Drawn from life

Wil­liam Ken­tridge is feted the world over for his art. Miriam Cosic talks to him on the eve of shows in Syd­ney and Melbourne

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

IT’S a mea­sure of Wil­liam Ken­tridge’s view of the world that he calls his child­hood a ‘‘ nor­mal, mid­dle-class, sub­ur­ban fam­ily life’’. The fact he grew up in apartheid South Africa, the child of two prom­i­nent anti-apartheid lawyers, is ap­par­ently by the bye.

His fa­ther, Syd­ney Ken­tridge, took part in the in­quest into the death of Steve Biko, an event that ral­lied world op­po­si­tion to the South African regime. He was even­tu­ally knighted for his work. Ken­tridge’s mother, Feli­cia, nee Gef­fen, also fought some well­known cases and helped es­tab­lish le­gal aid in Jo­han­nes­burg. His pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was an MP; his ma­ter­nal grand­mother the first fe­male bar­ris­ter in South Africa, the sec­ond in the Com­mon­wealth. Both sets of grand­par­ents fled anti-jewish pogroms in Rus­sia.

‘‘ I would have been more aware of the un­nat­u­ral­ness of South African so­ci­ety than many of the other kids at school with me,’’ Ken­tridge even­tu­ally con­cedes. His par­ents’ im­por­tance evaded him at the time, how­ever, and there were no sense of fear, no height­ened se­cu­rity, in the house.

‘‘ Maybe there should have been, but there wasn’t. Other lawyers were some­times un­der threat, ac­tivists, but I never had a sense of that,’’ he says. ‘‘ Ei­ther they hid it from me or it wasn’t a fac­tor.’’

Ken­tridge is speak­ing by tele­phone from the com­pound in South Africa that in­cludes the orig­i­nal fam­ily house as well as his stu­dio. His par­ents moved to London in the 1980s, but he has never strayed far. Though he trav­els the globe con­stantly — this month to Australia, where a large-scale com­mer­cial show will open at An­nan­dale Gal­leries in Syd­ney and Wil­liam Ken­tridge: Five Themes, orig­i­nally cu­rated by the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, at ACMI in Melbourne — home base re­mains Jo­han­nes­burg.

His art, as more than one critic has pointed out, ex­plores the univer­sal through the lo­cal and the per­sonal. It is laced with the po­lit­i­cal themes — jus­tice, equal­ity, an­tiracism — that per­me­ated his child­hood. Yet, while thought-pro­vok­ing, they are never di­dac­tic.

‘‘ When I tried to marry the two, I didn’t re­ally like the art at all,’’ he says of his early years in the field. ‘‘ It was only when I re­laxed that need that there started to be a fruit­ful re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two. When I said, ‘ Let’s see what the picture is’, rather than ‘ This is the Lenin­ist mes­sage that must be con­veyed.’ ’’

Ken­tridge is one of the most in­ter­est­ing artists on the world scene. His work an­chors bi­en­nales; the op­eras he designs and di­rects are staged in lead­ing opera houses; his quirky an­i­ma­tions push boundaries.

Australia has seen quite a lot of him in the decade and more since he came to in­ter­na­tional renown.

His take on Mon­teverdi’s opera The Re­turn of Ulysses, made with South Africa’s Hand­spring Pup­pet Theatre in 1998, played at the 2004 Melbourne arts fes­ti­val. The same year, the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Syd­ney held a ret­ro­spec­tive and Ken­tridge’s Aus­tralian dealer, Bill Gre­gory, mounted one of the many shows he has held through the years at his An­nan­dale Gal­leries.

Carolyn Chris­tov-bakargiev, who has writ­ten per­cep­tively of him, com­mis­sioned an in­stal­la­tion for the 2008 Syd­ney Bi­en­nale, which she di­rected.

While Ken­tridge’s art is highly con­cep­tual, all of it is grounded in his first and still pri­mary prac­tice, draw­ing. The work, like the man who makes it, is a be­guil­ing mix of sin­cer­ity, hu­mour, cu­rios­ity and crafts­man­ship. Chris­tov-bakargiev calls it ‘‘ an art of re­sis­tance to mod­ernism and post­mod­ernism’’.

Key themes and char­ac­ters reap­pear in his work, of­ten in Kafkaesque sce­nar­ios where Every­man is buf­feted by the tur­bu­lence of the world: poor blacks, morally bank­rupt busi­ness­men, ide­al­is­tic but hap­less in­tel­lec­tu­als. Some­times his per­son­ages are given con­cur­rent roles as vic­tim and per­pe­tra­tor, redemp­tor and re­deemed.

The an­i­ma­tions, and the draw­ings that com­pose them, seethe with ideas. See one and you im­me­di­ately want to start the loop again so you can search out the de­tails you missed the first time. And the sec­ond time. Most in­trigu­ing are the messy traces of the artist’s hand which are ev­ery­where. Echoes of pre­vi­ous frames linger as the ac­tion moves for­ward.

Much about Ken­tridge’s work seems fe­lic­i­tous, con­tin­gent. One thing morphs seam­lessly into an­other. Ideas pro­lif­er­ate. His ver­sion of Shostakovich’s satir­i­cal opera The Nose, based on the Go­gol short story, was highly ac­claimed when it opened at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in New York in 2010. He not only cre­ated sets and video ma­te­rial for The Nose, he di­rected it too. It was the per­fect ve­hi­cle for Ken­tridge’s mul­ti­me­dia prac­tice and his worldly re­al­ism. It also pro­vided ma­te­rial for a short an­i­ma­tion and loads of stand-alone sketches.

Noth­ing, it seems, is wasted. Nor does Ken­tridge take any­thing for granted, not even the very act of see­ing on which an artist’s work de­pends.

‘‘ One of­ten thinks of see­ing as a com­pletely nat­u­ral ac­tiv­ity — your eyes open, there is the world in front of you, you’re not do­ing any­thing, just see­ing,’’ he says. ‘‘ But what the stu­dio and the process of mak­ing images demon­strates is that the ac­tiv­ity of see­ing is about con­struct­ing the world, con­struct­ing co­her­ence.’’

He means it lit­er­ally — ‘‘ tak­ing two dif­fer­ent flat images on each of our reti­nas and com­bin­ing them to one three-di­men­sional im­age of the world’’ — and metaphor­i­cally. ‘‘ We are very in­volved in build­ing co­her­ence, in tak­ing frag­ments that come from all places and act­ing as if there is a sin­gle co­her­ent nar­ra­tive around.’’

Ken­tridge will give Har­vard’s Nor­ton lec­tures this month on this very sub­ject. His ti­tle is Six Draw­ing Lessons, but the sub­ti­tles of each lec­ture — in­clud­ing In Praise of Shad­ows and A Brief His­tory of Colo­nial Re­volts — sum­marise his mul­ti­plicit body of work.

Ken­tridge was born in 1955, the sec­ond of four chil­dren. It was ‘‘ a good safe spot in the fam­ily’’ from which to ob­serve the world. He made art in the way all chil­dren do, he says, but didn’t aban­don it at the usual age. He at­tended Satur­day and evening classes — life draw­ing classes ini­tially, to keep his mother com­pany. She painted af­ter she re­tired from the law.

He re­mem­bers ex­am­in­ing the prints his par­ents had on the walls — of Cezanne, Matisse, a Miro in his be­d­room — and be­ing in­trigued by am­bigu­ous marks: ‘‘ those un­solve­able rid­dles that keep us com­ing back to a paint­ing or a poem’’, he says.

Yet he didn’t plan a life in art. In his final years of school he toyed with the idea of ar­chi­tec­ture or fol­low­ing the fam­ily tra­di­tion into law. He ended up tak­ing a de­gree in pol­i­tics and African stud­ies from Wit­wa­ter­srand Univer­sity.

So far from be­ing a de­tour, he says, the ex­pe­ri­ence was for­ma­tive. ‘‘ Those years were fun­da­men­tal to shap­ing how I saw the world, and in some ways fu­elling ev­ery­thing I’ve done in the arts in the last 20 years.’’

Af­ter­wards, he toyed with var­i­ous things. He set up an etch­ing stu­dio, then closed it to study act­ing at the Jac­ques Le­coq school in Paris, where he learned he wasn’t an ac­tor. He joined the South African film in­dus­try. In a way, they were all ap­pren­tice­ships.

‘‘ Cer­tainly the best art lessons I’ve had were in the pol­i­tics course and in the theatre course,’’ he says.

For­tu­nately for ev­ery­one, his wife, Anne — whose Aus­tralian fam­ily moved to South Africa when she was a teenager — was a good provider. They met at univer­sity, where she was study­ing medicine, mar­ried in 1982, and her in­come stead­ied their early years. He learned a lot, he says, from the anatomy texts that lit­tered their bed while she was study­ing, and she re­mains his ‘‘ med­i­cal dra­maturg’’. She ap­pears in his draw­ings and, he adds dead­pan, ‘‘ she’s al­ways a very clear critic of what she thinks of the work, put it that way’’.

While he was mark­ing time in the film world, two mo­men­tous things hap­pened. His par­ents left home, mov­ing to London in 1984. In the same year, the first of his three chil­dren, a daugh­ter, was born. ‘‘ That was an enor­mous thing,’’ he says. ‘‘ In­stead of the fo­cus be­ing ‘ What am I? What must I be­come?’, it all be­came com­pletely sec­ond- ary to ‘ Who is this other fig­ure in the world that I’m here to look af­ter?’ It was an enor­mous re­lief. All my thoughts didn’t have to be anx­i­ety about my­self.’’

His new con­fi­dence fired him. He quit his day job and pre­pared a suite of char­coal draw­ings for ex­hi­bi­tion. ‘‘ I thought I’d see how long I can sur­vive off those draw­ings be­fore I had to go back to the ter­ri­ble work of the film in­dus­try,’’ he says.

‘‘ I had one ex­hi­bi­tion and man­aged to sur­vive long enough on the sales to pro­duce an­other body of work for a sec­ond ex­hi­bi­tion. And I still haven’t had to go back to be­ing a props man in the South African film in­dus­try — which I was re­ally in­com­pe­tent at, by the way, I was al­ways one step ahead of be­ing fired.’’ It was only when he turned 30, he says, that he stopped putting tech­ni­cian on visa ap­pli­ca­tions and had the courage to write artist.

His first works were a di­a­logue be­tween draw­ing to­day and draw­ing of the past, he says: copies of Bras­sai’s pho­to­graphs, re­work­ing of Hog­a­rth’s en­grav­ings, the work of Wat­teau, Goya, Ve­lazquez’s Las Men­i­nas.

He con­sid­ered his first an­i­ma­tions a hobby, light re­lief from the main game. He en­tered a cou­ple in an­i­ma­tion fes­ti­vals. But when the first cu­ra­tor sug­gested show­ing a film in an ex­hi­bi­tion, he was of­fended. ‘‘ What’s wrong with my draw­ings?’’ he de­manded. The cu­ra­tor skil­fully hosed him down and the rest, as they say, is his­tory. ‘‘ Most of the in­ter­est­ing things in the work have come in spite of me rather than through me,’’ Ken­tridge says. ‘‘ Other peo­ple have had to point out what’s there, that I’ve made but I haven’t seen.’’

His trade­mark era­sure marks are no ex­cep­tion. ‘‘ For the first while, I apol­o­gised to ev­ery­one be­cause my era­sures were not per­fect and you could see them, traces of what was there be­fore,’’ he says. He sought dif­fer­ent kinds of pa­per, var­i­ous sys­tems for elim­i­nat­ing the rem­nant of pre­vi­ous marks. ‘‘ It was only when other peo­ple said, ‘ We like those traces, leave them!’, that I thought, ‘ Well, I don’t like them, but I’ll leave them for a bit and see.’ ’’

His an­i­ma­tions are core to his body of work. So are the short films in which he ap­pears, of­ten in plu­ral, in enig­matic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the self, usu­ally dis­cussing art or some para­dox­i­cal quirk of ex­is­tence. A dozen of his films will be shown in Melbourne along­side other art­works. In Syd­ney, three will be set up along­side draw­ings, ta­pes­tries, sculp­tures and etch­ings.

When I ex­press sur­prise that so much has been hap­pen­stance, since his work seems so pur­pose­ful, he breaks the Zen-like calm of his con­ver­sa­tion. ‘‘ No, no, no,’’ he ex­claims, ‘‘ you must un­der­stand that the stu­dio is the vi­tal com­po­nent in all of this. It’s a cat­e­gory not of­ten spo­ken about or writ­ten about, but it’s es­sen­tially a safe space for stu­pid­ity. A space where stupid ac­tions can be done with­out the fear of be­ing jumped on from a thou­sand miles be­fore they’ve had a chance to de­velop.’’

It is, he agrees, a form of play: ‘‘ Light­ness and speed are es­sen­tial.’’ It is also very hard and care­ful work: he can spend up to a year on a nine-minute film. It seems an im­pos­si­ble time­frame to make vi­able. ‘‘ But when you think at the end of that you have both a film and a full ex­hi­bi­tion of draw­ings,’’ he points out prac­ti­cally, ‘‘ a year to pre­pare a big ex­hi­bi­tion of draw­ings is not a lot.’’

Not ev­ery­thing takes so long. The quirky Draw­ing Lessons that An­nan­dale will show were each made in an evening. An­tiMer­ca­tor, a two-week project — a tricky col­lage of hand­writ­ing, page turn­ing, metronome click­ing, Ken­tridge de­liv­er­ing frag­ments of a lec­ture on the na­ture of time, and images of a cof­fee pot, a nude, a globe, a cat, dis­in­te­grat­ing and reag­gre­gat­ing — came out of work­shops for a Doc­u­menta in­stal­la­tion ti­tled The Re­fusal of Time, which will go up in June.

Doc­u­menta, the in­flu­en­tial sur­vey of con­tem­po­rary art that takes place ev­ery five years in Kas­sel, in Ger­many, is be­ing cu­rated this year by his great sup­porter and bi­og­ra­pher, Chris­tov-bakargiev.

Gre­gory says when he vis­its Ken­tridge, he of­ten finds a troupe of peo­ple around, re­hears­ing some­thing or other, break­ing only for a communal lunch that Ken­tridge of­ten has a hand in pre­par­ing. At other times, when only the core team is present, peo­ple work qui­etly and pur­pose­fully.

What al­ways sur­prises Gre­gory, though, is the way Ken­tridge can step away from a three-ring cir­cus, per­haps just a cou­ple of hours be­fore a per­for­mance pre­miere, and fo­cus ut­terly on some­thing un­re­lated that is to hap­pen on the other side of the world in six months.

He is a great col­lab­o­ra­tor, too: he has worked with the same film ed­i­tor and com­poser for 20 years. He has said that any­thing that can’t be made with card­board and Scotch tape re­quires col­lab­o­ra­tion.

I ask Ken­tridge about the lack of in­tro­spec­tion that oth­ers have noted. ‘‘ I think to be an artist one does need a lack self­con­scious­ness, not think­ing too hard about ‘ What am I say­ing? Who am I?’ ’’ he says. ‘‘ Who you are is go­ing to be what you’ve made. There’s no es­cap­ing from who you are when the work is fi­nally put to­gether. If a work is pre­ten­tious, that tells you who you are. If it’s cau­tious, that tells you who you are. What­ever the sub­ject mat­ter, in the end it be­comes about the per­son mak­ing it.’’ Wil­liam Ken­tridge: Univer­sal Ar­chive (Parts 7-21), An­nan­dale Gal­leries, Syd­ney, March 7 to April 21. Wil­liam Ken­tridge: Five Themes, the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age, Melbourne, March 8 to May 27.

Part of an en­sem­ble of ma­que­tte fig­ures for

above; 2010 silkscreen

The Nose, Ru­mours and Im­pos­si­bil­i­ties, left

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