Multidisciplinary artist William Kentridge explores identity and permanence in a series of events at Cal Performances
By Lou Fancher
By the time audiences in the Bay Area attend a stage production, exhibit, lecture or film during the season-long UC Berkeley residency of world-renowned, multidisciplinary artist William Kentridge, the art will have traveled forward and backward thousands of miles.
Not only literally will it have voyaged, because the art and the artists involved in its creation and performance will land on campus courtesy of Cal Performances having journeyed across oceans and continents—the majority arriving from Kentridge’s home base in Johannesburg, South Africa—but in “miles” seen as measurements of time, due to the maverick artist’s adventurous, rigorous, forward-backward, add-then-subtract artistic studio practice.
Having captivated an audience in last November’s 90-minute “To What End” visual lecture co-presented by Cal Performances, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives and the Townsend Center for the Humanities, Kentridge “and company” return to offer a plethora of events at various campus locations.
In March alone, there are the dramatic reading of Ursonate, performed live by Kentridge; a livestream of an Arts + Design class with Kentridge and Judith Butler in a conversation entitled “Video Art and Social Intervention: Forms of Life”; a guided tour of the exhibit, “For Soprano and Handbag,” featuring soprano Joanna Dudley; a William Kentridge Film Retrospective; and gala and U.S. premiere performances of Kentridge’s Sibyl, with original music composed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd.
Sibyl is presented in two parts and develops along themes relating to fate. It was sparked by Kentridge’s contemplation and response to the Greek myth of the Cumaean Sibyl. Conceived of and directed by Kentridge, Part 1 is a film, The Moment Has Gone, with live music featuring a piano score by Shepherd and an all-male vocal chorus led by Mahlangu. Part 2, Waiting for the Sibyl, is a chamber opera in which nine vocalists and dancers interact with hand-painted sets, animated ink drawings, swirling projected text, collage and shadow play.
Cal Performances executive and artistic director Jeremy Geffen says in an interview the “singular and vast multi-disciplinary nature of his enormous contributions to the arts world” prompted the extended residency. “We have a strong commitment to and history of showcasing artists with a wide range of backgrounds, nationalities, cultures and perspectives—a variety that can best be seen through the lens of our whole season presentation and across multiple seasons, rather than embodied in a single artist.
“I believe that every artistic encounter is, at its core, an educational experience. And Kentridge, our second artist in residence since the resumption of in-person performances (following Angélique Kidjo last season), provides our audiences and the campus the opportunity to dive deeper into the breadth of his creation through these performances,” Geffen continues.
In an email, Susan Oxtoby, director of film and senior film curator at BAMPFA, writes, “Kentridge’s work has a richness, depth and complexity to it. I find his filmmaking remarkably consistent and distinctive. Whether working in hand-drawn animation or live-action performance for the camera, Kentridge is a master of expression and performance. One senses his quest for understanding and his appreciation of wisdom.”
His filmmaking, according to Oxtoby, explores and plays with essential building blocks of cinema such as the individual film frame and the illusion of movement created when the eye sees 24 frames per second; stop-motion photography that employs the magic of the “illusion of movement” in cinema; and the foregrounding hand-made filmmaking techniques and camera tricks (stop-motion photography, superimposition, irises, rotoscoping).
“Kentridge also has a love of ephemeral materials and objects from bygone eras. He is a performer, at times behind the camera-stand shooting one frame, then adjusting the image and filming again; and at other times he is performing for the camera as the film’s subject. It’s a marvelously imaginative approach to filmmaking in which Kentridge as the filmmaker orchestrates time,” says Oxtoby.
For the real deal, it’s always best to talk to the artist directly. And so an interview across thousands of miles is conducted with Kentridge in early March—mere hours before he embarks on his long flight to Berkeley.
Because he is most often asked and speaks about his generative, creative processes, the interview instead focuses on the principles he uses while editing—what he calls the “subtraction” in creative equations.
“A charcoal drawing is always made backwards and forwards. The charcoal is added, making the paper black or gray, and then images are often pulled out of this darkness using an eraser. And then more marks are added and others subtracted,” explains Kentridge. “This is a fairly normal process for drawing and in an expanded form, it’s a way of making any work, even if it’s a performance work.
“With the Sibyl, for an example, there was both a construction and a paring away, an editing,” Kentridge says. “It would start in my studio with a workshop in Johannesburg with maybe 15 performers, some musicians, a composer—in this case, two composers, Kyle Shepherd and Nhlanhla Mahlangu—a camera man, video editors and designers. We spent 10 days assembling a vocabulary of material.
“There were improvisations of many different kinds of music from Marabi to funeral songs. We knew we were dealing with paper swirling and people turning, an important element in the Sibyl. We were dealing with issues of fate: fate approaching you, of finding or avoiding your fate, of lightning striking this chair or that chair. We spent a day playing with chairs like musical chairs, removing chairs, falling on the ground, pratfalls. There’s a kind of drowning excess of too much material, too many ideas,” he continues.
“Then, the process of editing begins. From this wealth of material, which are the pieces which seem to strike a chord? Not necessarily what do they mean, but which are the ones which while watching them, we’re aware of an increased energy of a focus. Of touching some part of us that’s not the same as a rational argument. These are the pieces we hang onto and others are let go,” says Kentridge.
“The principle from the beginning is to give an image or an impulse the benefit of the doubt. To see where it leads on the basis that the work itself needs to be more intelligent than the people making it,” he notes. “They have to be ideas we’re not aware of. There have to be combinations in images that are more than what we expected. But then of course once it’s there, once it’s been given that doubt, it has to finally earn its place. One has to learn the grammar of each impulse.
“If one is doing a leaf turning in the wind, what is the speed, the variations in movement? Does it keep low to the ground, go high? Do we add a fan to get sheets of paper working? In this, there is a huge amount of material that will never be used, which is sometimes a pity to lose, but very often a relief to see it go. Things that are too small, too cute, things which are fantastically interesting to the people doing them, but not having the same interest for people watching. This is not dissimilar from a process of adding and subtracting from a drawing,” Kentridge says.
Handling the projection elements and editing the volumes of material generated and used in a high percentage of the animated films he makes requires intentional sculpting. Kentridge does not begin with a script or storyboard, but allows them to form while drawing and during improvisations in workshops. The evolving structure that does not exist at the beginning of the process receives further refinements in the process of rehearsal.
“At one point, it was my voice on a megaphone in Sibyl in a section called ‘starve the algorithm,’ about contemporary forms of miraculous statements and the way we give our lives over to the calculations of a computer. I did a recording for a scene that is broadcast through a megaphone,” says Kentridge.
“At a certain point, there was a revolt from several members of the company, who said they couldn’t have my voice sounding like the voice of God. Even though to me it really made it sound like the voice of hell from 2001. We re-recorded with a different voice altogether. It was a relief to me not to hear my voice and, by and large, a relief to the company,” he continues.
The creation of new work made by Kentridge involves a great deal of improvisation. To maintain that energy and to invite other artists to work similarly, he and Bronwyn Lace founded Johannesburg’s Centre for the Less Good Idea. The Centre is a physical laboratory space in which artists and curators develop experimental, collaborative and cross-disciplinary projects and works.
There will come a day when Kentridge is no longer living, which brings up the issue of licensing the work to other companies.
“Licensing my work? No one has asked to perform Sibyl. It would be difficult but not impossible to imagine this. I’d be interested to see how it’s done by other people and in other forms. I’m not precious about it. It’s also obviously a negotiation with the composers, with the makers, editors, designers of sets and costumes, all of whom share in the authorship of the final piece. I’d be completely intrigued to see another company performing one of our works. At this point, it has not come up. If people would be interested, I’d be happy to discuss it,” he says.
Kentridge has no expectation his works will be performed beyond his lifetime. He predicts the sheets of paper with drawings on them and films will survive—given for the latter there’s a more stable form of digital storage than exists today. Otherwise, only the old cellular films which exist in 35 or 60mm will be there for many more years, he cautions.
“What’s interesting is that after all this time, papers is by far still the most robust way of keeping information. All the libraries that digitized information are now in the position that the best way of storing all that digitized information is again to print it out. This, I was told, is the official position of the Library of Congress when libraries ask how they should store the material from all the newspapers they threw away,” he notes.
Seminal artists like Kentridge are occasionally asked to “pay it forward” and identify up-and-coming or under-recognized talent or burgeoning movements in the arts. He says he’s “too stuck inside my studio” to do the “full-time activity of very good curators” and keep up on other artists in South Africa and further afield.
But he is eager to talk about the Centre that fashions its name and approach on a Botswana proverb, which roughly translates, “If the good doctor can’t cure you, find the less good doctor.” This means, when the grand ideas don’t work, one tries things from the periphery, from the sides.
“This is both an artistic approach and a political approach of (applying) local, particular solutions when someone understands the huge, overarching solutions have always been disasters. (Huge solutions) have always had men with guns having to enforce them. In the end, one is left more with the gun and with the actual idea,” says Kentridge.
“The Centre is a downtown place run by artists in which actors, performers, musicians, choreographers, come together to develop work. Artists work from the principle of relying on recognition of moments rather than a knowledge in advance. It’s about giving an impulse the benefit of the doubt and seeing where it develops,” he continues.
“This form of associative working and collaborative authorship is for me an important way of thinking about making art, particularly in the performance world, but also a way of escaping purities,” Kentridge explains. “It’s understanding our only hope in the world is a bastardization of identity. It’s against identity politics. In South Africa, we’ve had such a calamitous history of identity politics that there’s a need to find other ways of approaching the world. This is one such way.”