“William Kentridge? The man’s a magician,” remarks a friend when I tell him I plan to interview the South African artist. And, indeed, when we meet at Marian Goodman’s Paris gallery, Kentridge the conjuror is much in evidence – deconstructing and reconstructing objects at will. In a room of apparently abstract sculptures, he directs me to certain spots to witness small miracles taking place. Viewed from a particular angle, what looks like a tangle of wire and scraps of steel suddenly becomes ... a sphinx, a coffee pot, a skinny cat with its fur standing on end. “These are 3-D pieces that only make sense in two dimensions,” explains Kentridge. “It’s the opposite of what you expect of sculpture.”
Downstairs, a variant of the same theme is playing on three screens. Across the room, in a film shown recently at Venice’s La Fenice before the opera began, more abstract sculptures revolve to reveal themselves, then fragment, in a process designed to mimic an orchestra tuning up. On the right, a soprano sings Puccini into a mobile phone, while her image shimmers and breaks up under water. And, on the left, black paper fragments swirl in the air, momentarily coming together to form a woman’s face, before dissolving back into chaos.
“A lot of my recent work is to do with seeing as an activity, rather than a passive reception of the world,” Kentridge continues. “What clues do you need to make sense of something? Things come together and there is an instant when you recognise, oh yes, a rider on a horse. It’s about acknowledging and celebrating that double nature of seeing, the impurity of seeing: I know that it’s pieces of wire and black paper but I can’t stop myself seeing a face.
“An abstract painter might insist their work is just paint but I am saying that’s a complete distortion of what it is to be human. It’s not a mistake to see a shape in the cloud. That’s what it is to be alive with your eyes open: to be constantly, promiscuously putting things together, getting shapes to have a coherence. It’s a kind of act of aggression against the self to try to stop that. A sort of Zen purity. I am so against that!”
Kentridge’s magic of a different kind will be on show in Vienna next month, when Five Themes, a retrospective of the 55-year-old artist’s work opens there. Central to the exhibition will be “9 Drawings for Projection”, an at times agonisingly poignant series of short animated films based on charcoal drawings that is probably Kentridge’s best-known work. Made between 1989 and 2003, and hauntingly scored (often with music by the South African composer Philip Miller), they depict the lives of Soho Eckstein, a fictional property tycoon with a troubled conscience, and the angst-ridden Felix Teitlebaum. As Felix yearns for Soho’s wife and temporarily wins her, the masses are on the march and Soho’s empire is imploding. Cats morph surreally into gas masks and heads explode, as the films comment obliquely on life under apartheid and in the aftermath of its collapse.
“In the 1980s, it was clear that we were living in a society that was not viable,” says Kentridge. “We had no idea that it would change as quickly and easily as it did but we certainly knew that we weren’t living in a static society that was going to stay the same for the foreseeable future. There was an optimism, even though it was a very repressive period. The growth of popular movements such as the United Democratic Front went hand in hand with state repression. It was a heady time.”
It took two goes before Kentridge found his niche as an artist. The child of two lawyers, he studied both art and theatre in the 1970s but on the art front soon “painted himself into a corner” with work that was too propagandist and cerebral. “I would start an image with the question: what is needed, what do people need to learn?” he explains. “In the end, I stopped believing in any of the work that I made.” So, turning his back on art, he went to theatre school in Paris, but pretty soon abandoned that as well: “I had such a limited range.” Back in South Africa, he tried to find work in the film industry – to no avail. Then, almost by accident, Kentridge discovered a different, less didactic form of art. “I found myself back in my studio, though I hadn’t intended to be, making drawings,” he says. “They were derivative but there was something about working in charcoal, at a certain scale, at a certain speed. Suddenly everything seemed possible.”
Drawing and filmmaking (Kentridge’s stop-motion animation involves a labour-intensive process of drawing, filming, erasing and redrawing on a single sheet) went side by side but it took time for the artist to recognise the latter as central to his oeuvre. “The curator of Modern Art Oxford asked if he could include some of my films in an exhibition – and I was insulted,” he laughs. “I was so conservative. I thought, that’s not art! What about my drawings? It was only then that I began see that the films were not too bad.”
Today, Kentridge’s multi-faceted work combines drawing with film, photography, print-making, collage, sculpture, stage design, theatre and opera. The themes of political conflict, oppression and liberation, frequently tackled with dada-ist élan, are never far from his work.
Earlier this year, Kentridge directed The Nose by Shostakovich at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Based on an 1836 short story by Nikolai Gogol, the opera tells an absurd tale of a St Petersburg bureaucrat whose nose disappears only to reappear later as a higher-ranking official who refuses to return to his face. Work on the opera inspired Kentridge to produce I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine (2008), a cacophonous eight-screen installation that will also be included in the Vienna show. With a title taken from a traditional Russian saying used to deny guilt, the piece combines stop-motion animation with archival footage and live-action film to celebrate the wild formal inventiveness of Russian avant-gardists such as Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Kasimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky – and to explore their tragic demise.
What intrigues Kentridge is that, even before they were stomped on by Stalin, many of these artists seemed to be running out of steam. Malevich, he says, had three very radical years, painting squares and circles, before he retreated to draw peasant figures in simple cubist forms. “For me, the question was: what was the relationship between that energy and inventiveness and the belief in politics by the artist? There was something about the belief in the possibilities of revolution that was part of the energy inside their work.” In post-apartheid South Africa, similar questions apply. “How do you keep a sense of utopian optimism, but at the same time understand the disastrous history of utopias?” asks Kentridge. “I don’t pretend to have an answer, but that is the space in which you work.”
‘William Kentridge: Five Themes’, Albertina Museum, Vienna, October 29 to January 30 2011; www.albertina.at. ‘William Kentridge, Breathe, Dream, Dissolve’ continues at Galerie Marian Goodman, Paris until October 16; www.mariangoodman.com.