William Kentridge | Essays & Reviews

The following is from Jennifer Stone's new e-book "Freud's Body Ego or Memorabilia of Grief: Lucien Freud and William Kentridge" at www.javaribook.com:

William Kentridge will direct the New York premiere of a multi-media theatre event, "Il ritorno di Ulisse" ("The Return of Ulysses"), in March 2004, in New Visions, part of the Great Performers series of 2003-2004 at Lincoln Center. The opera is a version of Monteverdi's "Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria," first performed in Venice in 1640, with a libretto by Badoaro.

Kentridge's opera, "Zeno at 4am" (based on Svevo's novel, "Zeno's Conscience" of 1923), was staged in the same festival in the 2001-2002 season, followed by performances in Brussels, Belgium and at Dokumenta XI in Kassel, Germany. Next year's Monteverdi production, set round a hospital bed, features the Handspring Puppet Company, life-size puppets along with puppeteers who, in an uncanny way, seem to take on the carved wooden dolls' stiff features and graceful gestures.

A Kentridge dramatization assumes a European musical score in order to transmute it into an African context, accompanied by a rear-projected parade of his filmed drawings and shadow figures or silhouettes in a meta-narrative of unpredictable and unforgettable imagery. Kentridge trained, in the early 1980s in Paris at Ecole Jacques Lecoq where he says he learned more about the history of art through dramaturgy than the Academy. Criticism that dwells on the contours of Kentridge's landscapes and on questions of technique ignores the profundities of his mind at work rethinking art, film, theatre and opera. Conspicuous details betray subtleties of a literary spirit versed in European culture alongside African heritage. Kentridge quite simply causes astonishment.

Kentridge is this year's recipient of the prestigious Goslar Kaiserring Award, the ceremony to take place in early October 2003. He has been invited to install an exhibition in the Munchehaus Museum in the German medieval town. (Previous artists to receive the award include Henry Moore, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder, Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Willem de Kooning, George Baselitz, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Ilya Kabakov, Sigmar Polke, Cindy Sherman, and Christian Boltanski.)

- excerpted from "Freud's Body Ego" Copyright 2003 www.javaribook.com

The following article is taken from Art in America, January 1999:

William Kentridge: Ghosts and Erasures by Leah Ollman

Since 1989, Johannesburg native William Kentridge has been making short, animated films from charcoal drawings that he alters and erases in the course of filming. Like dense, insistent poems, the films move through time on the momentum of associations, loves, fears and memories exhumed both willfully and reflexively. Like Kentridge's animation process itself--born of the desire to keep alive the transient, evolutionary stages of his drawings -- the unscripted narratives of the films reckon with the tenuous nature of memory, both personal and historical. How much are we to hold onto the past as a way of navigating the future, and how much to let it go or suppress it as an impediment to progress?

Kentridge's drawings for projection chronicle, on a visceral level, his country's transitions. After decades under a cruelly rigid template, South Africa is now drawing itself, drafting, erasing and reformulating its structures of power, its social relations, its systems of rights, benefits and protections.

The fluidity and contingency of drawing lie at the heart of all of Kentridge's art of the past 20 years, not just his work on paper. In the films, however, an unusual, reciprocal dynamic comes into play between the drawings that comprise the visual fabric of the films and the films themselves. Unlike conventional cell animation, which fuses thousands of drawings into a slick, seamlessly continuous whole, Kentridge's process is overtly raw and hand-wrought. For each film (all are under 10 minutes) Kentridge makes about 20 drawings, which undergo continual addition, permutation and erasure, the traces of which are plainly visible, yielding an impression of time and space as viscous, invariably altered by every arrival and departure. 'You could look at the drawings as indicative of the process and the route to making the film,' he says. 'You can also see the finished film as the complicated way of arriving at that particular suite of drawings.

The following article is taken from Interview Magazine, May 22, 2001:

William Kentridge: 12 African Greats Speak Freely About Their Continent

"I live in Johannesburg. All the places I've lived are within a four or five-kilometer radius of each other. Like most South African Jews, my grandparents and great grandparents came from Lithuania at the turn of the century. I grew up in a liberal family with politically involved parents who were lawyers. I can't remember a stage where I was not aware of living in an unnatural place. There was so much dinner table conversation about the inequities of the society we were living in--that was a kind of daily bread and butter. This is not unique, but it was less than common in white society. There was always a sense growing up of living in a society that was waiting to become an adult, to change. During the 1970s and '80s that seemed completely intractable, and it's that sense of waiting--which existed throughout my childhood--that had been a false expectation. Then when the transformation came in 1989 through 1994, this was a kind of vindication of all those expectations of childhood.

I think one of the exciting things about South Africa after this transformation from apartheid is that it has an open-ended future. Being objective, I don't know how one's going to solve the enormous problems facing South Africa. The largest problem is how to deal with the AIDS epidemic. Both in terms of medicine--how do we stop so many people dying and how do we look after people who are ill--but, also, how do we deal with a bruised society left in the wake of the epidemic? If life becomes so dispensable, if people die with such little cause, so easily, what is the status one puts on the value of life, on long-term projects, on a sense of the future, on a sense of beneficent fate? All those things get thrown out of kilter.

One misconception about Africa would be that it's a uniform, unified category, that you can talk about Africa in a meaningful way. That implies that Africans, whether they are in Egypt or Tunisia or Togo or South Africa, are people that can be talked about as if they were not identical, but certainly similar enough. So that would be the first misconception. The second misconception would be that societies in Africa are essentially pre-modern. It's about understanding the ongoing clash between different kinds of modernization. If you look at 99 percent of the conflict throughout Africa, it has to do with conflicts over modernization; who owns resources and who has access to them, who is able to transform their lives from rural peasantry to an urban society."

- William Kentridge

The following interview is taken from www.onepeople.com, 1998:
William Kentridge Answers a Few Questions

OnePeople.com met with William Kentridge on the eve of our journey's end. After hearing so much about his work from his South African peers, and seeing examples of his work at the Biennale, we were eager to spend time with him, recording his thoughts. Following our return to the United States, Kentridge was one of three finalists for the 1998 Hugo Boss award.

A rather stoic individual, Kentridge greeted us warmly at his studio where we had a chance to see some works-in-progress. Tracing the evolution of his work, one can easily appreciate the growing magnitude of his creative projects. Beginning with two-dimensional charcoal drawing on paper, Kentridge soon included the element of time to his drawings through the medium of film. Returning to the drawing board after a few years, he then incorporated the element of space to his work with the addition of the Handspring Puppet Company. Ubu and the Truth Commission, an internationally heralded piece of theater, has in turn led Kentridge to the addition of audio dynamics - in the name of opera.

Question 1: Your works appear very labor intensive. How long did it take you to create "Stereoscope?" Can you talk a little bit about the significance of your laborious process and how you maintain momentum and focus?
The work is very labor intensive. "Stereoscope" took 9 months to make - with some breaks for travel and exhibitions during that period. It takes a long time because there is no script or storyboard - the ideas are worked out in the making. In the construction of Stereoscope, most of the first four months work had to be abandoned.

WK: Momentum - because the work is so slow, unless one works fast and intensely, the project would never get finished. So one has to begin each day running. Making the film is about finding the focus, finding what the film is about. If the film had been storyboarded, it would be difficult to maintain focus; but because it is thought out as it is done, that becomes part of the subject.

Question 2: The music in "Stereoscope" is very striking. Was it composed specifically for the work? If so, were you involved in that process?

WK: Music. Philip Miller, a South African composer, wrote the music for the film. He has written music for four of my films. His involvement comes at quite an early stage - after a couple of months, when there are a few minutes of rushes to look at, we sit look at them at an editing table, with different pieces of music - anything from Monteverdi to jazz - and try to understand the musical grammar of the film. From then on we work closely, and the music becomes more and more precise as the film nears completion.

Question 3: Are the recurring elements (like the cat and the blue line, etc.) in your work symbolic of something? They seemed meaningful, but I wasn't sure of what.

WK: Re the cat and blue line. I never start with a meaning, so cannot tell you what the cat symbolizes, if anything - I simply knew that I needed a cat at that moment of the film. Blue lines are simply a literal drawing of different lines of communication in the film.

Question 4: Why did you choose to use a split screen in some parts of the video?

WK: Come on! The film is called "Stereoscope," a machine that needs two separate images to make one three-dimensional view. Any more clues needed?

A still from Stereoscope

Question 5: Was "Stereoscope" inspired by specific events in South African history?

WK: No specific events in South African history. The section of chaos in the city towards the end of the film contains images from newspapers and TV from the weeks in which I was working on that part - police beating students in Jakarta, Indonesia; riots outside banks in Moscow, Russia; rebels being thrown over a bridge, and then shot at in the river below, Kinshasa, Congo; someone picking up rubble to throw at a building - US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. But of course the images are all of Johannesburg.