American Arts Writer Abroad: William Kentridge’s “Triumphs and Laments”

On a recent trip to Rome, Italy, I had the great fortune of seeing and experiencing William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments: A Project for Rome, a vanishing frieze along the banks of the Tiber river. Kentridge is a well-established South African multimedia artist best known not only for his beautiful drawings and animated shorts such as Felix in Exile (1994), but also for his keen humor and stunning ability to shed light upon the darkest of human nature, while ultimately highlighting our human capacity to reconcile, love, and laugh. - Ellen Caldwell, Los Angeles (Reporting From Rome)


Detail of William Kentridge | “Triumphs and Laments: A Project for Rome” | 2016, Tevereterno, Rome | Photo by Ellen C. Caldwell.


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William Kentridge | Triumphs and Laments" by Bruno is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In Kentridge’s words, this is a project that's "been in gestation for 12 years," and that makes sense, given the massive undertaking involved in the planning, installation, and coordination of the opening performances. Triumphs and Laments is monumental for a number of reasons.

First, quite literally, it is physically large in scope, measuring 500 meters between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini on the Tiber. Eighty colossal painted figures march in line along the embankment of the Tiber in what Kentridge refers to as an unfurled Trajan’s Column. In an interview with Maria Pia Masella for Art 21, he explained this further: “Trajan’s Column is in the form of a frieze wound in a spiral around the column, but it also is an image of people on the move; they are all moving in a direction. So, to achieve the idea of a frieze, I needed a sense of the people moving along the wall, not just statues standing along it, and it was helpful to refer to an artwork that had this.”


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Triumphs and Laments by William Kentridge" by Bruno is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Second, Triumphs and Laments is temporally large, covering events from Rome’s founding in 753 BC to the present, illuminating the city’s history through a combination of historical, popular, and mythological events, cast as the Eternal City’s victories and tragedies. He notes the multi-sided nature of history, adding that “[f]or everybody’s triumph, there is always the cost of someone else’s lament.” Chronologically, he presents his figures out of order, thus playing with narrative, time, and the history-making process itself. In his words, he was “putting together a sense of history from fragments which we take.”


Runners and cyclist in front of detail of William Kentridge | “Triumphs and Laments: A Project for Rome” | 2016, Tevereterno, Rome | Photos by Ellen C. Caldwell.

Ranging from a depiction of the she-wolf and the founding story of Rome, to a scene from Federico Fellini’s influential classic La Dolce Vita, to an image of Giordano Bruno’s death (the Dominican Friar, mathematician, and astrologer who was tried and killed for heresy), Kentridge moves viewers through his mural much like someone moving through the great city of Rome does—fluidly through time and space, art and history, ancient and modern. The city’s runners, cyclists, and pedestrians walk with, against, and past the mural as a living part of the city.  

Third, it is both a physically and metaphorically huge undertaking in the way Kentridge uses a human-made surface as canvas (the concrete banks of the river) along with human-generated pollution and nature-made moss as his paint and medium. In this sense, Kentridge utilizes the meeting point where the human and natural meet along the walls of the Tiber. (The fact that the walls are made of Roman concrete is itself its own history and nod to the Roman invention which decidingly changed the way the Romans built, planned, and extended their cities, temples, and aqueducts.) The underlying environmental questions about the human impact upon nature, and the role of the artist in the environment, society, and history at large loom brightly in Kentridge’s work.


Detail of William Kentridge | “Triumphs and Laments: A Project for Rome” | 2016, Tevereterno, Rome | Photo by Ellen C. Caldwell.

The physical labor required of this project was huge as well. Thankfully, artist Kristin Jones had already forged the way in establishing this stretch of the Tiber as a dedicated performative art space known as Piazza Tevere. She had already used the embankment as a natural canvas in her own art installation “She Wolves” in 2005, so the technology and process was available to Kentridge and his team of 200 volunteers. In a process termed “reverse graffiti,” they laid Kentridge’s massive stencils—made from enlarged paintings—and removed the dirt, pollution, and moss around Kentridge’s stencils. The newly cleaned area then served as the negative space surrounding the pollution and natural residue that remained as the de facto paint in Kentridge’s mural.


Tevereterno’s video introduces and illuminates some of the process and history behind William Kentridge’s “Triumphs and Laments.”

For the April 21st opening of Triumphs and Laments earlier this year, Kentridge collaborated, as he often does, with composer Philip Miller. Guests were told to arrive on the opposite side of the riverbank at dusk, and they were met with marching bands that entered from opposite sides of the river entrances, along with dancers, singers, and puppeteers who held shadow puppets that worked in tandem with industrial lights in order to create massive projected imagery onto the frieze itself. This created the illusion that the colossal figures in the frieze itself were participating in the parade of revery.


Viewers ca get an idea of the performative nature of this opening event in Angela Cannizzaro’s YouTube footage of the opening of William Kentridge’s “Triumphs and Laments,” April 21, 2016.

Finally, the implications of this project are also monumental. As art historian Valentina Vacca told me, “the destiny of this work is to disappear.” And it will, in an estimated six years’ time. As the city and nature take their course, the frieze will eventually fade away back into the grime and grit of the Tiber’s riverbank wall. But in the meantime, it is a must-see ephemeral work of art in a city known for its eternal nature. It is also a performative, public work of art that serves as both an ecological, urban beautification project and an equally important historical commentary highlighting the duality of narratives as told by both the victors and lamenters. It is my ultimate hope that Kentridge’s and Jones’ vision will inspire similar projects and installations around the world.

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Triumphs and Laments” (2016) is located on the banks of the Tiber in Rome’s Piazza Tevere, between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. The frieze will be on view for approximately six years, or until it disappears back into the nature and human-made pollution on the riverbank walls.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter for news and writing on art, visual culture, activism, education, and the areas in between.

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