The Broad museum of Los Angeles, USA, is hosting In Praise of Shadows, the exhibition presenting more than 130 works by William Kentridge in an engaging and interactive design by Belgian designer Sabine Theunissen. The exhibition is Kentridge’s first monograph presentation at The Broad and his first major exhibition in Los Angeles in two decades.
This groundbreaking show features all 18 pieces from the Broad collection and significant loans from around the United States and South Africa and spans the career of the renowned South African artist. The show, curated by Ed Schad, covers the museum’s ground floor and is organized both thematically and chronologically.
Scenography Today asked Sabine Theunissen to give her insights into the exhibition’s scenography.
Theunissen’s designer notes
The project for the In Praise of Shadows exhibition at The Broad museum was quite far on its way already when I was invited to participate. The curator Ed Schad had been working on it with his internal design team for quite some time. He had a clear view of the show and its route, and he called me to add ‘the final touch’ by advising them on the choice of furniture and carpets, referring to pictures of previous shows I designed for William Kentridge.
With time and experience, I learned that design and curatorship are entangled. An exhibition results from an encounter and shared thinking. It is an organic collaboration process, full of necessary diversions, turns, and twists that are sometimes painful but also very fruitful since they further sharpen the project.
I eventually accepted Schad’s invitation under the condition of taking part in the rethinking of the space and artwork placement. I had to convince the curator and his hierarchy of the beneficial contribution of an external scenographer to the project.
I have collaborated with William Kentridge for 20 years for stage productions, installations, exhibitions, and films. As a theatre set designer, I deal with a fixed audience and a moving set on stage in conversation with music. For the scene transitions, we use curtains or stage transformations employing wheels, pivots, theatre machinery, and mechanical magic tricks.
As an exhibition designer for a museum gallery, on the contrary, I deal with a walking audience in a fixed space. It means that the visitor himself operates all the transitions and magic transformations.
As if they had a score in their hands, they follow an invisible thread leading them through the space, adjusting their rhythm, visual focus, and mindset along the different chapters (prelude, theme, recitative, aria, crescendo, climax, entr’acte, epilogue, etc.)
I like the visitor to feel free and able to build their own drama. The journey should support and facilitate views and emotions without dictating. In this sense, I favor working on proportions, scale variations, tensions, and sequences of the space that guides our steps unconsciously. I also choose the materials carefully for the floor, walls, and ceiling. Beyond their appearance, they affect our senses and tactility. Space is not only a three-dimensional image; it has warmth, smell, softness, rugosity, and sound.
The exhibition In Praise of Shadows was built around the idea—quite natural for Los Angeles—of filmmaking and cinema in William Kentridge’s work. Not only looking at his film production but his artistic process in general.
The Broad museum is a beautiful and elegant new building on downtown LA’s South Grand Avenue. Inside, the galleries’ architecture is relatively neutral and meant to be transformable. Despite this architectural flexibility, for economic and logistic reasons, the In Praise of Shadows layout had to consider the previous and the next show on schedule.
Another big challenge was the acoustics. The materials in the galleries are pretty mineral, the permanent walls and ceilings are flat and parallel, and all floors and ceilings are hollow, with grids for technical needs. Among the art pieces, there were seven installations with sound.
Part of the solution was to accept the bleeding of the sound pieces in the general galleries in a gentle and nice cacophony. For the rest, the layout was designed to protect the three sound-wise most sensitive pieces by locating them strategically not to contaminate each other. We also programmed two of the piece’s soundtracks to play separately.
Finally, I chose materials to improve acoustic comfort: natural cork blocks for the temporary walls and the video booth, recycled wool fiber boards to clad the sound lock tunnels, compressed paper boards, linen curtains, cardboard, and linoleum. I used recycled rubber carpet on the floor for specific areas. All these materials are natural or eco-friendly, in a logic of responsibility and sustainability.
For budget restrictions and prevention of moth infestation, I wasn’t allowed to use the natural wool felt that I planned for the long Nose etching cabinet and two walls in the last gallery. As an alternative, I covered the surfaces with a red craft paper patchwork. I could not imagine the depth of the color and texture before seeing the result—a vibrant and intriguing background for the artwork.
I like to look backward and consider the progression and evolution of the collaboration with the curator Ed Schad. With time and patience, we listened to each other, slowly building an open and transparent dialogue and respecting each other. At the end of the installation, after two weeks of long days in the museum, we became accomplices, carrying benches and tables together.
The evening of the opening, an older man came to me to tell me that the show was very much about time and space together. I learned later that he was Barry Barish, Nobel Prize Laureate in physics. What a beautiful compliment it was!
In Praise of Shadows is on display at The Broad, Los Angeles, until April 9, 2023.