Spending Time with William Kentridge

The man in the frame wears a white shirt. Black trousers. Not a business man’s shirt. A shirt that holds its shape, has a presence of its own, not stiff, starched, but fluid. A shirt that billows lightly around the torso, that ripples with the movement of the body. Open-necked with wide cuffs, cufflinks. The trousers not the trousers of a suited man. Loose but well fitting. Fine wool, perhaps. The shirt tucked in. 


The costume marks William Kentridge’s entry onto the stage as a performer, into the frame of his own work. Kentridge’s drawings, films and performances have often delved into the fraught political landscape of his native South Africa, but in recent years, he has increasingly turned his attention toward unveiling the process of making artworks. After many years of producing animated films based on charcoal drawing, Kentridge began to figure more explicitly in his own work, to produce films and performances that ‘explore what it is to be an artist in the studio’.1 Enthused by the possibilities this opens up, he says ‘the studio becomes a canvas or stage and the artist becomes like a brush moving through it’.2

A brush in the hand of an artist is a thing of many moods. You can rub, you can stroke, you can slap or slash or scrub. The tufts of the brush have spring and flow. An artist knows the feel of a brush in the hand, the angle of incidence to the page and the ease through the shoulder and wrist that makes the brush dance. But what is this artist-brush? 

For Kentridge, the body becomes a medium in itself. He is not a dancer but he knows the poetry of a body moving in space. To his teacher, the famous Jacques Lecoq, the body was the vehicle of creativity and experimentation and the essence of creative theatre was play—an openness to discover what can emerge from movement and play.3 But what does Kentridge do with this performing body? 


William Kentridge stands, brush in hand, against a blank canvas (Taking a Line for a Walk).4 As he steps out across the frame, his hand arcs across the canvas, the gesture like a theatrical flourish, leaving no mark. Again he performs the action of a stroke, rehearsing the undulating rhythm in his body, growing into the flow of the movement until the paint follows from the gesture and the canvas bears the trace of the body on it


The body as rehearsal prop; the body as precursor of visual rhythms and flows; the ambulatory body as metronome that marks out the time of animation in the to-and-fro of the drawing process: in the studio, he says, he explores the ‘transformation of thinking into physical activity’. Kentridge’s animation process is an endless peripatetic move from drawing to camera and back, ‘walking and stalking the image’. And when he works in charcoal, Kentridge speaks of ‘a transformation of the world into material, reduced to charcoal, paper, eraser, all reduced to wrist, hand, muscle power, paper, charcoal’.5

William Kentridge talks. He talks in lectures, in interviews, in performances. He writes, and words proliferate in his work. He was appointed Harvard’s Norton Professor of Poetry for 2012. But what do his words say? What kind of poetry is this? Kentridge is at once a prolific producer of words and a sceptic of the assumption that words can capture the work. This is a paradox at the core of William Kentridge—he is increasingly moved to find the words to explain why words are secondary in his work. He talks about ‘the primacy of images’.6 He talks of the ‘pressure we have inside ourselves for meaning’,7 our drive to make meaning from even the most ‘fragmentary form … we hang onto it, as a hand to a saving bannister’.8 But his search is ‘for meanings that exist beyond words’, ‘meanings that elude the logical and rational’.9 In an ironic twist, he is probably the most written about of contemporary artists working today. When asked for a response to this veritable industry of Kentridge commentary, he deflects the question: ‘I emphasize what happens in the studio. The studio is a protected space for stupidity, for uncertainty’.10 


At a table in an artist’s studio two men face each other (Drawing Lesson 47).11 On the right, dressed in an open-necked white shirt and black trousers, sits William Kentridge, representing the New York Studio School. Opposite him on the left, dressed in identical black and white is William Kentridge, artist. The interviewer prods and probes: ‘can you describe your life as an artist?’ 

The ruminating artist bends to the task, hands gesticulating as he searches for a way to reply: ‘if I had more time there are so many different things one could begin to spin out …’. 

The interviewer blocks the microphone, turns to the audience: ‘He’s not saying anything that’s interesting at all. He’s talking about mayonnaise! Tabasco sauce!’ 

Questions pile up. The artist pauses, searches for an answer, but too late—out comes the next question. No, he says and the interviewer duly records the answer as yes. Yes, he says, and watches his response transcribed as no.

 Digging for a sound bite on the nature of truth and beauty, the interviewer asks, ‘what makes you tick? Can we get one word of truth out of you? We’ll wait here to hear the answer.’ 

The sullen response, each word spoken slowly, emphatically: ‘I will out-wait you bitter year after bitter year.’


Kentridge parodies at once the inarticulate, misunderstood artist, and the prolix critic who builds edifices of words. 


Feeling the control of the interview escaping him, the interviewer tries again to pin down the artist: ‘Can you describe how you make your work?’ 

The interviewer pulls himself up in the chair, looks out into the middle distance and gestures expansively with his hands as he begins to frame his own response. Words come easily to him, as if pulled out of the air from the space before him. ‘Do you start with a blank sheet of paper and slowly you find this intermediate membrane between yourself and the world…? 

But now he does a double-take, stops mid-stream as the artist takes a brush, slaps it across a page, takes his coffee cup and empties the dregs onto the page. Standing as his momentum builds, he grabs an electric drill and starts drilling onto the page, blows off the excess and sits. The interviewer, bewildered, turns to the audience: ‘It’s really of no value at all! Feeble, feeble!’


Increasingly, Kentridge performs with a projection. His lectures themselves ‘become a hybrid performance’, split between a physical performance on stage and a double in projection. The lecture becomes a conversation with the screen. It takes on a scenography, a montage, in the interaction between the layers of live action and projection. 


The man in the frame is erudite, articulate (Biennale of Sydney lecture).12 He speaks of art and politics, of modernism and revolution, but even as he speaks his words are interrupted by his double on the screen. The double looks down on him, starts to parade. The lecturer tries to dodge this phantom self, but the figure shadows him, sticks to him and starts to take over the show. The words start to lose their solidity, to float up in the space between the two figures, held and released, offered and negated. Spoken with confidence and authority; met with disinterest, derision even. 


Is this slapstick, farce? Which one is William Kentridge? Which one can we hold on to? Which one is solid, which one shadow? And why does he split himself so? How readily we try to take hold of the artist, to forget that this is a stage, a staging. For here he performs doubt, uncertainty; he stages the play of contradictions, lays bare the space of paradox for us to look at. 

Why does Kentridge not stick to his charcoal where the hand unseen is clearly the maker of the mark? But what is charcoal to him? When Kentridge talks of drawing, he describes it as a conversation: you start with the blank sheet and make a mark and discover what emerges, ‘The drawing becomes a conversation between the mark you’re making and what you see’.13 Is this the real conversation, the one he wants us to understand? 


•          •          •


As a white South African artist whose work engages with the complex and brutal history of apartheid and the day-to-day contemporary challenges of the rainbow nation, Kentridge is often asked about the politics of his work. His is not an abstract art—he describes the influence of photography on his work, bringing the world into the studio, but to him this is ‘a world of process, rather than fact’.14 ‘I am interested in a political art’, he says—that is to say, an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and uncertain endings’.15


William Kentridge runs (Anti-Mercator).16 Bent forward, his legs take giant strides, striving toward a destination, but he makes no progress, is rooted always on the same spot. Behind him is a giant notebook, covered in scribbled words, sketches, staging notes. But how can this be? For now a huge hand turns the page of the book and now he is running inside a diagram. We think we have grasped the planes of the image, but suddenly it shifts again and the lines on the book are not behind him but in front. Now he stands in front of the book again, delivering lines with great gusto, pacing each word deliberately: ‘Man is a talking clock!’. ‘Hold your breath against time’. 

 A flurry of words jumps out from the page: ‘a miserable collection of surplus images’; ‘pneumatic time’; ‘the object and its unreliable witnesses’; ‘the annihilating full stop’: fragments of an idea; mnemonic jolts perhaps?; aphorisms that hold inside them a clue, a key to the meaning of the work? But just as one word captures the viewer, triggers a line of thought, seems to slide into a slot in the puzzle, a giant hand flips the page again and the man in the frame keeps running ever forward. Fragments of black paper fly together to make an image; a hand takes a tangle of lines in a drawing and slowly undraws them; a metronome beats out the time; a procession of silhouettes marches by—a woman bent, a megaphone pulling a trolley; two figures dance—a man in a bubble and a woman with text projected over her. But how can they be in the same space? Clues pile up and disassemble, the piece somehow strung out in the gaps between the layers. And the man in the black and white speaks once more: ‘must I tell you everything?’


Even as Kentridge undermines his own words—‘Who wrote these notes? None of these notes make any sense to me at all’—our tendency is to want the words to make the work transparent, to be on top of the hierarchy. But Kentridge does not translate himself into the terms of art theory. He does not talk for the work; he talks with it. The work emerges from the montage, the chaos of ideas. This is surely part of the pleasure of Kentridge’s work and what makes him a quintessential artist for our time: you cannot pin it down. The work emerges in the gap between images and words, between process and product. You can never quite grasp it—you can only be immersed in it. The only way to start to understand this work is to spend time with it. And the more time I spend with the work, the more I get lured into the excitement of the work process itself—the generative process that makes me want to produce my own work.

Even as I am lured into this process, there is one question I would like to ask William Kentridge: if a group of geese is a gaggle, what is a collection of your works? Is it a Babel of Kentridges? You immerse yourself in the confrontation of Europe and Africa, in the babble of voices, the world of flux where nothing stands still, nothing can be grasped. As you talk in tongues, do you ever long for a break from the cacophony? Do you long for the single moment, clean and pure, that captures the enigma of your world? Do you ever long for Zen? 

William Kentridge, Drawing Lesson 47 (An Interview with the Artist), 2010. Film still. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

William Kentridge, Anti Mercator, 2011. Film still. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.


William Kentridge: Five Themes DVD. Frame capture. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

William Kentridge: Five Themes DVD. Frame capture. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist.


1. William Kentridge, in Mark Rosenthal, ‘William Kentridge in Conversation’, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 6 March 2012, with Mark Rosenthal. http://www.acmi.net.au/explore_podcasts.htm Accessed 15 May 2012.
2. William Kentridge, in Rosenthal, ibid.
3. Jacques Lecoq, The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre, Methuen, London, 2000.
4. William Kentridge: 5 Themes DVD, ex. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, ed. Mark Rosenthal, Yale University Press, New Haven.
5. William Kentridge, in Michael Cathcart, ‘Interview with William Kentridge’, ABC Radio National, Books and Arts Daily, 8 March 2012, podcast; William Kentridge: Anything is Possible, DVD, Prod., Art 21, PBS, dir. Susan Sollins, 2010.
6. William Kentridge, quoted in Corydon Ireland, ‘Artist Touts Primacy of Images’, Harvard Gazette, 26 March 2012.
7. William Kentridge, I am not me, the horse is not mine, lecture/performance for Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sayt75o8fYk Accessed 15 May 2012.
8. Kentridge, Biennale of Sydney, ibid.
9. Quoted in Ireland, op. cit.
10. Kentridge, in Cathcart, op. cit.
11. Drawing Lesson 47, video interview for New York Studio School, video source Marian Goodman Gallery, exhibited in ‘Universal Archive’, William Kentridge solo exhibition, Annandale Gallery, Sydney, March–April 2012.
12. Biennale of Sydney, op. cit.; ‘William Kentridge: 5 Themes’, retrospective exhibition, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, March–May 2012.
13. Kentridge, in Rosenthal, op. cit.
14. ‘William Kentridge on His Place in the Art World’, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Online lecture. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzxXvSviWDs&list=PL177A7303EA7DA9DA&index=8 Accessed 15 May 2012.
15. William Kentridge: Black Box, ex. cat., Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, 2005.
16. Anti-Mercator, animated film, exhibited in ‘Universal Archive’, op. cit.

Dr Anne Rutherford is a Senior Lecturer in Cinema Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney.