Exhibition reviews: William Kentridge | Heather Phillipson

A collection of over 100 works provides a microcosm of William Kentridge’s 25-year career

Heather Phillipsons exhibition at the Baltic

A Universal Archive, William Kentridge as Print maker

Northumbria University Gallery, Newcastle

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Heather Phillipson

Baltic, Gateshead

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Thomas Scheibitz

Baltic, Gateshead

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In recent days I’ve found myself missing the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition From Death to Death. Taking up the whole of the Belford Road gallery now known as Modern One, the exhibition, which closed in September after nine months, was installed so long it began to feel like it was permanent.

But there is, if not a cure for the absence, a means of alleviating it. For down the road, in Newcastle, there are still a few days left to catch the art of William Kentridge, the renowned South African artist who featured in that show.

The anti-apartheid protests and brutal politics of his native South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s served as the crucible of Kentridge’s art. He is best known now for his complex, monochrome animations and for set design and direction with big-name theatre and opera companies but he began making simple posters for trade unions, small theatre companies and student protests in the 1970s.

A Universal Archive, a Hayward touring exhibition, is an economical introduction to the centrality of the print in Kentridge’s art over the last 25 years. There are more than 100 works, including etchings, lithographs and screenprints. But it also serves as a microcosm of the work as a whole. There is the formal playfulness and untrammelled invention, the politics, a certain existential darkness and a ferocious energy.

The show begins with the two large silkscreens executed in 1988 that marked his move into fine art per se. Art in a State of Hope and Art in a State of Siege are two human figures, a man machine and a fat cat businessman, which act as angry manifestos for the emerging artist. Kentridge draws on the art of revolutionary Russia and the protest culture of Weimar Germany to articulate the struggles of the apartheid era.

Indeed Russia serves as a touchstone for the artist. His series of prints based on a production of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose are dark interpretations of Nikolai Gogol’s original short story about a minor civil servant whose nose jumps off his face and develops a life of its own. Using an unusual sugar lift technique (it involves mixing condensed milk and Indian ink) the artist turns the nose into a gaping void on the printed page, an image of loss and a grim parody of sinister and senseless hierarchies.

But there is fun too. Kentridge returns time and again to his signature objects: the typewriter, the telephone and the coffee pot, all of which are darkly comic stand-ins for the human body. Often he prints on found papers, such as the pages of an old dictionary or textbook. A series of romantic romps turns out to have its origins in an elementary mistake. Looking for a text on which to make some fundraising prints for his old school, the artist stumbled upon a volume entitled Eros in School. It was in fact a teacher’s manual called Errors in School.

That kind of simple but revealing linguistic slippage is behind Heather Phillipson’s film A is to D what E is to H, now on show at Baltic, in which the artist narrator can’t quite establish whether she’s making a film about French Kissing or French Cuisine. To watch it you sit in a yellow-paint-splashed Peugeot 406 on the gallery floor on a pool of red pigment. The film is a fast collage of found images and crudely filmed video projected on to the inside of the screen as the artist drones on in a flat voiceover. There’s a steering wheel to play with and enough silly food/sex double entendres to fill a series of the Great British Bake Off.

But if this slapdash presentation seems homespun there is far more to Phillipson’s art than first appears. For she is also a much-lauded poet published by the likes of Bloodaxe and Faber, and for her language is not just comic but treacherous. Sometimes it sticks in the throat. Like both kissing and cooking, it is often fun but not always hygienic.

Indeed hygiene is a recurring theme in the Baltic exhibition; you enter the show through a narrow curling passage and crouch in a womb-like space where a short film is punctuated with the frequent injunction to wash your hands. Walk out through another door and you discover that you’ve been expelled through a giant birth canal.

“Sometimes I hear my voice when I’m speaking,” the artist says in her own narrative. “It’s very boring, I’m trying to escape it.” But Phillipson’s deadpan monotone can’t disguise a voice that is fresh, funny and intellectually acute. Next autumn she will have a solo show at Dundee Contemporary Arts. I can’t wait.

Upstairs at Baltic are two floors dedicated to a major show by the Dresden-trained painter,Thomas Scheibitz. Scheibitz is a painter who makes sculptures and a sculptor who can’t stop messing around with paint.

Scheibitz takes recognisable forms and mangles them to the point of illegibility. His sculptures at first look like they might be something familiar: a giant flywheel, a rocking horse or a church steeple, for example, but they are off kilter enough to look like nothing you’ve quite seen before. This is a thorough and absorbing show but seems rooted in the near past rather than the present. Scheibitz’s formative years were in the East German state and in his work contrasting worlds collide and create something distinct from the fusion.

A Universal Archive runs until 11 October; Heather Phillipson until 13 October; Thomas Scheibitz until 3 November.