A study of life

A study of life

William Kentridge works with many mediums to reveal uncertainties of city life, but charcoal drawing is always at the core, explores Giridhar Khasnis.

Growing up in a liberal family with politically involved parents, South African artist Kentridge was exposed to personal and political influences during and after apartheid. Many of his works reveal the uneven and hideous contours of a divided nation. “I have never tried to make illustrations of apartheid, but the drawings and films are certainly spawned by and feed off the brutalised society left in its wake. I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.”

Born and brought up in Johannesburg, Kentridge has lived all his life in the most populated South African city. “I haven’t been successful in escaping from Johannesburg. And in the end, all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city.” Kentridge’s works span an incredible range of mediums like prints, drawings, films, installations, theatre, opera, sculpture, tapestry, puppetry and of course, his celebrated stop-motion animations. “It is hard to remember when a visual artist has cut such a wide swath in the city’s cultural life, or spanned so many disciplines with such aplomb,” wrote Calvin Tomkins (‘Lines of Resistance’/The New Yorker/ January 18, 2010).

Kentridge (born 1955), who was barely known outside his country till the onset of the new century, is now a worldwide celebrity; his works have shown at important museums and exhibitions across the world. He has received prestigious awards; in 2009, his name figured in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world.

Compelling images

Kentridge’s art is characterised by haunting and compelling images which explore themes like migration, displacement, memory and identity. All of his work emanate from a simple but evocative charcoal drawing on paper. His films and animations are painstakingly created by a succession of drawn, erased and redrawn charcoal images. “The heart of it all is drawing, starting where you don’t know quite what you’re doing and discovering what the drawing will be, rather than knowing the script in advance and following it.’’

Watching Kentridge’s animated drawings is an experience in itself. In a web of startling circumstances men, women, pets, birds, landscapes, and even everyday objects — be it a telephone or typewriter or French-press coffee maker — spring to life. Humour, emotion, intrigue and surprise are integral to his work, where things seem to happen at an incredible pace.

In these works, people are seen falling off bridges; men are picking up rubble to throw at a building; police are beating students; a bird becomes its own cage; a tree becomes a man carrying the wooden load; a nude figure is formed from a stamp and a telephone; a rhinoceros does an acrobatic handstand; a palm holds swirling water with swimming fish; crowds protest; bombs explode; water rises; buildings fall; miners move into shafts; and anonymous people shower inside their homes and outside in the open.

Scenes of gluttony, greed and guilt overlap those forming and breaking relationships — with others and themselves. Solitary and randomly picked words, alphabets and sentences spring up from nowhere. Soon, images and words get mixed up revealing new and often inexplicable sights and meanings. Timing is critical; lines, objects and sounds move forward and backward quickly and mysteriously.

Through these images — deliberately kept smoky, confusing but emphatic — Kentridge guides the viewer into a powerful, lingering perspective of South African life, politics and society. Love, fears, memories and associations are linked to a fast-changing narrative where uncertainties of the times are glimpsed upon. “I think that a lot of my work is trying to mine a childhood set of responses to the world. The first time you see a picture of violence,  there is a kind of shock that you don’t get once you’ve seen thousands of pictures (on, say, the television). I think part of the images of drawing backwards in time has to do with trying to capture a different way of seeing.”

While the stories that emerge in Kentridge’s work appear, in turns, real, unreal and surreal, there are no specific questions asked, answers given or slogans raised. In short, they are momentary but unyielding and derisive nuggets of the world around and the world often unnoticed. “This is what the artist does: takes the fragments, the shards, and rearranges them,” says Kentridge. “The meaning is always a construction, a projection, and not an edifice, something to be made, and not found. There is always a radical incoherence and radical instability.”

Deceptively simple

A master of repetition, juxtapositions and unlikely collisions, Kentridge sticks to black and white sketches, very rarely adding a dash of blue or red to his work. “Charcoal drawing is much closer to writing than to painting; it is like writing in a shorthand of images... Colour always slows me down.” For all the themes they address and velocity they create, Kentridge’s drawings on sheets of old books as well as films and animations are deceptively simple to look at. On the face of it, they look dark, imprecise, rushed and unkempt, with no well-defined details except for swirling lines and moving shadows. They also look desperate even as they harvest a stream of seemingly disparate elements and disappearing thoughts poetically.

Kentridge’s films and animations involve intensive labour. “It takes a long time because there is no script or storyboard — the ideas are worked out in the making. Sometimes during the construction of the work, most of the initial work gets abandoned.”

Recurring feature

For each film Kentridge makes 20 to 40 drawings, which undergo continual accumulation, transformation and removal. The gloomy and often scary landscape around Johannesburg is a recurrent feature in his work, revealing the uncertain future of the city. “I am interested in the non-picturesque. Landscape is one element of the work I do. Landscape around Johannesburg is like a black and white drawing. It is not lush. It is sort of dumb, stupid, brute and stubborn…”

While life and landscape outside provides him the creative fodder, it is the studio which is actually the central space for thinking, experimenting and discovery. Kentridge believes that life in the studio gives him the license to make mistakes, take risks, embrace uncertainties and be wrong in pursuit of creative solutions. “I would repeat my trust in the contingent, the inauthentic, the whim, the practical, as strategies for finding meaning. I would repeat my mistrust in the worth of ‘good ideas’. And state a belief that somewhere between relying on pure chance on the one hand, and the execution of a programme on the other, lies the most uncertain but the most fertile ground for the work we do.”

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