William Kentridge. Picture: Supplied

There's a palpable air of excitement in visual art circles because The Refusal of Time by South African-born artist William Kentridge is having its Australian premier at PICA tomorrow as part of the Perth International Arts Festival.

With Kentridge considered one of the top ten artists in the world, PICA director Amy Barrett-Lennard says the exhibition marks a thrilling coup for Perth.

Kentridge's lecture next Wednesday at the Heath Ledger Theatre is sold out. Barrett-Lennard says for a ticketed lecture by a visual artist to sell out the 500-seat theatre is amazing.

"It really shows Perth audiences are interested in world-class, contemporary art and artists, and what they have to say. Kentridge will certainly not disappoint," she says.

The Refusal of Time can only be described as an all-encompassing multi-sensory experience, with PICA's darkened upper floors heightening the encounter in the main gallery where five screens envelop visitors in a mix of film, animation, dance, music and art.

Metronomes tick in and out of time together, a big breathing sculpture maintains a constant rhythm among the apparent on-screen chaos of drawings, sets, actors, megaphones and the artist himself.

The work, which was first commissioned for Germany's 2012 Documenta, has been shown in Rome and Brazil, and is about to open in Korea. Buyers of the edition of five include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Gallery of WA.

Gary Dufour, former deputy director at AGWA who was instrumental in its purchase, recalls his "bliss" at travelling to the biennale in Germany in 2012 to see the work. When pressed on the cost of this major work, Dufour would only place it between $600,000 and $700,000 - great value, he added, for an artist of Kentridge's calibre.

"We've been collecting his work at AGWA since 1998, with 24 works now in the collection. I've been watching his multi-screen video works for half a decade, looking for one I thought brought together all aspects of his work. This work really set a whole new high-water mark for his multi-screen work."

Those who have visited AGWA since 2010 would be familiar with an earlier Kentridge acquisition, the Shadow Quartet, a suite of four large-scale sculptural works on permanent display in the concourse.

But The Refusal of Time is on another scale altogether, born from the artist's background in theatre, animation and puppetry as well as art, and a record of collaboration with set designers, sound engineers and musicians.

In this case, the work is also the result of a conversation at Harvard University with science historian Peter Galison regarding the history of the control of world time, relativity and black holes. Dufour says if the two works have anything in common it's that they both come from a collage mentality.

Born in Johannesburg in 1955 of Lithuanian-Jewish lineage, with his family arriving in South Africa three generations ago (and a surname change from Kantorowitz), becoming an artist was the last thing expected of Kentridge. His parents were lawyers and well known for representing victims of apartheid. His father, Sydney, successfully defended Nelson Mandela in the Treason Trial of 1958-61.

Kentridge studied politics and African Studies and then art but struggled as a painter because he had difficulty choosing colours.

He later studied at theatre school in Paris.

In a 2010 interview in the New Yorker, Kentridge said it became clear he should not be an actor but all his studies combined eventually and took his work to new heights.

"It always seemed my father's was an impossible act to follow. I had a friend who used to ask me jokingly when was I going to get a real job. One day he said 'You're nearing 30, you've never had a job and no one will hire you, so do what you're doing and stop complaining'. Sink or swim, I was reduced to being an artist."

In 1990 he began making animated films, calling it "stone-age animation," and was astonished by the interest of curators beyond South Africa. It was the same year a 1960s decision to ban political parties was reversed.

"That was the night we opened the champagne."

Since 1996, his work has been seen at Documenta and many biennales such as Venice, Shanghai and Sao Paulo. His countless exhibitions around the world include MoMA New York, San Francisco and the Israel Museum. His new interpretations of operas, such as Mozart's Magic Flute and Shostakovich's The Nose, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2010, add to his ever-growing repertoire of media.

The PICA installation is the result of a unique partnership between the Art Gallery of WA, PICA and the Perth Festival and coincides with the PICA exhibition Embassy by Richard Bell. Barrett-Lennard says the two are well matched from a political-activist point of view as well as their stature as artists.

"A transcribed conversation between the two artists, who have never met despite having exhibited at the Sydney Biennale several years ago, will form part of a catalogue released halfway through the run of the two shows," she says.

Those attending will not only be captivated by The Refusal of Time, Barrett-Lennard suggests, but also by the space in which it's presented.

"Looking at some of the other sites where The Refusal of Time has been presented, I suspect this will be by far the most spectacular. Everyone has certainly been pulling out all stops to make it that way."

The West Australian

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