Extracts from Footnotes for the Panther, Conversations between William Kentridge and Denis Hirson. Kentridge, William and Denis Hirson. Johannesburg, Fourth Wall. 2017.
DH: Could you say something about how it was that you came to work in charcoal?
WK: There are different answers. The short answer, or the first answer, is: I remember being young and going to children’s art lessons when I was eight or nine. And during the first lesson the teacher asked me, “What do you like?” and I had no idea what to answer so I said, “Landscapes.” And she said to me, “How do you want to do them?” Again I cast around, I didn’t know what to say. I said, “Charcoal!” So during the first lesson there I was drawing a charcoal landscape without a clue about A or B.
My grandfather had given me a book when I was young – so maybe I am ten and not eight when I am doing this – called Great Landscapes, which had Hobbema on the cover and landscapes by Courbet, Constable and others. That is one answer to “Why charcoal?”
The second answer is fifteen years later, when I’m an art student, and I came to charcoal because I was such a failure at painting. I tried and was being taught oil painting. To be an artist was to paint with oil paint on canvas. If you read all the books on art they have that as the primary activity you should be doing. And I just couldn’t do it, in the sense that my criterion for asking whether a painting worked wasn’t to say, “Does it look nice? How does it look?”
If you are worried about what something looks like then that’s a good reason not to be doing it. Whereas when I started with drawing, it wasn’t, “What does it look like?” It was about “What are the ideas that come through it? How flexible can it be?” It was a whole different activity. When the drawings were finished I sometimes liked the look of the drawing, sometimes I wouldn’t, but that wasn’t the mantra going through my head. So in a sense I was rescued by my failure in oil painting to start charcoal drawing.
Conversation 1, Jeu de Paume, Paris, 29 June 2010 pp 19-20
DH: Here is a quote by Henri Michaux talking about Paul Klee. He said that before Klee, no-one had ever before let a line dream. How do you respond to that?
WK: Well, we know that Klee talks about “taking a line for a walk”. And what Michaux understood was that it was not about you taking a line for a walk but allowing and hoping that the line would take you for a walk. The line is going to lead you – it is going to be the dog that is pulling you on the leash.
I think there were artists before Paul Klee who did that, but it’s the right inversion of the hope of what a line will be. And it’s an important one as what it brings out very clearly is the way in which a drawing functions as a membrane between oneself and the world, an inner life and the outside world.
If you think of all drawings, or look at a projection, whatever it is, you are doing two things. You have a representation of the outside world – an object or a line or a shape, either on a screen or on a piece of paper, which is something external, outside of yourself. But then on to that you project the act of recognition, of looking and seeing, which is where you meet the outside world.
Let’s say there will be five black shapes, or a series of dark and light shapes, on a screen and through the act of looking we recognise that this is a rhinoceros, this is a horse, this is whatever it is. That has to do with what we know of the world of horses, of rhinoceroses, of landscapes that are inside us, that come out and meet the world halfway.
Allowing a line to dream means acknowledging that it is one thing to draw a line, something objective that appears on a piece of paper. But that line also provokes in you a set of reflections which then get projected on to the sheet of paper and lead you to say: Look at the drawing of a horse.
You don’t say: Look at these odd lines across a sheet of paper. You may say: Look at these marks on paper that might resemble a horse. But usually you will do both things. You will know this is just a set of charcoal marks on a sheet of paper, but it is a horse. There is horseness inside of yourself when you look at that image.
DH: What you are saying makes me think of the activity of writing. But as I listen to you I am both here in Paris in 2010, and thinking back to apartheid South Africa. There was such incredible pressure at the time on anybody who was engaged in artistic activity, and was so inclined, to focus on a certain number of Issues with a capital I: political issues.
This idea that the line might be taking you for a walk, that the materials might be taking you, that chance might be the key element in creativity, is something that was difficult to locate in the South African air all those years ago.
But, just to contradict myself, here is Nadine Gordimer quoting Proust. He says: “[T]he artist must at all times follow his instinct, which makes art the most real thing, the most austere school in life and the last true judgment.” For Gordimer, too, there was this primacy of the creative act beyond the sense of political necessity. Did you feel that early on? Did you feel in conflict with other people who were bowing to the current pressures?
WK: Well, the trajectory for making images began for me as a student, very much involved in political unrest and an understanding of the situation at the time. There was a period of several years which, in terms of the theatre-making I was involved with and the drawings and the images, was very much about: What are the images that need to be made, which is the slogan that needs to be followed? What do other people think? What does the working class need to be told? How much will a trade-union shop steward understand?
One of the reasons I came to Paris to study theatre was that it became increasingly impossible and difficult for me to work within that paradigm. Not so much because I found it fundamentally false, but because I felt that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say: What did a trade union need to do? What would a worker in a factory understand or not? It became an extraordinarily paternalistic way of thinking on behalf of someone else.
When I came back to drawing three years later, it was on the basis that it had to make sense only to me. The line would tell me what it wanted and I would follow that, and the hope was in the end that it wouldn’t be entirely solipsistic: it would be of interest to me, but other people would also find a way of looking at it. But that became part of the long haul, of spending year after year making drawings and making images, there had to be a way of trying to make it half of someone else’s imagination which one could never predict, and work from myself outwards.
Conversation 1, Jeu de Paume, Paris, 29 June 2010 pp. 20-24
DH: In the ’80s or even earlier than that, many of the images you produced were theatrical. This seems to be a thread in your life – the Junction Avenue Theatre Company in Johannesburg, the Jacques Lecoq Theatre School, all the way up to what you are doing now. When did this leaning towards theatricality start for you?
WK: The start of theatre? The start of the theatricality? It doesn’t go back quite as far as saying, “I’ll draw with charcoal” as a child, but it goes back almost that far.
I don’t know if you had speech training as a child? There was this provincial fear of parents that their children so far from England would speak with a heavy South African accent. So I, like many children, was told you must not say, “Bright-eyed rider riding on a bicycle” [he uses flat, heavy South African vowels] but “Bright-eyed rider riding on a bicycle, bicycle and tricycle turned into an icicle” [he uses exaggeratedly round colonial vowels].
This speech training was done, it is interesting to note, by either the sister or the niece of Samuel Beckett. And one of the things she would do as part of elocution lessons was to get us to do plays. One of the first pieces of theatre I was involved in was one of these ridiculous pieces based around the pronunciation of one’s vowels – the fetishism of English vowels in the colonies! Which of course also had to do with class.
My mother thought it was lower-class to have bad vowels – it was like not brushing your teeth. So that, I suppose, was one introduction to theatre, and I continued acting in high school and at university, acting in Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, and then working in a group making theatre. At that stage there were very much two distinct activities: there was the activity of making drawings and there was the activity of making theatre, and the two coalesced only as I was being called on to always design the damn poster for the theatre production.
I came to Paris to study theatre, where it became very clear I should not become an actor, and then came back to this activity many years later, not expecting to but finding myself working in theatre. There is a way of seeing theatre as a miniature world, as a sort of small controlled space, the way a ship is a metaphor for a house. One thinks of big sailing adventures but ships are about safety and small domesticity. The stage is also a way of controlling the world.
Conversation 1, Jeu de Paume, Paris, 29 June 2010 pp 27-28
DH: Does the word ‘revenge’ also perhaps suggest that you were angry not only with yourself but also with the powers that led you to grow up in this alien landscape, that brought you to this gap between the tradition you grew up with and the landscape you lived in?
WK: I am trying to think back to the time when I started to draw landscapes in the late 1980s. At this point, South African landscape painting, which is quite a conservative tradition, is still enormous.
At all the auction sales, what is for sale 90% of the time are South African landscape paintings, which are landscapes without people, I mean the traditional landscapes. What they show is pure nature. In the history of landscape painting there is early work showing signs of conquest, and when the conquest is complete, taking those who have been vanquished out, the landscape is turned back into pure nature.
In the 1980s there is still a sense of landscape as one of the main forms of art-making in South Africa. On the one hand, that form is epitomised by the big painting in my grandparents’ dining room by Tinus de Jongh, (*2) which had mountains in the background and big trees in the foreground, a stream right in the foreground and bits of light coming through the trees and looking very wet with reflections on the stream in the front.
There was that painting to work against; in a sense, saying, that is not the landscape I am aware of around Johannesburg. It’s revenge in the sense that something completely attracted me to that huge painting which I saw every Friday night all through my childhood. When I think of landscape painting, that particular painting still comes to my head.
For me, it was also an important painting because it’s the first one I was able to study, and did study with a kind of fascination. It was a tree and through the leaves you could see there was a mountain behind it, but when you go up to the painting of course all you see is brown paint and on top of the brown paint is a light yellow. You read the light yellow as a mountain in the distance way behind the tree, you see the river as wet, and when you go up close you see there are light blue horizontal stripes painted on top of the brown pebbles of the water and you transform that into the idea of ripples and water.
That sense of transformation of material into light and into the illusion of a living world completely fascinated me as a three-year-old, a four-year-old, when that sense of the painting as a picture disappeared and it would come back to being what it was. The drawings I did were not letting themselves be that kind of landscape, while being sorry in a way that they couldn’t be, that one cannot do a Courbet landscape any more.
I think that anger, though, is an important part of art-making. It’s complicated because it’s a performance of anger, in that you remember how angry you were, it has more to do with the heating inside. And to make the work one needs to somehow recreate that heat inside.
That might mean striding around the studio, round and round until there is the energy to attack the paper, for the first marks to go really quickly and hard and hope to start the conversation with what’s coming out on the paper (and for me generally the first marks are done hard and fast to very quickly not have it as a clean sheet of paper any more) … it might mean using a cloth which has been dipped in charcoal dust and is rubbed over so it becomes a murky uneven grey surface, or using fat charcoal, drawing points of geography across the shape very quickly, mapping the drawing.
I think the real start of my drawing had to do with allowing myself to work in that way. Not after careful consideration, not preparing a composition in advance.
DH: Coming back to the emotion for a minute, was there a sense that you were being brought up in an unlovely landscape? Why were you given this?
WK: Yes. It was exemplified by this series of disastrous family picnics that would happen in the Magaliesberg, whenever we went, which would start with us getting lost, and a big argument between my parents about which way we should go.
They’d once found somewhere beautiful, there’d once been a Shangri-La somewhere in the Magaliesberg, but it would often end either with us sitting at a culvert under a bridge pretending that that was a generous stream, the trickle of water going through either some friend’s farm or just at the side of the road, or literally sitting at the side of the road, between the edge of the road and the barbed-wire fence four metres in, having our picnic there and then wondering how we were going to find the route back to Johannesburg.
When I was six, my parents took us on a trip to Italy and we had six weeks in an Italian seaside town, which was the opposite. It was a calm sea, it wasn’t a sea that was going to kill you the way that South African seas were going to kill you. We could wander out on our own. There was a very different sense of what it meant to be in a civic space, a mixture of a civic space and nature.
Of course when one goes through Johannesburg every day one thinks, God, this is ugly, some of it. The mixture of bad design, bad building and things done on the cheap without thought and planning. In some places that makes for interesting local colour. In Orange Grove and along the Louis Botha strip it just makes for the death of a sense of the city.
Conversation 2 Le Grand Bleu restaurant, Paris, 21 October 2010 pp. 54-57
DH: I was thinking about Woyzeck and Faustus and Ubu and wondering: Is this William bringing a European narrative to Africa and transforming it for the needs of a South African narrative? Do you see it that way?
WK: Yes. Woyzeck started off with the South African location, the characters were South African street characters who appeared in other films and at the edges of other films and drawings from Johannesburg – and then there was a question of finding a play for them to perform, which turned into Woyzeck on the Highveld.
Faustus in Africa! started with a thematic idea of this pact between the devil and Faustus, which in a way had to do with the negotiations in South Africa between the ANC and the Nationalist government, where the best option that one could have was this pact with the devil. And what were the consequences of that going to be? Which is in fact where we are now in South Africa, looking at a lot of those damaging consequences of the best possible outcome.
I looked for different versions of that story, I read a lot of African versions and European versions and Canadian versions, and in the end came back not to the Marlowe but to the Goethe. And then I was caught, on the one hand wanting the play to have a South African connection – not necessarily directly through South African characters – but also being confronted with the otherness of the German tradition.
It wasn’t as simple as saying, I want to bring this European play and make it accessible to South Africans or even to myself. But I wanted to say, Why does the broad scope of this myth, this metaphor of the pact with the devil, resonate and feel right at this moment? Which isn’t answered. But the non-answering is done through the careful construction of the piece.
As I’ve said, Faustus was done in the era of the negotiations between the Nationalists and the ANC, before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which then comes into Ubu. And during the negotiations we were being given a very clear choice: you can sacrifice justice in return for knowledge, and if you want all knowledge, this comes at the cost of it being powerless. So as you discover terrible things that people are doing, you relinquish the power to hold them accountable, they get given amnesty and that’s the only way in which you are actually going to discover what actually happened. It became a very clear and emblematic separation of truth and justice.
DH: In the midst of these questions, as concerns your own work, you nonetheless seek a European lens, don’t you?
WK: Yes, I do. I think this is partly a biographical question in the sense that European books were the ones I ended up reading. The Heinemann African Writers Series came quite late – though I suppose not so late – in my life. But apart from that there was a sense of being wary of all those parts of South African life that were non-urbanised, non-Europeanised.
Any idea of Africans as having a tribal tradition and trajectory of culture separated from Europeans seemed to be completely playing into the apartheid image of the separation between races. We have already discussed this.
DH: Yes. But you do have this incredible scene in Woyzeck on the Highveld where the doctor puts the stethoscope to the chests of Woyzeck and himself, listens, and hears two different worlds. In scenes like this one you are recognising difference.
WK: I am recognising that there absolutely are different worlds, but this was a way of saying: well, let me not go and spend months listening to old Bushman creation myths for a start. I thought, no, I don’t want Bushmen to have to be stuck forever in their early creation myths, they have got to be able to join the world as they wish. Which cut me off from a whole extraordinary set of stories and narratives and other ways of understanding the world.
But my break with this kind of material is not as dramatic, not as complete, as I’ve made out. In Faustus there’s a huge section of Ghanaian proverbs, there are a lot of African sculptures that come into both the construction of the puppets and into some of the iconography.
But as for the lens – it would be wrong to say that the big lens and the big questions and the trajectory of philosophical enquiry is not based in Europe, in European Western history. For me the starting-point for all these questions is Plato in the cave, which is a stating of the broad question of Europe in Africa.
Conversation 3 Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris 14 December 2011 pp. 87-90
DH: In a conversation we once had, I can’t remember when, you said that Johannesburg was a ‘provisional landscape’, if one compared the mine dumps to the Alps, for example. I was wondering whether really, to you, any landscape wouldn’t be provisional?
WK: There’s an element of saying, OK, the landscape around Johannesburg is what you’ve got so it’s going to have to suffice while waiting for something better to arrive. Make the most of it, find your one tree somewhere in the Magaliesberg (*1) to have your picnic under. It’s provisional in that sense. There is a grudging acceptance of its inevitability.
DH: Is there also not another sense in which a landscape is provisional because for you it is a décor and ultimately perhaps a theatre décor?
WK: There is a sense in which, temperamentally, in going for a walk in the veld, I always feel I am walking over the veld rather than in the veld; it does feel distanced and other. It’s not like swimming in a swimming pool, where you feel you are in the water, which is a very comfortable element to be in. A hike over the South African landscape feels like an unnatural activity to me.
If I have an hour to walk I realise I will be much happier walking in my studio, stalking the studio, than saying: I’ve got an hour, I am going for a walk in these woods or I am going to walk through this park or I am going to walk through this piece of veld. It’s a bit like riding a horse. When I’m on the horse I know I should not be there. The horse knows it, I know it, and we have a pact to say: All right, let’s just get this over with quickly.
I feel the same in the veld: I should not be there, but we’ll both manage till the end of the walk. As opposed to some people who relax as they start walking in the landscape, they are who they are.
DH: Would it be the same if you were walking in the Alps?
WK: Walking in the Drakensberg it felt completely the same. In the Alps too, I am sure; in the city, not. Two hours walking through the streets of Paris or through the streets of New York feels a completely comfortable activity. I’ve done very little long walking in the countryside.
DH: Going back to my question: is there a way in which all landscapes would be provisional?
WK: I’m not sure ‘provisional’ is the term I would use. In a sense, nature feels like a culture that I’m not reading well. There are people who go down a river and look at the rocks and the mountains all around and read the geology and the kinds of plants and the things that are going on. But however many times I walk through my very beautiful garden, I can’t remember the names of the trees or the plants, so it does become a kind of backdrop. A carefully constructed backdrop often, but a backdrop.
DH: What about when you were drawing the Mont Sainte-Victoire?
WK: No, there I was really drawing Cézanne. My interest in it was through its history of Cézanne and Picasso, primarily Cézanne doing the Mont Sainte-Victoire; and it’s a drawing of the Mont Sainte-Victoire done on old maps of French colonial explorations of the Sahara and also of other terrains.
There is a definite pleasure in transforming what’s in front of you on to a piece of paper. So there’s a pleasure in making a landscape drawing, drawing whatever world there is outside. But a lot of the pleasure comes in the movement of that landscape into the studio.
DH: Transformation. Displacement?
WK: Displacement and reconstruction; making it – from being its own unimaginable other, the rocks and their life – into something that’s appropriated and turned into the small stage of the piece of paper on the table or on the wall in the studio.
You’ve got the drawing of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, you’ve got in a sense the shape of the flat table top and the different angles of the sides of the mountain and the rocks, which when you look at the paper make a reference back to what you see outside, to the mountain. But very early on what’s happening is your projection on to the sheet of paper of another image of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, that one of the Mont Sainte-Victoire by Cézanne, as seen consciously or unconsciously.
DH: You’ve said any number of times that it’s Johannesburg and a certain perimeter around your studio that’s your place. Outside of that, have you ever had the sensation in all your wanderings now, that any other area could be – or has the strength of resonance of – your place?
WK: There are places which through habit, through experience, like the beach in Plettenberg Bay– I’ve been going there for fifty years – have a resonance of familiarity: particular structures of the dunes around that beach and the headland at the end of it. There’s a pleasure in driving from Johannesburg to the coast through the Karoo, as a familiar alien landscape. But I never ever think I’d love to stop and just spend a month in this Karoo landscape walking over those bleak scrub-filled rocky small hills.
Conversation 3 Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris 14 December 2011 pp. 84-87
DH: Yesterday you were listening to this music that has been turning and turning in my mind – from which township was it?
WK: I think it’s Sebokeng, a church brass band in Sebokeng.
DH: I was thinking about your use of music. On the one hand you have Berg and you say it is almost a celebration to move towards appreciating that. Then we have Philip Miller collaborating with you, moving between music which exists and his own experimental work. We have classical European music and then the oomph of a Sunday-morning African brass band. How do you shift between different kinds of music in your thinking about what you are doing?
WK: They are very different. I have spent a long time working on Winterreise, just Schubert, Schubert, Schubert, and finding the points of connection I have with his music. And there is obviously a connection between Mozart, Schubert and Berg, as the trajectory of three Viennese composers. But in a more general sense I’ve taken the central line of Western music.
The brass band of course comes out of Western music, but it is inflected by a lot of African elements. It essentially starts as church music, so it has brought the scales and tonality from a European tradition. But there is something very visceral and immediate, without knowing exactly what is being done musically, that I respond to so strongly in that brass band. I think it has to do with the sense of public, with the sense of a large group activity – different from the formality of a symphony orchestra.
How does one make connections from this garden and house, this suburb of Johannesburg, to a sense of other people in the country in a wider sense? That popular music – the French sense of popular – is for me where one of those points of connection is made. Which has been with me for a long time.
In Woyzeck on the Highveld, in 1992, there is the street singer and accordion player who has been in several other pieces since. There is also a refusal to say one has to listen to one kind of music or the other. Or to say that if you are listening to the one, you can’t really be appreciating the other. So there is that smash of different worlds together. That’s the interest in it.
DH: Can you use a phrase like ‘of the spirit’, can you say something like ‘transcendent Sunday music’ to name the way the Sebokeng township music gets into the bloodstream and approaches the tears of this place?
WK: What is it in those low notes of the tuba that reaches one’s soul so deeply? Because it is not just the notes by themselves. It’s obviously how a note comes after the note before it, before the note after it, the soundtrack of the other people around it; but it reaches a deep point of satisfaction, which is obviously what Berg is completely trying to avoid.
All the composers from the atonal school are trying to avoid the comfort which comes with the resolution of a chord, developing a twelve-tone system to say the world is no longer so amenable. And taking this to mathematical extremes with a rigorous working-out of the twelve-tone system. Whereas with the brass band, musically we are still in a world of hope. We are still in a world of possibility.
One of the ways that manifests, which can become either a cliché or it can still be a representation of a fundamental leaning outwards from oneself, is in moments of that resolution, when a particular note or a particular interval sounds. I think there is a connection to these questions in how one responds to the music. There is part of one which says, No, the world has to be understood to be complicated and without comforting resolution.
But another part of us acknowledges that we very deeply need that possibility of transcendence, or the spirit, or transformation. There is an optimism in the music, even though it is a slow funeral march. It has to do, as you said yesterday in the studio, with the sideways glances, the peripheral hearing, the run-down of the accordion between phrases of the notes, the “I’m still here, I’m still here” of the muted trumpet that you hear halfway through. You are right to ask, What are the parts of the body that respond to these different fragments of the music?
DH: And here perhaps we could name the heart. It does seem to me that there is a deep communal heartbeat in the procession.
WK: It is. It’s the feeling I get whenever I’ve been to an African funeral, and you hear the singing, and you think, For the moment that I die, I wish I was Christian, in this particular Christian tradition, rather than the bleakness. There is something wonderful about the complete bleakness of a Jewish funeral, but you couldn’t think of anything further from that than all the people around the graveside singing in this fantastic voice, the way you hear at some other funerals.
DH: Philip Miller is also plugging in, grafting his music to that source.
WK: Philip is an interesting composer in the sense that he begins less and less by sitting down and writing notes on paper. It almost always starts with either improvising with a particular musician or musicians he likes working with or taking something he has heard – a song from Namibia or something else from the archives, and saying, That’s a beginning, let’s work from that. It’s so different from the advance brigade of European composers. It feels to me a bit like in the art world, where some people say to me they start with a theoretical ground plan and work outwards.
DH: So Berg is of the Europe of a particular time, which is accessible to both you and Philip, more or less at the same vantage point; and from there you both gain yet another pulse, which is African and far away from these suburbs.
WK: Yes. For me, there has always been a sense that a lot of European abstraction and conceptual art and modernist music has to do with the experience of the two world wars in Europe, and what that did to the feeling of the stability of existence of European culture. For us here, those have been incidents in Europe, huge incidents, but they have not been our life here.
This is not a city that was bombed and had one existence that was obliterated. It is not as if we had a sense here that politics was tired and exhausted – we have a sense that it is the beginning of possibility. And I think that makes for a difference in attitude, for me, towards certain forms of abstraction and certain ways of thinking about atonality as the only solution for music.
It used to be, Oh, you are just a reactionary sentimentalist if you can listen to familiar, unchallenging harmonies. But I don’t have to have that particular sensibility, and still feel what I feel. At the same time I understand what atonal music does and what its challenges are, the way in which it does describe the world in a certain harsh way.
Conversation 8 The Kentridge home, Houghton, Johannesburg 22 August 2014 pp. 228-233
DH: I was reading through “Peripheral thinking” and wondering about a younger audience having to deal with this chaos you create by flinging dispersed images into the periphery of the lecture, then a sense of rushing, then you make connections, then you say, Oh, there was perhaps something of the order of a centre, I will just glance back, but no, I think I will just go on and find another image, further out …
WK: I know, I was astonished. This lecture was first given to a group of people in Cape Town who were mainly design people, so they were from the advertising industry, industrial design, artists, branding people. And I thought, Well, I really don’t know how any of them are going to connect to this. And there was an interest, but there was a much stronger interest when I sent a text for the lecture to the exhibition hosts in Mexico to say, Is this really going to make any sense to an audience there? And they said, It will make so much sense to an audience here.
In Brussels I said to them, Do you understand? They could have had a concert but they chose not to have a concert for this event. They chose this lecture, not about Brussels, not even about South Africa, but about mangoes. And they said, No, we absolutely want it, that’s going to be a great lecture, there are 700 art students arriving on Tuesday among the 1 300 in the crowd to hear this lecture. And I was astonished. I thought, Well, why would anybody else have an interest in these strange things?
At some point I feel, Well, this is what the lecture is, I won’t feel insulted if you say, I know that’s your lecture, but really it has nothing to do with us and it has nothing to do with what we are doing. So you’d have to ask them, Why are they interested in this lecture?
DH: How would you answer that question?
WK: From what people have said, I think what they find encouraging, for example, is a description of a way one can work in the studio as a description of the way one can work anywhere: of starting without complete clarity and having the confidence to say, That shouldn’t lead to paralysis; accepting the possibility that, apart from the way in which one’s understanding constructs it, the work has this being. Once one can accept that, then stridency is taken out of the work. And that’s my experience, that stridency is not good for truth. The louder the voice, the more strident, the less the openness is for a connection.
Conversation 9 586 Keizersgracht, Amsterdam 9 May 2015 pp. 250-252
WK: Drawing West Park Cemetery [for Other Faces] was in a sense giving a burial to my mother who will die in England and be cremated and not buried the way our family used to be buried in West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg. It’s an elegy for the end of the family in Johannesburg, while all the other members of the family who’d stayed in Johannesburg have their natural home in West Park Cemetery. It was made four years ago. I did not think that she would be alive at the end of the making of the film, let alone now, four years on down the track, even though she has stayed in the same condition.
DH: Does this also bring you to thoughts of mortality for yourself?
WK: No, I don’t think so. As Woody Allen says, “Today I turned sixty, it’s terrible, a third of my life is now over.” It still seems there’s lots more to be done. No, in the absence of any real threat of mortality, one can be very blasé and say, Well, death will come when it comes. But I would imagine if somebody said, OK, I must tell you that tomorrow he is going to meet you at three in the afternoon, it would be a very different circumstance. No, it feels very much more about parental mortality for me, in that film.
DH: Which in turn brings you as the father of relatively young children, and now a grandfather, to a vital age, generating the work that you’re generating.
WK: In terms of turning sixty, having a grandchild, it feels appropriate to be sixty. But I think that I go with you, that sixty- four will feel more significant, or some other multiple.
DH: I was thinking how surprising it was that a group of four young gentlemen in the ’60s in England could shift a boundary in one’s thinking about age.
WK: I didn’t think it would be possible for us to live past 1984, because after Orwell chose that as his title, one was always waiting to see if he was right, that was what the world was like. Then 1984 came and went and the world still went on, and in some ways he was right and in other ways he was completely wrong. But sixty-four is a little bit like that.
DH: I have to say that these thoughts come out of the fact that you mentioned your birthday, but absolutely not out of looking at your work, neither what’s on exhibition here nor the way that you’re working on Lulu.
WK: There’s the shock – I don’t know if you’re finding the same thing – that in Johannesburg a lot of my friends are talking about either dreading or looking forward to retirement, and that seems inconceivable to me.
DH: What could it possibly mean, ‘retirement’? I don’t understand it.
WK: For me it means … what it does it mean? That you discount what you’ve done for the last forty years, that you’re simply waiting, marking time to get to sixty-five for your life to begin when you retire?
I think: Well, all right, we’ll just say All right, let me stop this pressure, I’m not going to be doing big operas, I’m not going to be doing films.
I think: I can’t just sit quietly and read, within two weeks I’d shoot myself, I’m sure. I couldn’t be in the studio and say, All right, I’m content just to go on and do these quiet drawings – there’d immediately be projects that start to bubble.
DH: Well, you were saying that 2016 was going to be a year of . . .
WK: . . . of reflection and reading.
DH: Yes, is that pure fiction?
WK: No, it needs to be a time to allow new projects to gestate in a different way: to think about a new Soho film slowly, to allow myself hours during the morning to read without feeling guilty. If I do that now I feel guilty, I should be at work in the studio making things.
DH: So, pregnancy at sixty.
WK: Yes, and a lot of things to do: to go back to some of the notebooks and say, Here are the projects which there was never time to do. Which are the ones which may or may not be interesting still? Also to allow the project, if there is a project that emerges, to have its time to gestate slowly. And I may find at the end that No, the only way for the project to work is to gestate quickly, in a pressure cooker. A slow incubation may be a disaster.
Conversation 10 The restaurant of the EYE Film Institute, Amsterdam 9 May 2015 pp. 281-284
Extracts from Footnotes for the Panther, Conversations between William Kentridge and Denis Hirson. Kentridge, William and Denis Hirson. Johannesburg, Fourth Wall. 2017. .