William Kentridge’s “The Refusal of Time” and the Philosopher’s Twin

I first encountered the installation The Refusal of Time by South African artist William Kentridge (b. 1955) in the pages of Enrique Vila-Matas’ The Illogic of Kassel – a fictional account of dOCUMENTA (13) back in 2012. While I have not seen the work in person, I have just read the publication produced for that exhibition as part of their 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts series.

This slender volume contains an essay by Peter L. Galison (b. 1955), Harvard professor of the History of Science and Physics, and preparatory drawings of the installation by Kentridge.

I was immediately drawn to the fifth and sixth pages of Kentridge’s notebook, which has the title “Platonic Objects and their Witnesses” (this is the only photograph I took of the book, all the other witness images in this post come from images on the Motto Distribution website).

Showing Kentridge’s iconic coffee-maker (he uses this image throughout his work), alongside a globe, a cat, a reclining persons, a typewriter, a model of the universe and two heads, I was immediately unsure which was the so-called Platonic object? And what was meant by its witnesses? Searching for answers, I turned to Galison’s essay.

In the first part (“A River of Absolute Time”), Galison recounts the standardization of length and weight in late 19th century Paris, wherein standard measures, once chosen, were locked away in a buried vault (a brass cylinder for the former, a bell jar for the latter). Accompanying the bell-jar were six ‘witnesses’, in case anything should happen to the chosen measure. Galison continues:

Here was a way to populate Plato’s heaven: the single buried object became a guiding universal.

As Galison transitions to the matter of time, and a search for a universal of that more enigmatic unit of measurement, he returns to the buried cylinder and bell jar to show how standards change. For example, the bell-jar had lost fifty millionths of a gram over the past 120 years, so in 2.4 billion years the standard measure of weight would be completely weightless! Gilison observes:

This suggests an intriguing program. An empty bell jar could contain the ideal (vanished) cat, another ideal (departed) typewriter, a third the ideal (disappeared) phonograph…an entire universe populated by the nonexistent, failed objects that are, for their lack of reality, the most real of all.

On reading this, I was obviously struck by the correspondence with Kentridge’s drawings and it dawned on me that both artist and physicist were engaged in a shared project of reversing the Platonic critique of art. If the Platonic object can be a failed object, which in its lack of reality, is still the most real of all, what does this do to the infamous Platonic account of mimesis and art as the shadow of a shadow of the true Forms of reality? I will no doubt return to Kentridge’s timely work in the future (I am thinking of a project called Tempus Refugit to engage with it in a more systematic manner), but for now I want to let this idea resonate in the words of Eric Voegelin in his 1957 book Plato:

The Republic is not a quarrel between “philosophy and poetry” in the modern meaning of the words, but the poets of the decaying Hellenic society and the true poet of the newly discovered realm of the soul, who is a twin brother of the philosopher, if not identical with him.

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