(today, we continue our interview with William Kentridge. The first part can be found here)
YA: Tell me a about the history of Johannesburg, since you’ve mentioned it, and how it’s affected your work. Apartheid and the reality of –
WK: Well, there’s a 2 billion year history of Johannesburg, which was a meteorite impact, which tilted the earth, which brought the gold to the surface, which is the reason Johannesburg existed. So it has a geological – not a geographic – X. And the hills around Johannesburg are essentially made by these piles of earth that came out of the mines, from the gold mines, those are our hills. But unlike most hills, which are fixed, and mountains, which are symbols of eternity, these are portable properties. They’re owned by the mining companies that excavated them and, as the price of gold goes up, they will get erased. So it’s a kind of a city that animates itself, it erases itself. You’ll see a hill and over the course of three months it will literally be rubbed out. It will be blasted away with high-pressure waterjets. So there’s a way in which the city is a new city. At my age, I’ve been alive for, like, 40% of the age of the city. The city’s only 130 years old.
YA: How old are you now?
WK: 56, 40% of the age of the city. So there’s that sense of it being an unfixed entity. And one that’s changed over 50 years, there’s no doubt, that I remember the city. It’s very bleached in terms of its colors, particularly in winter, it’s very harsh light, high contrast. So there’s a way in which it has an affinity with charcoal drawing, so there’s a lot of links that go across. It’s a bastardized, city of bastardy. It doesn’t have a long tradition. All its traditions are imported, recent, from all over. So I think it’s a city that proclaims both a virtue and the necessity for mixed traditions for constructing itself out of abandoned objects and thoughts.
YA: I feel, it’s clear that, in your work, one of the big themes is time. If you were to pick out other themes, what would they be?
WK: There’s so many that are connected to – memories, obviously, and historical memory is connected to time. The absurd, the importance of the absurd as a way of accurately understanding the world. Absurd not as joke, but as naturalism. The value of shadows and uncertainty. Understanding the world as process rather than as fact. Animation, which is about the world, it’s 25 frames a second. Lots of things that go through a lot of the works.
YA: How do you feel about the art scene in Johannesburg?
WK: The art scene is small or fragmented, in a sense that there are, artists meet each other at exhibitions, there are a couple of studio spaces where they’ll be groups of artists working together. But, essentially, for me, it’s finding 8 or 10 collaborators that I like working with, whether they’re other artists and sculptors and musicians and film editors and dancers, and that becomes, in a sense, the community. But it’s a small enough art world for most of my friends not to be artists, in fact. Not to be in, you have a sense in the large art centers like New York or Berlin, there’s such an enormous art world, that just to try to be vaguely in touch with it takes up all of one’s time and energy. Whereas here it’s small, one can go and look at what’s happening in dance and in music at the same time as one’s working.
YA: And it’s pretty progressive?
WK: I think so. I mean, I never quite know what that means, but there’s enough interesting work out there.
YA: How do you know that your work has been successful? How do you define the success of a piece of art for your own work?
WK: I mean, there’s different successes. There’s success when you’re doing opera, and there’s big cheers and good reviews. I mean, that becomes a success in one objective sense. But what is a success I feel? I wouldn’t say – “I’m happy with the work, I’m not, I’m satisfied, I’m dissatisfied” – that shifts and changes. But more often than not I go into the next one rather than being tormented by one that doesn’t work.
YA: What is the biggest challenge during the process of creation for you?
WK: There are different ones. One is finding the grammar of a piece of work. So you can have an idea, a conceptual idea, which may or may not be good. You know, it can have great ideas which, when you see them, are completely feeble. So it has to do with how they are realized, or how they justify themselves in performance with realization. And finding out what the specific grammar of the piece is. So one makes a mechanical semafor machine, but the reality of it is not just that the wheels go round and that the arms move. What is – is it legato, it is staccato, what is the relationship between the performer operating it and the person moving it, between the person singing and that piece going at the same time? That’s the challenge the real work is in, rather than that first idea, or even necessary in the final polishing of it … it’s something more in the center. I think for all artists it’s the balance between trying to follow through with an impulse and being open to the different directions that a working process suggests to you, even in itself or for other works that happen. And, of all the different possibilities suggested, trying to, in some non-rational way, adjudicate and decide which one to follow.
YA: Where you are right now, it seems that you’re very much working dimensionally, a lot of performance –
WK: But there are also a lot of two dimensional flat drawings and films.
YA: When you’ve just come up with an idea, at the beginning of the process, how do you know if it’s good or if it’s bad?
WK: I don’t. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad idea. I assume that all the ideas are good, give them the benefit of the doubt. And sometimes it’s a slow process to understand they’re not working, but it’s very often the case that if the initial idea with which your project gets launched, the first clear saying “I know what this project is about,” some point along the way gets dumped. So just think back on initial images or impulses, very often they don’t make it to the final – which is encouragement to think: don’t interrogate those ideas too closely. Even if they’re not great in themselves, they may – even if they’re not in the end going to be interesting fully exposed, they’ll often lead to other ideas where the real work is, where the real heart of the project is.
YA: How would you define what you do now?
WK: I make drawings. Sometimes the drawings are just flat things on paper. Sometimes they move through time in animated films. Sometimes they move through space as well, when they’re sculptures of live performances. But then I just think of it as drawing in four dimensions. But the same logic and openness that one has towards drawing, I try to put into everything, whether it’s going to be a performance, or a lecture or a film.