kentridge's fascinations and his multidisciplinary way of engaging with them.