by Michael Smith (November, 2007)
The first artbio on William Kentridge appeared online in May 1999. In a new programme, ArtThrob will produce updated artbios on artists as the occasion arises.
There can be little doubt that William Kentridge is South Africa's most widely acclaimed and successful contemporary artist. Since the mid-80s his influence has rippled tthrough the SA art scene, spawning countless admirers and almost as many imitators. His presence has extended to an international profile that puts him into the company of SA alumni like Marlene Dumas and Kendell Geers. Yet, unlike these artists who have relocated to Europe, Kentridge's output is generated from his Johannesburg studio. This is appropriate for an artist whose interest in the 'rather desperate provincial city' stretches far back to his early works, like his Industry and Idleness series of etchings and the animated drawing short film Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris.
Kentridge seems to have consistently approached each major work or series with an abiding interest in narrative. Early triptychs like The Conservationist's Ball and The Embarkation prove that this impulse reaches back to the beginnings of his illustrious career.
In these works, seriality functions unlike Warhol's cold repetitious cloning of images, and even unlike Bacon's triptychs which were intended to deny rather than suggest narrative. Rather, Kentridge utilised the format to evoke fragmented stories of colonialism's hangover and seismic social and personal shifts at the end of apartheid. His erasure of charcoal images from the paper surface left ghostly traces that suggested temporal shifts between present and past, event and memory. This further promoted one's sense that Kentridge's works were not so much traditional drawings as they were palimpsests, sites of repeated recursion upon which images were drawn and erased, though partially recorded and partially lost.
It was thus inevitable that such a creative trajectory led to experimentation with film and theatre. In fact, as far back as 1979 Kentridge was creating scripts like Dikhitsheneng which was realised as a play by the Junction Avenue Theatre Company and performed at various venues around Johannesburg. After his achievements with static drawings and etchings, however, he first shifted his focus onto film. Specifically he created short films by animating the palimpsest-style drawings. His process was intentionally rudimentary: Kentridge would begin a drawing and push it to a certain stage of completion. Then a camera set up in his studio would be used to take numerous still shots of the image at this stage. He would then recommence drawing, erasing certain motifs and re-drawing them in new positions. In an interview with Lilian Tone on the occasion of the exhibition of Stereoscope, Kentridge said 'The films started off initially as a way of examining the drawings, but then the narrative element came in, and the drawings were in service of the film� There are not thousands of drawings, only 20 to 40 different ones, whatever is left at the end of a major sequence.'
Conceptually these films continued and developed a number of the themes established in earlier parts of his career. Kentridge's abiding interest in the landscape of Johannesburg, particularly the scarred and shifting vistas of East Rand mining areas, frequently formed the backdrop against which an expanding cast of recurring characters played out the psychodramas of a country in radical flux. Emblematic figures reccur, like Soho Eckstein, the Randlord who at once embodied avarice and a world-weary pessimism; Felix Teitelbaum, a character physically based on Kentridge himself, in a state of moral and spiritual conflict with Eckstein yet inextricably linked to him; Mrs Eckstein, who cuckolds Soho with her continuing connection to Teitelbaum; and Nandi, a tragic figure symbolic of loss and grief. An ever-growing presence in these films from the late 80s and 90s is that of the crowd, the mostly faceless mass of protestors marching through the landscape, continually unsettling the intimacy of the narrative.
It is this interest in playing off the personal against the political that distinguished Kentridge's output from more reductive modes of struggle culture. The political is always shot through with poignant expressions of personal struggle; one senses that for Kentridge personal unease is indivisible from political upheaval.
More recently, Kentridge's exhibitions have involved drawing, theatre and film, most notably 2006's Black Box/Chambre Noire, which a Johannesburg audience saw at the JAG. This show, commissioned by the Deutsche Bank Guggenheim, consisted of a large in situ drawing onto one of the JAG's walls, a series of framed images culled from the process of creating the film component of the show, and a stage set with motorised players onto which the film was projected. The sound component, scored by longtime Kentridge collaborator Phillip Miller, fleshed out the pathos of this work.
This approach has certain obvious affinities with other theatrical co-productions like Woyzeck on the Highveld and Ubu and the Truth Commission mounted in conjunction with the Handspring Puppet Company. The essential difference is that Black Box/Chambre Noire used small robot-like figurines in the place of puppets controlled by people, lending a sense of predetermination and immutable routine to the actions of gestures of these characters.
'I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending - an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, nihilism at bay'.
'I have never been able to escape Johannesburg, and in the end, all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city. 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'.
Quotations from 'William Kentridge' by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (1998), Societé des Expositions du Palais de Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles.
'I have been aware when making drawings that there was often a middle stage when I was drawing most fluidly, with the greatest certainty. And that often at the beginning and at the end, a tightness would creep in. Initially, I was photographing the stages of the drawing, filming it coming into being. I was trying to chart the imagery that went through it, a narrative that would develop through the drawing. And once I saw what the drawing did, and how it could not change, the idea came of actually structuring the narrative using several drawings.'
Quotation from interview with Lilian Tone, http://home.att.net/~artarchives/tonekentridge.html
William Kentridge is currently showing a body of work at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg entitled 'What will Come' (November 2007). Also in November this year, he is the subject of a retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. This show will feature six of his films - Johannesburg Second Greatest City after Paris, Monument, Mine, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old, Felix in Exile and History of the Main Complaint.
Kentridge's production of The Magic Flute, from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, sold out first in Cape Town and then in Johannesburg. The event and its success were unprecedented for South Africa, cementing Kentridge's popular appeal beyond the confines of usual art audiences. The show has received rave reviews since its Brussels premiere in 2005. John Allison of Opera magazine called it 'one of the most original and strangely beautiful opera productions of our time - an artwork in itself.' Shirley Apthorp, writing for Bloomberg.com said 'William Kentridge's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Theatre de La Monnaie in Brussels is both playful and earnest. Like the opera itself, it is rich in symbolism yet free of clutter.'
Kentridge's participation in 'Documenta X' in Kassel in 1997 seems to have been a turning point in his international career. Since then, he has been the subject of solo shows in venues all over the world, in galleries and museums alike. In 1998 an exhibition at the MCA in San Diego and another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York established Kentridge's presence across the Atlantic. Also in 1998, the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles held a survey exhibition, which travelled to venues in Munich, Barcelona, London, Marseilles and Graz throughout 1998 and 1999. In 1999 Kentridge was a recipient of the Carnegie Medal at the Carnegie International.
In 2001 a substantial survey of the artist's work was launched in Washington, later moving to New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Cape Town.
The occasion of 'Documenta XI' in 2002 was marked by the 'shadow oratorio' Confessions of Zeno, commissioned especially for the exhibition. In November 2004 New York's Metropolitan Museum presented a solo show of Kentridge's work culled from their own collection.
In November 2007, Kentridge will travel to the UK for dual exhibitions at two venues at the University of Brighton. From November 22 2007 until February 10 2008 he will be represented on a group exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, entitled 'Going Staying: Movement, Body, Place in Contemporary Art'. At this show Kentridge will exhibit Procession, a series of 26 bronze figures.
In December, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will hold an exhibition of tapestries. Also in December, Kentridge is scheduled to deliver a talk at the Kennedy Center, Washington; this will coincide with a screening of nine Kentridge films and a live performance.
In February and March 2008, the Market Theatre will mount a production of Woyzeck on the Highveld. This will move to Perth, Australia in April 2008, and is scheduled to move on from there to other Australian cities. Towards the end of March 2008 Kentridge will receive an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University in Grahamstown.
AND AFTER THAT
Kentridge is currently in the early stages of work towards a production of Shostakovich's opera The Nose (1929, based on Gogol's 1829 story), for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, opening February 2010. His studio states that 'there will be a lot of independent but nose-related work along the way.'
In January 2008 Marian Goodman Gallery in New York will host a solo Kentridge exhibition consisting of small horse sculptures, stereoscopic work and photogravures, as well as the anamorphic film What Will Come. Also scheduled for January 2008 is an address by the artist at the Y Institute, New York.
2007 'What Will Come' Stadel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
'What Will Come', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
2006 'William Kentridge/The Magic Flute: drawings and projections', Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
'William Kentridge: 9 Drawings for Projection', Museum of Modern Art, New York
'Black Box/Chambre Noire' Johannesburg Art Gallery
2005 'William Kentridge' Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg
Guggenheim Museum, Berlin, Germany
2004 'William Kentridge', Castello di Rivoli, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli, Italy
2001 'William Kentridge', Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
2000 'William Kentridge: New Work', Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
1999 'Projects 68: William Kentridge', Museum of Modern Art, New York
'Stereoscope', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1998 'William Kentridge', The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
'William Kentridge', Stephen Friedman Gallery and A22 Gallery, London
'William Kentridge', Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
1997 'Applied Drawings', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1994 'Felix in Exile', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1992 'Drawings for Projection', Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1991 'Little Morals', Taking Liberties Gallery, Durban, with Deborah Bell and Robert Hodgins
1990 'William Kentridge: Drawings and Graphics', Cassirer Fine Art
1989 'Responsible Hedonism', Vanessa Devereux Gallery, London
1987 'In the Heart of the Beast', Vanessa Devereux Gallery, London
'Standard Bank Young Artist Award' exhibition, Grahamstown, South Africa, July (touring Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg; University Art Galleries, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; University Art Gallery UNISA, Pretoria; Durban Art Gallery, Durban)
1985 'William Kentridge', Cassirer Fine Art, Johannesburg
1981 'Domestic Scenes', The Market Gallery, Johannesburg
1979 'William Kentridge', The Market Gallery, Johannesburg
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITION
2007 'Lift Off Part I', Goodman Gallery Cape, Cape Town
'Local Racism, Global Apartheid', Centre for Contemporary Culture
2006 'Venice-Istanbul', Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
2005 'The Experience of Art', Italian Pavillion, Venice Biennale
2004 'Africa Remix', Museum Kunst Palast, Düat;sseldorf, Germany
'Faces in the Crowd/Volti nella Folla', Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
2003 'Transferts', Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels
2002 'Documenta XI', Museum Fredericianum, Kassel, Germany
2001 'Animations', P.S.1, New York
'Lateral thinking: Art of the 1990's', Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
2000 'Seventh Havana Biennale: Closer to One Another', Havana, Cuba
1999 'Kunstwelten im Dialog', Museum Ludwig,Cologne
1998 'Hugo Boss Prize Exhibition', Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Soho, New York
1997 'Documenta X', Museum Fredericianum, Kassel, Germany
'Second Johannesburg Biennale: Trade Routes: History and Geography', Johannesburg
1996 'Faultlines: Inquiries into Truth and Reconciliation', The Castle, Cape Town
1995 'Africus: First Johannesburg Biennal
1990 'Art from South Africa', Museum of Modern Art, Oxford
1989 'African Encounters', Dome Gallery, New York
1987 'Three Hogarth Satires', with Deborah Bell and Robert Horgins, at University Art Galleries
1985 Cape Town Triennial, South African National Gallery, Cape Town
1981 'National Graphic Show' South African Association of Arts, Bellville, Cape Town
2005 Die Zauberflöte; Kentridge directs. Premiere at La Monnaie, Brussels, travelling to Lille, Naples, Geneva, Cape Town and Johannesburg
1997 Ubu and the Truth Commission; Kentridge conceives and directs this multi-media theatre production written by Jane Taylor, which has performances in Grahamstown, Avignon, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, Zurich, New York, Munich, Basel, Stockholm, Prague, Rome, Toulouse and London, amongst others
1995 Faustus in Africa!; Kentridge conceives and directs this multi-media theatre production, which tours to Grahamstown, Hanover, Basel, London, Lisbon, Seville, Brussels, Marseilles, Paris, Rome and Jerusalem
1993 Woyzeck on the Highveld'; Kentridge directs and creates animation for production, which has performances at venues including Grahamstown, Brussels, Glasgow, New York, Hong Kong, Adelaide and Jerusalem
1979 Dikhitsheneng: Kentridge scripts and directs Junction Avenue Theatre Company
2007 Order of Ikhamanga (Silver), National Orders, Pretoria
2006 Jesse L. Rosenberger Medal, Univesity of Chicago (and Kowler Fellowship)
2004 Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
1973-6 Graduated from University of Witwatersrand with BA in Politics and African Studies
1976-8 Studied art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation
1981-2 Studied mime and theatre at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris
2004 Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg