I first saw William Kentridge’s work – drawings and films – in a special exhibition devoted to him and his works at the Smithsonian, in D.C. I remember walking in and coming to an abrupt stop. And staring. At his immense, largely black & white drawings. At what for me at the time was the hallucinatory and compelling nature of his images and imagery. Images of suffering. Of corruption. Of greed. Of pollution. And of what, for lack of better way of putting it, were the transformations that seemed to be happening in his drawings, in his prints – and then later in his films. Things morphing into other things. People mutating….men becoming women….women becoming men….objects becoming.… ‘alive’.
It was mind-boggling stuff. It blew me away. The films even more than the still images.
Brief pause for the dry, biographical facts and info for those who don’t know. William Kentridge, born in the 1950’s, is a South African artist known for his prints, drawings, and animated films. The films are made by what I think is a relatively unique process: he makes a drawing….he films it. Then he erases it. And changes it. And films the erasures and changes. Again. And again and again. As the process continues, images.….change. Evolve. Move. And….mutate. And the whole thing is put together in a lineal temporal fashion to make….a movie.
It’s also worth mentioning that Kentridge studied to become an actor. He moved to Paris and studied both mime and theatre for a spell. Back in South Africa, he acted and directed theatre, and also worked as an art director for television and films.
But back to his movies. They were – and are – unlike anything I, who always thought of myself as smart and well-educated – ha! so much for illusions – had ever seen before. Have ever seen before, really. His films, like his drawing and prints, are fucking amazing. They are worth going out of your way to find and see.
They also affected me – and affect me – in ongoing ways. Much of his work seems political – he is showing us things we really don’t want to see, shoving them in our faces. But it is also personal, occasionally painful, and surprisingly emotional. Kentridge’s works run the whole gamut of the inner human experience, another reason to seek them out.
In addition to expressing himself in and through visual media, Kentridge is quite articulate with words. He talks occasionally about his art, his films, his process; he talks about many things.
Q: What do you think the social responsibility of the artist is?
A: I don’t think there is a social responsibility for an artist. I think it’s their responsibility to work as well as they can and as far as they can with what they’re doing. Then I think the nature of what emerges from the work will be much more complicated.
A less precise question would be, ‘is it an artist’s responsibility to predict a beautiful future’? Absolutely not! I don’t think there’s a single core responsibility except to his or her work. I am interested in political art, but precisely in political art that denies such responsibility. In the long run you get work which is: (A) more interesting (B) has a more interesting relationship to the world around you and (C) in the long run, is more responsible in terms of being part of an ongoing unlocking of what constitutes society.
Q: Could you share with us some of your thought about the Internet?
A: I’ve never found a comfortable way to read the Internet. Every search engine that I’ve gone through is so filled with other noise . . . garbage . . . it’s always felt like picking up a very badly published book. It takes a huge effort to look inside, to find something worth reading. I’m always so put off by the cover page, the contents page and the introduction . . . I generally close the book before I get into chapter one.
And most fascinating of all, the process by which he creates his movie.
Q: I like that you call your films ‘stone-age filmmaking.’
A: That’s because it’s so simple. The films started because I spent ages writing a film script. And having written the film script, I realized that that was the start of the process. I was going to be spending years trying to get other people enthusiastic about this film before I could start to make it. I’m kind of relieved that I never made that feature film. It could have been a very bad film. I would have been a bad person to make it.
I decided that I needed to find a way in which, if I wanted to make a film, I could start without anyone else’s permission, anyone else being enthusiastic about it. It need to be something that I could do on my own and cost nothing. With a camera and a roll of film I could be filming the first day, I decided. It’s not expensive, so it didn’t depend upon producers coming in to do it, and it didn’t need an army of technicians, assistants, and studio people to do it. It’s the opposite of conventional filmmaking, where you start with distribution and work backward. In the end, if you’re lucky, after three years you spend six weeks practicing your craft doing the actual filming.
Finally, after all these words….some images. This is Kentridge’s film Automatic Writing, made in 2003. One last thing I should mention: the haunting, complex, jarring music scores to Kentridge’s works are composed by his long-time collaborator, the largely unknown and underappreciated Philip Miller.
William Kentridge understands the paradoxes of being trapped in existence, to be finite creatures of flesh and blood.
“We have an uneasy relationship to our bodies. John Updike refers to us as ‘the herders of our bodies, which are beasts as dumb and bald and repugnant as cattle’. We prod them along, hoping they will not suddenly go off on their own, leap a fence, wander onto the highway.”
He puts the dilemma of an artist in a way that is as compelling as his work:
“The first promptings to work as an artist are still there. The questions haven’t changed. How does one find a way, not of illustrating the society one lives in, but allowing what happens there to be part of the work.”
Go find his work.
Look at it.
Then try to see what it does to you.
And, if you are lucky, how it begins to change you….drawing by drawing….erasure by erasure….in the film of your daily routine….your existence.