The pursuit of imperfection

‘I believe in awkwardness and incompletion in art,’ says South African artist William Kentridge, here for a major exhibition.

Kentridge 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Goo)
Kentridge 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, and Goo)
In the work of William Kentridge – a South African artist who last weekend visited Jerusalem for the opening of his large-scale exhibition “Five Themes” at the Israel Museum – temporariness and erasure play a critical role both on the material and thematic level.
“I believe in awkwardness and incompletion in art,” says the 55-year-old, who has received numerous international awards and staunch critical acclaim. “What interests me in other people’s work is those things that make you come back, those riddles you cannot solve.”
Kentridge’s signature technique is developing unscripted stop-motion animated films by drawing each scene on a single large piece of white paper with charcoal, partially erasing and adjusting the image rather than using a clean sheet for every frame. It leaves smudges all over the screen, carrying with it the trace of the changing drawing. “At first I apologized for this,” says Kentridge at a talk he gave at the exhibit’s opening. “I wanted to give myself an F [fail] for erasure.” But others encouraged him, he adds, and helped him see it was a part of the work.
Kentridge’s films are purposefully rough, and though a spectator seems to witness the process of creation in the leftover traces, the final visual product retains an indescribable magic.
“The ghost of the image of the paper,” he says, “testifies to the passing of time.”
But the riddle remains: How did he do that? The answer seems to be technical: Kentridge is a master drawer, painter, etcher and designer. He began studying drawing at nine, in the 1970s and early ’80s created posters and designed theater for trade union organizations, and later worked as an art director for television. But while this mastery may suggest a direct path to his singular artistic identity, the reality is more complex.
Kentridge received a degree in politics and African studies and worked in the applied arts – juggling budding academic work in politics and history with applied arts on behalf of trade unions and keeping up his own art studio. At some point, he says he realized that if he didn’t stick to one pursuit, he would be nothing but an amateur in them all. “I had one motto,” says Kentridge. “I do not have the right to be an artist.”
He left the academy, closed down his studio and moved to Paris to pursue his true love: acting. When this, too, failed to bear the results he had envisioned, Kentridge moved back to Johannesburg, the city of his birth, to start from scratch. “I was reduced,” he says, “to being an artist.”
IN HIS public talk, Kentridge discusses the connections he sees between Johannesburg’s landscape and the nature of his work. As early as his first art lesson, he says, he wanted to draw the kind of lush landscape he saw hanging in his home.
But the city’s leafy gardens ended together with privilege in the suburbs, and the rest of the land around the city – particularly near mines where cyanide used in gold extraction was dumped – was dry, desolate and poisonous.
Another lurking danger in the landscape was underground water which had to be pumped in order not to flood the mines, creating sinkholes that swallowed up whole “cars, houses and tennis courts.” Irrigation pipes crossed the desolate outskirts. Mountains, supposedly symbols of permanence, were slowly blown apart to extract the last bits of gold in them.
“In my childhood, I felt cheated of a landscape,” says Kentridge. “It was all in Europe.”
When in adulthood he finally began drawing the seemingly unaesthetic landscapes around him, he says, it was as “a kind of revenge.” But he also started looking at elements of the landscape that had metaphorical potential in terms of their aesthetic, political and historical resonance. Brush fires turned the physical land into a kind of charcoal drawing.
Suburban leafiness and urban dryness suggested the dichotomy of privilege and apartheid. Abandoned or rundown structures suggested activity of time past.
He began looking at maps as drawings and drawings as maps. At some point, he found a blue oil-stick at an art supply store and began using it to add water to his black-and-white drawings of dry landscapes – a motif he says suggests a projection of desire. Drawing became, for him, not so much a means of representation as a metaphor for negotiating the outside world.
Kentridge’s conception of his surroundings as an anomalous whole, it seems, helped him understand and unify the various directions he had taken as a person and an artist. He combined his interest in politics and history and his artistic abilities and experience in film to create his first signature animation: Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989).
Over the next 14 years, he created nine films which he calls “drawings for projection,” totaling just over an hour of viewing time. They feature two characters whose names came to him in a dream: the proverbial heartless capitalist Soho Eckstein and his sensitive but yearning alter-ego Felix Teitlebaum.
Spanning nine short films which pit economic, political, humanistic and personal struggles with and against each other, the two characters merge into a kind of proto-Kentridgean figure wearing a pinstriped suit while reclining on a deck chair on the beach.
“It was easier to work [with these characters] when I knew what each one was, when they were separate,” says Kentridge, who originally made use of the two characters as a commedia dell’arte actor might put on a mask. “But then they amalgamated into a kind of self-portrait in third person.”
Complicating this fused figure are its different origins: On the one hand he has roots in the schematic representation of the capitalist as might be seen in countless examples of communist propaganda, and on the other on an image of Kentridge’s grandfather, a small-time attorney of Lithuanian Jewish descent. “These are two different historical trajectories” – one familial the other sociopolitical –”combined in the same figure.”
The narratives which are often assigned to these films – relating to pre- and post-democratic South Africa – are not overtly present. “There’s not much there,” he says, “except for clues.”
He claims to be terrible at remembering narratives in books and movies, and suggests that “after months of making a film, there is a narrative trace. It’s a result, but not a starting place.”
He starts with “an impulse to make something” and “the story is secondary.”
THE FIVE THEMES exhibit arrives in the Israel Museum after being shown at the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Jeu de Paume in Paris. The exhibit was part of the “Time 100” in 2009, and received Best Monographic Museum Show from the International Association of Art Critics Awards.
Kentridge’s connection to the Israel Museum, moreover, goes back to the late 1990s, when Suzanne Landau, its chief curator of fine arts, first saw and acquired his work.
The “drawings for projection” make up the first “theme” in the exhibit, Thick Time: Soho and Eckstein.
The other four are Parcours d’Atelier: Artist in the Studio, a self-referential meditation on artistic practice; Occasional and Residual Hope: Ubu and the Procession, an animated adaptation of a 19thcentury French play which deals with apartheid violence and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in the mid-1990s to investigate human rights abuses; Sarastro and The Master’s Voice: The Magic Flute, a theatrical cycle that explores the problematics of the German Enlightenment through an adaptation of Mozart’s opera; and Learning from the Absurd: The Nose, a fragmented and raucous appropriation of Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” through a revisitation of the Russian constructivist movement, which aligned itself politically with the Russian Revolution only to be eventually suppressed by the Soviet regime.
In addition to animated films and theatrical presentations, which take approximately three hours to be viewed in full, on show are drawings, etchings, sculptures, prints and other objects which span his career and allow for a closer view of the technical side of his mastery. There are works which are derived from Kentridge’s more recent theatrical activities – such as his production of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute for La Monnaie, the leading opera house in Belgium (2005), and his staging of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera adaptation of The Nose, a Metropolitan Opera production that premiered in New York (2010) – as well as several smaller scale works which hark back to his pre-animation career.
The exhibition gives the viewer a view into “the world of Kentridge,” but this world is also ours. It allows us a sometimes hectic, sometimes beautiful, sometimes bittersweet experience through a particular time and place, combining personal, historical and political realities with the effervescent sense of change.
And while Kentridge’s visit is easy to politicize, the artist’s own politics are more considerate of the contingency of historical reality. For him, political art is “an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending.”
In his work, he is preoccupied with the question of how much we have to hold on to history to make sense of ourselves. “I’m interested in the passage of time, in chance and provisionality. In politics seeming stuck and yet impossible to maintain. In contradiction not as anomalous, but central to the world.”