The night before William Kentridge’s recent staging of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose (1930) opened, the artist delivered a lecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where his travelling retrospective was then being presented. Several Kentridges multiplied across the stage, as the artist was set upon by various projected versions of himself: by turns bored, dubious and reproachful. The dissenting, palimpsestic voices at MoMA, and the next evening at the Metropolitan Opera itself, included not just Kentridge’s own, but also those of Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Nikolai Gogol (whose 1836 short story was the basis for Shostakovich’s opera). Even Miguel de Cervantes was in the auditorium, having snuck in by way of a line from Lawrence Sterne. By emphasizing how these earlier figures had infiltrated his own readings, Kentridge visibly opened up his thought process to further fracturing until it seemed to explode into a heap of ghostly refractions and tiny fragments. This debris was what Kentridge swept up to create his proscenium of scattered associations, references and art-historical invocations.
In Gogol’s fanciful tale, Major Kovalyov, a Russian bureaucrat awakes one morning to find that his nose has decided to wander off into the bustling streets of Saint Petersburg. Defying the laws of corporeal boundaries, the nose grows rapidly to monstrous proportions, assuming the guise of a human official of higher rank who refuses to recognize the authority of the master body. ‘But you are my very own nose,’ the noseless Kovalyov insists. ‘Nonsense,’ retorts the brazen appendage. Both nonsensical and deeply symbolic, Gogol’s tale gestures not only to the difficulties we have in controlling our own errant bodies and their willful impulses, but also to the challenges of holding ourselves together as semi-coherent subjects.
With noses to catch, ‘traditions to sift’ and ‘blank spaces’ to fill, this recent staging – conducted by Valery Gergiev with Paulo Szot in the lead role – swept through history, gathering with it nuggets of absurd wisdom and ‘piles of senseless requests’. These it deposited before the viewer in unruly stacks of paper stamped with Constructivist typography and walls of streaming text. Stage sets deluged with words unfolded like enormous newspapers: red squares and black crosses span across classified ads and encyclopaedia entries, dodging English headlines and Russian aphorisms. Random quotations cycled by, only to be contradicted by querulous reprimands or doubtful comments: ‘Ah, well…’ or ‘Not entirely so!’
If the visible layering of text in Kentridge’s stage set intimated the production’s stratified intertextuality, it also invoked this visual extravaganza’s structuring dialectic: chaotic excess punctuated by moments of reprieve. Hence the chorus of dissenting voices introduced in the artist’s lecture was matched by an equally dissonant array of imagery and an ambitious range of media: the architecture of the set scrolled into sculptural, newspapery shelves; sculpture flattened into drawing; while collage, prints, video, archival film footage and shadow projection joined the mix. The strident black, red and white armies of marching text, vying for attention with flashing projections and Shostokovich’s raucous music, induced an almost giddy hyper-stimulation. All this finally gave way to an image of early-20th-century ballerina Anna Pavlova, spinning gracefully through space (albeit mounted by a gargantuan nose).
By juggling various types of excess and by trading in aphoristic smatterings and broken fragments, Kentridge toyed with the total collapse of form, both visual and narrative. At one point, for example, a horse wrought from interlocking segments of torn black paper clambered onto a pedestal, bearing its rider – the monstrous, flag-flapping Nose – into the tableau of an equestrian statue. Crowds surged; Shostokovich’s piano part hammered away. But then it all shattered: the horse imploded, crumpling into a hundred fragments, while the nose shook off the dregs, hopped down and sauntered off. More than merely gesturing to the ephemerality of power or the exploded dreams of Utopian politics, the repeated construction and sudden deconstruction of form spoke to the slipperiness of thought, to the fragile chimera of coherence.
The Nose opened with this suggestion, commencing with a slowly rotating sculpture: an unreadable flurry of torn black paper squares suspended in space. Then, unexpectedly, the mass of fragments cohered: they lined up and locked into place, and three dimensions flattened into two to produce a portrait of Shostakovich. For a fleeting second, as debris simulated form, disarray clicked into understanding. Just as quickly, it slipped away, leaving us to chase our confused thoughts, fugitive ideas – or perhaps a runaway nose.
First published in Issue 132