William Kentridge
   
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February 98
 
   
CE:
Hello William could you begin with an introduction to yourself and your work?  
WK:

 

I am an artist. I live in Johannesburg. All of my work is about Johannesburg in one form or another. My schools -- university, art school, all the training I had has been here in Johannesburg - apart from my year in Paris. Thematically I suppose I work with what's in the air, which is to say a mixture of personal questions and the broader social questions. Questions this year, questions last year, responsibility, retribution, recrimination, before issues of what histories are hidden in the landscape. Often they're fairly broad questions but generally they arrive through quite a personal or particular starting point.

 

 
CE:

 

What mediums do you generally work with?

 
WK:

 

Well everything is drawings. Sometimes the drawings are primarily charcoal on paper, but (occasionally) the drawings are simply two dimensional drawings -- straight forward charcoal drawing on paper. Sometimes I film those drawings in progress, stage-by-stage as the drawing is done . . . the movement is adjusted and shifted and becomes the basis for pieces that are finished as films. Two dimensions moving through time.

In the last few years I've also been working with HandSpring Puppet Company - run by Basil Jones and Adrian Cola in Johannesburg - which uses carved wooden figures in front of these animated films. So there a drawing becomes one element of what ended up as a piece of theater. But even in the end, [the work is] a piece of theater and it's watched not in a gallery, but a theater. For me, it's still a drawing an applied drawing that gets you to that end state.

 

 
CE:

 

Do you work alone or do you collaborate on these drawings and films?

 

 
WK
With the two dimensions and also the films, I work on my own. I work with an editor -- a music editor . . . but the essential process of drawing and constructing the film I do on my own. Whether it's just a drawing or piece of animation -- and that's great but after months alone in my studio, it's fantastic to work with ten other people on a theater project. But equally, after a year of working on a theater project it's fantastic to not be dependent on other people for how or what one is doing.

 

 

 

 
PJ:

Do you rely on grants and other such funding?

 

 
WK:

No. Up to now the films that I've made have been funded from the sales of the drawings used in making the films. I've paid for them up front and recouped the money when people bought the drawings from me. In the last few years the Goodman Gallery has put the money up for the two most recent films. The theater work is different. It's on a different scale of funding required and that's been a mixture of a local festival and some festivals in Germany providing the money, and the extra money that was needed, about a quarter to a third of the budget, Handspring Puppet Theater and I have put in money that we made from the previous project.

It would have been impossible to do those theater projects, the three most recent ones, either relying on funding found in South Africa or on us funding it ourselves, just because each project involves a year of making a film, six months of carving the puppets, and training procedures . . . for us it's been a very a fortunate position that since we did the first play, "Vootsek"in the early 1990's there’s not been a shortage of festivals or producers, primarily festivals and producers. We do get some money from the State, maybe ten per cent of the cost of the project, it's not nothing but it wasn't the way the project got made.

 

 

PJ:

Could you give us some background on Ubu and the Truth Commission?

 

 
WK:
Ubu and the Truth Commission was a collaboration between myself, HandSpring Puppet Company and Jane Taylor. A writer, [she] initially came on as a producer. She'd done a project on 'Fault Lines' which was looking at Truth and Reconciliation -- the broader contexts. Because we were working in the same areas she came to one of the earlier workshops for the production and within a few days she knew she was going to be writing the script [for] the whole play. I've also worked with Warrick Sony and Brendan Jury [TransSky]. We did the music for Ubu. [Warrick] also worked on the music for Faust, the previous production as well as on some of the music for my earlier films. Angus Gibson, one of the top documentary film makers here, has been the editor of all the films that I've made. There is a core of all different people around the country that I've worked with quite closely for years.

 

 
CE:

Could you tell us about the production that you're working on now?

 

 
WK:
I'm working on a production of Verdi's The Return of Ulysses. I'm working with HandSpring Puppet Company again. Obviously [I am not working] with a composer because the music's already written, and obviously not with the writer because Librettos dead. This [production] is different though -- this is a commission from the European Festival, a festival in Brussels and Vienna. A production which we hope will get to South Africa, but that's a separate question. For us it's a fantastic terrain to work in and it will be ready in two months time (May 1998). . . or not ready. It starts in Brussels and then moves onto Vienna, Berlin, Zurich and Amsterdam. We hope in Johannesburg next year.

 

 
CE:
What do you think the social responsibility of the artist is?  

 

 

WK:

 

 

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.

 

 
PJ:

Has your work been critiqued abroad as a contemporary metaphor for this country?

 

 

WK:

Yes . . . maybe a bit too much sometimes. You draw an iris and it's seen as a metaphor for the end of Apartheid. Sometimes an iris is an iris. You read a book and you bring to the act of reading a huge amount of yourself. It's not an object that you respond to neutrally. There's a complicated dialogue between your predictions, your expectations, your hopes, things that you were thinking completely independently of the work -- that together make a complicated mesh of meaning and response. And so, for some people we’re coming out of South Africa and they hear the strains of Khosi Sikelela playing in the background and there's a whole context which is applied to the work and sometimes that pressure illuminates parts of the work and sometimes it obliterates things that don't fit into that pattern.

All work that is done -- whether it is a play, or a piece of music or a book is so dependent on an sympathetic viewer or listener or audience. The best piece of work in the hands of an unsympathetic audience dies and in the right context, completely ordinary mediocre work soars. It has a power and potency which is unpredicted.

 

 
PJ:

What do you think the future of South African Art will be?

 

 

 

WK:

When the cultural boycott was on we were a real hothouse. In other words, you'd have something like your Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown where there was nothing from outside South Africa. Now there are two things that happen. On the one hand it means that there is a real hothouse of pressure for things to emerge, for things to grow. On the other, it is a very limited sort of nutrition that people are . . . now that the cultural boycott is no longer there, it is much easier to see much wider ranger of work, as well as for South African work to be seen by more people.

There are casualties in people who defy that, people who needed that, who needed the conditions and the structure and the story of apartheid in order to work well . . . and other people who have blossomed. So I think there was a short heyday. A short period when the outside world was interested, very interested in South Africa as South Africa because it was a exemplary moral tale of the late twentieth century. That moment has obviously passed . . . which suits me fine. For me the story is quite interesting: the basic moral fairy story.

 

 

 

PJ:

 

Who were some of the people in your life who actually inspired you to pursue your own work?

 

 

WK:

 

Well the biggest influence was this man called Dumilia. By the time I was a student he had already gone to New York. When I was an adolescent - about fourteen or fifteen - he worked at the house with Bill Ansley, the teacher that I had. I used to go there in the evenings for art lessons and I'd see Dumilia working in the house, working on large figurative charcoal drawings. That, for me, was a revelation of what those drawings could be, what you could do with that medium. He was very important.

There are a couple of people who taught not in the fine arts field at all. I learnt more about painting and drawing from Jaque Lecoque who taught me theater, than I did from art teachers. In the same way, I learnt more about the ways of making pictures [from] lessons in politics. Particular teachers in the politics department, more than particular people in the fine arts.

 

 
PJ:

Could you share with us some of your thought about the Internet?

 

 

WK:

 

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.

I've occasion≥ally tried to look up specific bits of information and my experience of it is it has been so badly out of date, more out of date than the printed matter . . . it's got tons of information of a kind that one does not need to know. I have not found a site that makes me want to go back there and look at it again.

It's been useful in terms of the galleries that I deal with , being able to e mail images of my work backwards and forth. I know that it has a functional, I know that for catalogues I'm working on it's a very efficient way of sending information, checking it and revising it. I think of it in terms of an instantaneous fax machine. The principle of the speed with what the information can move is good. I don't really know a lot of the other applications though.

 

 
PJ:
What are your thoughts on the most recent Johannesburg Biennale?  

 

 

WK:

 

 

Here in Johannesburg they'll get twenty-five thousand people. In Quan Jun, Korea, a similar scale industrial city, they'll have a million visitors. Biggest audience art event ever, bigger than Dokumenta [Germany], three times the size of the Venice Biennale . . . I wasn't there, . . . but I know that in Johannesburg the budget was twelve or fourteen times the [Korea], and bear in mind, the cost of mounting the exhibition was fairly similar. It meant that they had nine million of their dollars that they could have spent on making the Biennale a sexy place for people to go to. Whether that's advertisements in every taxi, every bus and every bus shelter, every newspaper . . . so that in the end there is this sort of saturation, saying go see this about, and then the excitement, saying this is the most exciting thing about town because this is where everyone is flocking to creates a critical mass which then runs, where in Johannesburg if you to the Biennale, it's well, why am I the stupid one who doesn't know what's wrong? I'm still here, and everyone else seems to know what's going on and they're not here'. There's this sense of feeling -- it's a sense of getting weaker and weaker rather than stronger and stronger as fewer people go. [The Johannesburg Biennale] never reached a critical mass of people apart from the first days.