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Art21 Extended Play

Meet the Season 5 Artist: William Kentridge

The above video is excerpted from the Season 5 episode Compassion, premiering on Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Compassion features three artists — William Kentridge, Doris Salcedo, and Carrie Mae Weems — whose works explore conscience and the possibility of understanding and reconciling past and present, while exposing injustice and expressing tolerance for others.

Who is William Kentridge and what does he have to say about compassion?

William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1955, where he lives and works. Having witnessed first-hand one of the twentieth century’s most contentious struggles—the dissolution of apartheid—Kentridge brings the ambiguity and subtlety of personal experience to public subjects most often framed in narrowly defined terms. Using film, drawing, sculpture, animation, and performance, he transmutes sobering political events into powerful poetic allegories. In a now-signature technique, he photographs his charcoal drawings and paper collages over time, recording scenes as they evolve. Working without a script or storyboard, he plots out each animated film, preserving every addition and erasure. Aware of myriad ways in which we construct the world by looking, Kentridge uses stereoscopic viewers and creates optical illusions with anamorphic projection to extend his drawings-in-time into three dimensions.

On the subject of compassion in art, Kentridge says about his own drawing practice (in the forthcoming Season 5 book):

In the activity of making work, there’s a sense that if you spend a day or two days drawing an object or an image there’s a sympathy towards that object embodied in the human labor of making the drawing. For me, there is something in the dedication to the image, whether it’s Géricault painting guillotined heads or another shocking image. There’s something about the hours of physically studying those heads and painting them that becomes a compassionate act even though you can tell that the artist is very cold-bloodedly and ghoulishly looking at disaster or using other people’s pain as raw material for the work.

That’s what every artist does—use other people’s pain as well as his own—as raw material. So there is—if not a vampirishness—certainly an appropriation of other people’s distress in the activity of being a writer or an artist. But there is also something in the activity of both—contemplating, depicting, and spending the time with it—which I hope as an artist redeems the activity from one of simple exploitation and abuse.

What happens in Kentridge’s segment in Compassion this October?

While filmed in 2008-09, the Compassion episode surveys works and themes that Kentridge has developed over the past twenty years, exemplified by the artist’s poetic narratives that draw upon the texture of current events and the sweep of history. “South Africa is very much part of the work,” says the Johannesburg-based artist, but asks “how does one find a way of not necessarily illustrating the society that one lives in, but allowing what happens there to be part of the work, part of the vocabulary, part of the raw material that is dealt with?” Shooting without a predetermined script when developing the charcoal drawings for his animated films—such as Sobriety, Obesity, and Growing Old (1991)—Kentridge’s experimental method demonstrates “thinking with one’s hands” and proposes an “understanding of the world as process rather than as fact.”

Through the twin characters of Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitelbaum, the artist explores aspects of autobiography, the subconscious, as well as his own Jewish identity in the context of apartheid. In what Kentridge terms a “self-portrait in the third person,” Soho and Felix play out the complex roles of Jews in South Africa—as both benefactors and liberators—in dream-like scenarios to which the artist himself is inescapably linked. “If you work conscientiously and hard at it, and there is something inside you that is of interest, that is what will come out,” says the artist, “You yourself will be the film; the film will always be you.”

No stranger to grand political allegories, Kentridge’s segment in Compassion showcases his passion for lyrical opera. In the opening scene, Kentridge is shown working in his Johannesburg studio with the soprano Nokrismesi Skota and pianist Philip Miller on a video projection for the fire screen at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy. Employing the unconventional technique of recording the singer’s rendition of Giacomo Puccini’s aria O mio babbino caro (Oh my dear papa) from Gianni Schicchi (1918) through a cellular phone, Kentridge is able to achieve an antique sound through twenty-first century technology. Later on, Kentridge himself is a performer in an eight channel video installation titled I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) at the Sydney Biennial in Australia. A preparatory work for a production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose (1930)—based on the satirical short story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol (1836)—at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Kentridge synthesizes live-action performance with pre-recorded video, music, text, archival imagery, and the artist’s own signature animation technique. Seen tossing and catching pieces of paper with a video projection of himself, Kentridge’s uncanny multimedia feat directs the viewer’s attention to an analysis of the mechanics of illusion.

“I’m interested in machines that tell you what it is to look. That make you aware of the process of seeing, make you aware of what do you do when you construct the world by looking at it,” explains the artist. This is in evidence in What Will Come (has already come) (2007), a series of anamorphic films projected onto circular tabletops, with a mirrored cylinder at the center, onto which the distorted image is reconstituted and made intelligible. Viewing “looking and seeing” as metaphors for “thinking and understanding,” Kentridge’s works underscore “the agency we have, whether we like it or not, to make sense of the world.

William Kentridge. Drawing for "WEIGHING…and WANTING," 1997. Charcoal, poster paint and pastel on paper, 47 1/4 x 63 inches.  Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge and Marian Goodman Gallery.

William Kentridge. Drawing for "WEIGHING…and WANTING," 1997. Charcoal, poster paint and pastel on paper, 47 1/4 x 63 inches. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge and Marian Goodman Gallery.

What else has William Kentridge done?

William Kentridge attended the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (1973–76), Johannesburg Art Foundation (1976–78), and studied mime and theater at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, Paris (1981–82). Kentridge has had major exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2009); Philadelphia Museum of Art (2008); Moderna Museet, Stockholm, (2007); and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2004), among others. He has also participated in Prospect.1 New Orleans (2008); the Sydney Biennale (1996, 2008); and Documenta (1997, 2002). His opera and theater works, often produced in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company, have appeared at Brooklyn Academy of Music (2007); Standard Bank National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa (1992, 1996, 1998); and Festival d’Avignon, France (1995, 1996). His production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose, will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in conjunction with a retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010).

Where can I see more of his work between now and the Art21 premiere this October?

William Kentridge is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. His touring retrospective — Five Themes — will be on view at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas from July 12 – September 27, 2009 before traveling to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida in November. His work can also be seen in the exhibition The Puppet Show through September 13 at the Frye Museum of Art in Seattle (along with fellow Art21 artists Louise Bourgeois, Pierre Huyghe, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Laurie Simmons, Kiki Smith, and Kara Walker) and in the exhibition Parades and Processions: Here comes everybody at Parasol unit in London through July 24 (along with fellow Art21 artists Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler).

What’s your take on William Kentridge’s inclusion in Season 5?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below!


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