The Maestro: A Conversation with William Kentridge

It is tempting to see William Kentridges oeuvre as a necessary antidote to the slick product-line work that has become so rooted on certain high plateaus of the art world. "Five Themes," his retrospective on display at the Museum of Modern Art through May 17, is at once dogged and breathtaking. You can see just how laboriously he works to achieve his films: making a charcoal drawing, photographing it, erasing a detail or a section, redrawing it, photographing it again, and on and on until the animation is completed. But there is nothing fetishistic about the process. It is a means to an end.

And that end carries a powerful punch. There is more visual invention in any sixty-second segment of Preparing the Flute — the artist's animation-cum-stage-set piece that arose from his staging of Mozart's The Magic Flute — than in most gallery shows around town, and his recent production of Dmitri Shostakovichs opera The Nose won sold-out audiences at the Met. His entire cross-disciplinary oeuvre is informed with a deep, abiding, and sustained sense of purpose, most famously in the Felix and Soho films, in which a story of thwarted love becomes an armature for the depiction of industrial conditions in apartheid-era South Africa. So, yes, it is tempting to see Kentridge as an antidote to glossier contemporary trends. But why not take Oscar Wildes advice on what to do when confronted with temptation? Yield to it.

Anthony Haden-Guest sat down with William Kentridge to discuss his MoMA show, The Nose, his process, and his past.

Do assistants play much of a role in the making of your art?

In the films, they are not involved at all. It doesn’t even work to have an assistant shooting the camera because then I start drawing too fast so that they don’t have to wait around. I’m alone in the studio when I’m doing those drawings.

I think that there’s not enough chaos in the art world. But you seem to allow for irregularity.

One of the reasons I don’t work with assistants is that if you work with a lot of assistants you need to tell them what to do, which kind of implies that you know what you’re doing. Whereas if you’re on your own, you can be an idiot. No one is watching you. You can allow things to be ridiculous. You don’t even have to know why you’re doing something when you do it.

Was your decision to make animated films related to your training as an actor and a director?

I had two careers. My first career was as an artist. Then I gave it up. I felt I did not have the right to be an artist.

Many artists have destroyed their early work. John Baldessari, for example. What was your problem with yours?

I didn’t destroy it. It’s still there. I just stopped. What happened was that I had a big division between the work I did for myself and the political art I was making for the institutions – for the trade unions, for the political movements. And I just felt I had no way of bringing them together. I couldn’t get beyond Francis Bacon as a model of how to draw the human body. I was stuck between Francis Bacon and Giacometti.

Not a bad place to be.

Not a bad place at all. They are still very central figures for me to think about. I had two small shows that were both successful in Johannesburg, and then I stopped dead, sold my etching press, and went to theater school in Paris to try and be an actor. After that, I realized I shouldn’t be an actor, and I worked in the film industry for a year or so. I made a fiction film with actors and a script, a conventional kind of short film.

For how long did you stop making graphic work?

From 1981 to 1985. At the end of 1984 I started again, and 1985 was my first exhibition.

Was it a feeling you had?

I was blessed by a very deaf gallerist I had in Johannesburg, a very old, very nice person who kept on saying to me it’s time for you to have an exhibition! I said to him, “I no longer make art.”
“Good! Good! Come on!"
“I no longer make art.”
“No, no! Which month? Which month shall I put you down for?"
Eventually the South African film industry was so awful, so unpleasant to work in, that I found myself back in the studio making drawings. "I’m just going to do what I like!" I thought. I started working with charcoal. I hadn’t worked with charcoal before. I’d been working with oil paints, watercolor, trying to find something. I did drawings, and eventually there were two that started working. The first one was a direct copy of a Brassaï photograph, which is now in the University Collection of Johannesburg, and the second one was based on a Kirchner painting.The next time I saw my gallerist I said, “Alright, alright! In four months time we’ll do an exhibition, and we’ll see how long I can survive on that exhibition before I have to go back to the salt mines of the film industry." And gradually I stopped having to go back into the film industry.

Did you feel that you had somewhat exiled yourself by leaving Paris for Johannesburg?

In terms of making art, Johannesberg did seem a backwater. When I came back to it after this gap of doing other things I was doing it in the context of this small South African art world. Because of the cultural boycott there was no real expectation of it being part of the conversation of art making anywhere else, so by the early 1990s, when the cultural boycott ended, apartheid ended, and curators came to South Africa to look at what was happening there, I’d had several years of working quietly, developing these films, working alone. I was kind of astonished when curators and gallerists were interested because it looked so completely different from what I had seen in the art magazines when I had traveled around Europe.

I like that you call your films 'stone-age filmmaking.'

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.

Initially, the films were kind of whatever happened in the studio. One of the things that happened in the studio was that drawings were made, so it came from the process of recording the activities in the studio and recording a drawing coming into being. I realized that was a kind of animation.The way that these films developed was on the basis that they could be a mixture between the private, what was going on in the city, what was happening in the house, and what was happening in my head. The start of the process was, "What are the things I want to draw?" And that made a very fundamental change — that made it possible to go back to being an artist again.

Your work is often characterized as political, and rightly so. But there’s no agitprop. You’re not Ben Shahn.

No. It became clear to me that, with that kind of rhetoric, the images always say something different than you think, and the rhetoric always implies that you’re thinking on behalf of others: "What is the message that other people need to hear?" I don’t have any message to tell people.

Your operas are full-fledged productions. Picasso, Dali, and Hockney all made sets and designed costumes for opera or ballet, but none of them produced a show.

I think I was very lucky to have had theater training — experience as an actor first and then as a director. I stopped it when I started working for a puppet company. When I came back to theater the idea was that I would design sets that someone else would take over and perform in front of, or design costumes or a projection. There are very few operas that get done now without a projection. It was new 10 years ago but a huge number of them now have one, and it’s usually a person other than the director who gets credited. For me, the projection and what’s happening onstage are part of the same thinking. It seems hard to ask someone else to do the one I am going to use. I would find it very odd to make a projection for someone else.

The detail in the model theater at MoMA is extraordinary.

That has to do with the anomaly of the art world and the art market, the fact that over the last 20 years people have spent a lot of money on contemporary art, which before that they spent on Impressionists or furniture. It means that it’s possible for me to spend a long time on each production. If you’re an opera director and that’s your profession you have to do four or five or six productions a year to live. The fact that this is not by any means my primary income means that I can spend three years on one production. It does help. It does help.