The film is set inside what appears to be an abandoned Soviet museum, which is in fact made of cardboard on the table in the artist’s studio. Using a miniature camera, the viewer moves through the different halls of the museum, which include a community theatre hall, a public swimming pool, a quarry at the side of the main halls, and a corridor of vitrines holding stuffed historical figures.
Kentridge’s film aesthetic, in keeping with his interest in avant-garde and modernist ideas and aesthetics, draws on the history of film, incorporating his signature stop-motion animation techniques made famous by the Drawings for Projection series of films. However, this new work, combining collage, puppetry, live actors who are animated, and the illusionistic projecting at large scale of footage shot on a miniature film set adds immensely to the historical and aesthetic density of the piece.
Found footage and backdrops of newsprint and photographs from the revolutionary decades following the fall of Czarist Russia are at points disrupted by insertion of a gigantic arm adjusting part of the set design. It is an audacious and sly shot choice, a Gulliver’s Travels moment of allegory.
Kentridge has already created a large number of opera and musical stagings, including for Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose. His return to Shostakovich here in Johannesburg — and in keeping with the Wits centenary celebrations — is accompanied by a select exhibition of Kentridge’s work tied to the Wits Art Collection. Part of this fine survey exhibition is an edited version of the Shostakovich film, alongside some of the marvellous miniature film sets, in vitrines, that provide this enthralling work with its imaginative world.