Due to a blonde moment, I had totally missed out on what was probably the most spectacular cultural experience of the year in Hijack City - William Kentridge's production of Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. So, when his most recent exhibition opened at the Goodman Gallery last month, I was so there.
William Kentridge as an artist is a phenomenal force, multi-dimensional not just in theme, but in form, and not merely in that post-modern mix of different styles and media. There is that, of course, but it goes beyond that. There is something simultaneously modern and retro about his art, in the way that it is underpinned by superb draftsmanship with echoes of Goya, George Grosz and Max Beckmann, yet enriched and transformed by the breadth of his own vision. His art is Important - in the grand manner, in its depiction of political realities - but also intimate in its emotional impact. My personal favorite from the What Will Come show was the Bird series.
I had the amazing good fortune to meet William Kentridge two years ago, when my editor asked me to do a short piece on him for WWD Scoop. With the shortest of notice, I sped off to his home/studio to interview him, and later that evening attended a very exclusive walk-through of his retrospective at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, with him personally providing the artist's commentary to a small group of people.
Sadly, the story never ran, because of space constraints. So I decided to post it here:
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: OPEN TO INTERPRETATION
"There is nothing inspiring about Johannesburg," artist William Kentridge says with disarming indifference. But he would never leave it.
Johannesburg is home or, as Kentridge likes to put it, "a fact. It is where I am rooted." He lives in the leafy, old-money suburb of Houghton with his wife and three children, aged 21, 17 and 13. In his studio on the rolling, manicured grounds of his property, spring in the southern hemisphere is in full swing and the garden is awash in a carpet of bright blooms.
It is perfectly natural he lives in Johannesburg since the city teems with the conflicts, contrasts and contradictions that constantly feed his art. One only needs to look at the lack of color in his work to appreciate the stark contrast of black and white and the shadowy ambiguities of gray to understand what he means.
At 50, Kentridge is South Africa's best-known and arguably greatest living artist. A major retrospective at the Johannesburg Art Gallery has recently ended, but another solo exhibition has just begun in Miami, with upcoming shows slated for mid-November in Naples, January in Dublin, Berlin and the Guggenheim in New York, not to mention in February, a production of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute in Lille.
His work has graced the MoMA in New York, and the Serpentine Gallery in London, and he is in demand by major cultural institutions around the world.
Although he began drawing as a child and continued doing so throughout adolescence, he tried his hand at acting and production design before he became an artist. "I have always been saved by my failures," says Kentridge, who possesses something of the brooding good looks of a young and portly Marlon Brando while speaking with the gravitas of a mature Omar Sharif. "I could have had a miserable, unsuccessful life. Instead, I was reduced to being an artist."
His father was a well-known lawyer from a family of Lithuanian Jews whose family name was anglicized to Kentridge when they arrived in South Africa in the early 20th century. Father and son realized early on that a career in law was out of the question. "I needed to find a way of making meaning that was not subject to his cross-examination," he explains.
His experience in production design, as well as the theater, notably in Paris as a young man, left a lasting impression on him, and opened his eyes to the possibility of transformation in art. This led to successful experiments with film and animation.
"Painting," he says, "is a representation of a fact, of one moment in time. Film is a series of moments, of facts in time that are constantly shifting, which interests me more."
In Kentridge's hand, a film is animated by his charcoal drawings with the occasional swathe of brilliant blue or red pastel, shot in frames, with a few images altered, then alternated, rubbed out and re-drawn, after they are recorded. The resulting reel, projected on a variety of surfaces, from screens, such as in Tide Table (2003), the Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum cycles and Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997) to antique armoire mirrors and medicine chests, as in the aptly named Medicine Chest (2000), is simultaneously dreamy and hypnotic, yet immediate and provocative. It is also multi-layered, enigmatic, political, and deeply humanistic.
His films clearly reflect the South African experience - the remnants of apartheid, the reality of race, the spectre of Aids - but resonate with universal human themes of loss, change, triumph, redemption and identity. He admits his films, in purely cinematic terms, "are rather bad as a narrative," and he intriguingly and deliberately leaves gaps and asks "the viewer's generosity in filling in those gaps to intuit a broader picture. Around that we can construct a coherent narrative of how the world is and who we are."
Kentridge says his work often starts as an impulse. "Then I hope that the clarity emerges in the following of the impulse. I like the idea of the possibility of doubt."
He recounts how he recently noticed one day that a neat column of ants was advancing along his kitchen floor in a straight line. He decided to spread a trail of syrup in circular lines and see what would happen next. When his wife protested at the invasion of ants, he lured them to his studio. He would wait until they had swirled around the syrup circles, cover them with paper and step on them to arrest the moment. Then he would reverse the pattern they made and film the image in negative.
"It was quite a heartless thing to do the ants," he confesses, but points out the inherent contradictory nature of his approach. When his son, now 17, was younger, he says, he would take one of his action figures and in his hands they would transmogrify into something altogether different; this approach is clearly demonstrated in his 2003 film Shadow Procession, where everyday objects such as espresso pots and garden shears morph into a mass of humanity in a solemn march through time and space.
"Our eyes are hungry to construct meaning," he concludes. "Art is what we know but cannot see."
© 2005 by Bambina Wise
Image from suninternational.com