15 Minutes With Visionary Artist William Kentridge

With exhibitions open across the world and now a wildly successful show in L.A., the artist reflects on Hollywood and his films
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LAMag recently had an opportunity to speak with artist William Kentridge about his impressive solo exhibition, William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows at The Broad contemporary art museum in Downtown Los Angeles. The show is on view now through April 9.

Working across diverse mediums, Kentridge’s hand-drawn animated films and performative works draw from filmmaking pioneers Georges Méliès and The Lumière Brothers. Greeting visitors to the museum is the artist’s prominent bronze sculpture, Action! (2018), which is shaped like a vintage recording device and evokes the history of movie-making in Los Angeles. It also fits our conversation, as we discuss his connections to Hollywood, the influences behind his techniques, and the parallels between Southern California and South Africa.

LAMag: Thank you so much for your time. It’s incredible to see your work in Los Angeles at The Broad. In this exhibition, as you enter, there are charcoal drawings with Hollywood Golden Age icons by the entrance. How does your show in Los Angeles respond to the history of Hollywood and film?

William Kentridge: The drawing at the entrance was made just before I stopped working in the film industry in South Africa, which I did for a while, and went back to being an artist. Anant Singh, the producer of those films, asked me to do some film drawings. Those are the earliest drawings in the exhibition. I’d worked as a designer on the first feature film that he’d made.

Wow.

As a producer, it was not a good film. [Singh] would admit that as much as anyone else. The South African Film Industry was so depressing that I found myself back in the studio making drawings. As this exhibition unfolded, I said, “Oh, I remember we have these early Hollywood drawings,” and there’s everyone from Groucho Marks to Sergei Eisenstein to Greta Garbo.

I also noticed Marlene Deitrich, Humphrey Bogart, and James Dean in your drawings.

There you go—Marlene Dietrich was there; the whole gang was there. And it was when I was still trying to figure out what the subject was that I would be drawing. It’s almost like a pre-drawing, predated, and it sets a good turn for this exhibition, which has a different approach to filmmaking as one of the themes. These are hand-drawn films made without a script, a production studio, and all of the usual mechanics of filmmaking associated with Hollywood. I made these works on the basis that all I needed was a piece of paper and my Bolex camera, and I could begin filming immediately. I’m delighted that the films are in Los Angeles on their own terms.

As you turn around the first corner of this show, viewers see a meticulously drawn film that depicts life in Johannesburg, South Africa, where you were born and currently reside. What connections do you notice between Jo’burg and Los Angeles?

Oh, gosh. The obvious ones are that suburban Johannesburg and Los Angeles are driving cities. You have to be in a car too; it’s not like a city with public transport like New York or London. The populations are also more or less equivalent. Los Angeles is undoubtedly more extensive but not double the size of the population of Johannesburg. It’s easier to find the parallels between Los Angeles and its climate. We don’t have the sea, a big part of this city. However, there are vast areas of Los Angeles where the sea is absent too.

As you create everything by hand, I think of you and your films in the context of prominent animators, including Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. How do you view your relationship with animation?

I’ve always had a love of traditional cel animation, where you’d have the lead animator and then desks and desks of assistants in between coloring and doing backgrounds. That production line of making is very different obviously to [my works]; instead of having thousands of different drawings, you have maybe 20 or 30 drawings for a film with the same drawing altered and transformed. Some artisanal animators spend years constructing their six-minute films, which would get seen primarily at animation festivals like those at Annecy, Hiroshima, Zagreb or Stuttgart. I like to be in cinema and the world of fine arts as a branch of image-making.

I also see an influence deriving from the history of silent films.

That’s very much there. There’s Eisenstein in that first drawing. Dziga Vertov, the Soviet filmmaker, was an even more important figure to me with his documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929). That was the revelation of what a film could be and how a narrative could have an arc but not a storyline. The films you see when you grow up are essentially character-driven narratives.

Going through the exhibition feels like being within a movie set. What is the intentionality behind that?

Designer Sabine Theunissen creates the theater sets of the projects I’ve done. It shows the agency of making, whether in the films or the mise en scene in the actual exhibition, you can see the wood, felt, and different surfaces screwed together. There is a sense of being in a working space like a studio without trying to reconstruct naturalistically. It’s about the excess and abundance of different mediums in one space. That is what makes it feel like the studio in Johannesburg.

I love seeing the tape on the floor. It also relates to your drawings, where you see the red markings atop the black and white charcoal works.

I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. The red markings on the drawings become the markings of the gallery exhibition.

In the nine-channel video installation, 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Day for Night, Journey to the Moon (2003), you reimagine filmmaker Méliès’ experimental films as a meditation of your artistic practice. What draws you to his work?

We can talk about the account of filmmaking in two different broad strands. You’ve got that which comes from documentary photography and the camera’s ability to record the image in front of it, or “the world the camera saw.” And then you have The Lumière Brothers [Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas and Louis Jean Lumière], putting their camera in front of a factory or a trailer station showing the world coming towards the camera. The other history of movie making is entirely different, which is a continuation of the record of various performances of transformation. For instance, stage magicians would be one of them, and people who worked with geography would be another. All the pre-cinematic devices were instruments of wonder and transformation. Méliès was a filmmaker who was a stage magician, a Vaudeville artist, and also an artist who would paint the background scenery in his studio and then perform the films himself in front of it. The artist’s idea of performing in front of his drawings comes from Méliès. It is what I use in that series of works.

The experience of being in the room and having videos projected on all four walls produces a feeling of intimacy, of being in that sacred space of composition. I also love the directors’ chairs available to sit on.

Some are a recreation of films of Méliès, and others use fundamental cinematic techniques, slowing film down, running the film backward, and splitting the frame to have the same person replicated. These methods are still quite radical, even though they’ve been there from the very first days of cinema. They have to be refound and are part of the language of cinema for people making feature films.

You have directed Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose at The Metropolitan Opera in 2010 and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in 2005. Why did you choose to work on these productions?

The Nose is one of the large-scale operas with a chorus, orchestra, and singers. At the same time, I have also done chamber operas, including Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I’ve also directed two operas by Alban Berg, Lulu, and Wozzeck. Each is about finding a theme that interests me and the material to draw or think about the work, whether ink or charcoal on paper or paper cutouts.

Thank you for having me at the rehearsal for your production of Houseboy at the RedCat Theater last night. Every actor in that performance is outstanding.

My pleasure. We are fortunate to have The Centre For The Less Good Idea in Maboneng, Johannesburg. The actors all come from there.

What is The Centre?

The Centre is a physical arts space downtown where I have a studio. We have a season or two in which curators come together to make a program of performances, usually short. They’re only seen once, sometimes twice at most. And the last season before Covid was one in which changing texts was the broad theme of that season. Participants worked with texts from Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. I did this piece using a French novel from the 1950s from Cameroon, not from France, but from the Francophone Cameroonian colony called Une Vie de Boy, or Houseboy, by Ferdinand Oyono. It’s a kind of dramatized reading of the novel. You’re aware that a book is being read rather than transforming into a play. It’s trying to say, “how can it still feel like the novel but not just have a single reader?”

I noticed how the actors face the audience the whole time and don’t face each other.

They speak out to the audience while the narrator continues during their moments of frozen positions, almost like a series of photographs or snapshots that set the image. We did two performances of [Houseboy] in Johannesburg just after the lockdown. This is the third performance here in Los Angeles. In Miami [at the Adrienne Arsht Center], we will perform a piece called The Head & the Load, a piece about Africa and the First World War, which is large-scale. [Houseboy] has 12 actors, and The Head & the Load has 60 people on stage. We also did a long processional version in the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

It also goes back to Preparing the Flute (2005), a model theater in the exhibition, and the numerous drawings for each presentation. I also remember seeing a miniature theater in your show in London; what connections do both have?

So between the two things, at The Broad, curator Ed Schad includes no shortage of drawings. It’s nice to have this depth between the two exhibitions. In Los Angeles, we have the miniature theater performing Mozart’s The Magic Flute. At the Royal Academy, we’ve got the underbelly of [Plato’s Allegory of the Cave] in the Enlightenment in Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005). It looks at the Herero and Namaqua genocide in 1904 in what is now the country of Namibia. It asks, “What is the colonial underbelly of the Enlightenment project?”

Why do you use black and white for the most part?

Some people and some artists think in color. They start a painting by flooding their canvas. For me, it begins with a line, so the color’s an addition. It’s the central thinking medium.

I’m sure you’ve been asked that before.

I have (laughs). It’s much easier to erase charcoal than pastel too.

When did you make your first charcoal work?

I made my first charcoal work when I attended children’s art lessons around eight. On the first day, the teacher at the art school asked, “What do you want to draw?” And for some reason, I said, “Landscape.” And they said, “What do you want to use?” I said, “Charcoal.” Then it was abandoned for decades, and I didn’t think about it, and years later, I returned to charcoal as a primary medium.

I find your sculpture compelling as well. The bronzes.

The bronzes started as puppet shows I did for my children’s birthdays using objects. The rules were that you could only make the puppets on the morning of the party and use things around the house, whether they were corkscrews, coffee pots, or secondaries. And then, those kinds of objects were solidified, molded, cast, and became bronze figurines.

RoseLee Goldberg sends a big hello too. At the Performa dinner in New York, she showed me your performance Ursonate, in tribute to Kurt Schwitters’s 1932 sound poem.

I’ve done two performances. She was showing you the one of Dada nonsense language. It uses a flip book with turning pages. So it’s similar to the book that we’ve used. I sometimes do that performance. I did it in London a month ago and will perform it in India next month.

Thank you for this interview.

My pleasure. I have to go and rehearse now.


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