Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s my privilege and pleasure to welcome William here this evening. It’s a great honour to have William, and to be able to introduce him. He’s no stranger to Hiddingh Hall, having previously given a keynote address at an international printmaking conference here in 2003, and we are delighted that he has returned to give this public talk, as well as a master class for postgraduate students tomorrow.
William is a remarkably versatile artist whose work combines the political with the poetic and deals with subjects as sobering as apartheid, colonialism and totalitarianism. His work is often imbued with dreamy lyrical undertones or comedic bits of self-deprecation that render his powerful message both alluring and ambivalent. Best known for animated films based on charcoal drawings, William also works in prints, books, collage, sculpture, and the performing arts. In fact, the only thing William doesn’t do is paint, which is perhaps surprising for an artist of his stature – to some people. But we who are printmakers would celebrate that fact.
His current retrospective at MoMA – perhaps some of you aren’t aware that he’s got a major exhibition there at the moment – explores five primary themes from the last three decades and underscores the interrelatedness of his mediums and disciplines, including many works held in the museum’s collection. William has also directed and designed a new production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, which premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera last month. How often does an artist have a major retrospective at MoMA, and simultaneously a new production open at the Metropolitan Opera? These are astonishing achievements and we are indeed very fortunate to have William speak to us tonight. Thank you, William.
Thank you Stephen, and thank you all. Tonight is going to be rather like the keynote address I gave to the print symposium, because I’m going to be talking about a suite of etchings.
The brief to talk tonight has three elements to it, and I hope to touch on all of them. One is to talk about great texts. In this I’ll be talking about Nicolai Gogol and his short story “The Nose” and its translation into another text, Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera of the same name, and looking at some of the ideas that come through the two texts. The third brief is to relate it to work that I have done, and I thought that a starting point would be to look at a series of etchings which were made over the last three years, during the period in which I’ve been working with the short story and with the opera.
The etchings were made as a sketchbook of ideas, of different thoughts. Putting down on paper, or in this case on copper, notes to think about when doing the opera production, or to take into other work which is related to the opera but not specifically in the opera. Some of these were things of which to say, for example, ‘I’m not quite sure how a horse gets into the opera, there’s no horse called for in the music of the libretto, but somehow the nose on a horse is something I need, and I’ll have to find it in the opera or some logic for it.’ So one of the arguments I’ll be making is about the primacy of the image. The images are the opposite of the lecture. This lecture is a reconstruction, a reflection, starting with ideas, as if ideas have primacy, rather than saying that the images arrived, and then somehow or other one tries to justify them in terms of ideas. It’s a particular kind of practical epistemology I’m interested in: how one finds meaning in the world through the activities one does in it, in my case either working on copper or paper or with actors on stage, rather than starting with a clarity of thought which one then tries to illustrate in the work that one does. Most of the ideas that will come through here are somewhat tendentious in that they’re reconstructions of an idea after the event, though it’s of course never quite as simple as that. One is made up not only of the objects that you make, but part of making those objects has to do with ideas that are sedimented down in different layers inside one – from books that you’ve read, from arguments you’ve heard, from thoughts that are there. I’m primarily interested in this layering of different thoughts, and the way in which we delve and certain thoughts emerge. The control and lack of control we have over our thinking and who we are. This I will try to relate to the etchings, and to other grammars, other ways of finding the rules that a situation demands.
But to start with this series of etchings. The etchings come about with the character of the Nose, and he’s based on the character from the Nicolai Gogol story “The Nose.” To recapitulate and to make it familiar to those of you who happen not to have read the short story, which is only about twenty pages long. Chekov described it as the greatest short story ever written. Gogol wrote it in 1867. The story very briefly recounts the history of a collegiate assessor who is a Russian bureaucrat who wakes one morning and finds his nose has gone. He spends the rest of the twenty pages trying to track down his nose. He eventually finds his nose – his nose is now of a higher bureaucratic rank than he is, and refuses to speak to him. He goes to a newspaper office to put in an advertisement about his nose, but the newspaper office won’t take advertisements about noses. He goes to the chief of police, but of course the chief of police is absent.
In the story, and in the opera particularly, the absence of the nose is very often referred to Kovalev . In the opera particularly the most poignant music is the music of Kovalev mourning the lack of his nose. There is one sequence where the singer simply stands and weeps for about three minutes. It’s very quiet music, he’s watched by twenty newspaper clerks sitting on shelves around him, and he simply has to have the courage to stand still, wherever he is on the stage, and just quietly cry. The task for the actor was to allow himself to do that without dramatizing it. There wasn’t allowed to be head in the hands, or sniffs, he simply had to stand still and weep. There is the embarrassment we always have of watching an adult cry in public – there’s something terrifying about one’s helplessness in the face of it. In the opera, this is the emotional centre. For us it’s a joke, but for the person on whom the joke is played it’s a tragedy.
In terms of doing the production, that was one of the tasks of holding it together. But in the opera itself and in the story, the nose itself is met once in the cathedral, when it refuses to talk to its former owner, but after that is absent. There is a character of the Nose in the opera and he sings for all of two minutes in the entire opera – which is frustrating for the singer who has to do it, particularly as he is required is sing in a really nasal voice.
In the opera there’s a lot of music in which nothing happens on stage. Anything can be portrayed, you can do what you like with it. This for me became a chance to look at the nose at large, the nose going on his own journey. What is the life of the independent nose, divorced from Kovalev? And the series of etchings follows this journey.
The etchings are done as sugar lifts – here we get to the print department section of the lecture. The principle of an etching is that you begin with a smooth sheet of copper, and any damage, any injuries done to this copper are referred and are sent back to you once the copper plate is inked up. So you take a copper plate, you damage it in one way or another, you cover the surface with ink, you wipe the ink off the surface, and the only place the ink remains is where there has been a damage to the surface of the plate. That is an etching, and your print is a record of what has happened to the copper. This damage is done either with a sharp tool like a burin, where you scrape right into the metal and you cut it out and get a little shaving; or with a drypoint where you just scrape into the metal with either a sharp or blunt instrument; or it’s done with acid. In this case you would cover the plate with an acid-resistant varnish, you’d scratch through the varnish in one way or another, put it in acid, and where you had removed the varnish the acid would bite in, and when you ink it up, the ink stays in those areas which the acid has bitten. You can get a great tone on an etching-plate by covering it with a fine dust and allowing the acid to bite around that dust. Normally, what happens is that you paint out all the areas which you don’t want the acid to reach, only leaving certain sections of the plate exposed, and those go in the acid.
With a sugar lift etching, it’s a slightly different process. A sugar lift etching is made, in my case, with condensed milk and Indian ink. You paint this sticky mixture directly onto the copper plate, and when this is fairly dry you cover it with a thin acid-resistant resin or varnish. You then place this in warm water, which makes the sugar expand and burst through the varnish. You can then put that in the acid, and the acid will bite everywhere where you had made your lines. That’s how these etchings would have been done. The lighter grey would simply be achieved by leaving it in the acid for less time, so less damage is done to the plate by the acid, such that it can hold less ink; leaving it in the acid for a longer period gives the darker grey or the black.
These plates show a mixture of three techniques. There is sugar lift, where you see the figure of the woman and the nose. There is drypoint, where you simply scrape into the plate and you get a rough blurred line. You can see the rough edges of thick, mucky ink, and then quite fine ink. Then you get a very clean line, like the lines of the ‘N’ and the ‘O’ and the ‘S’ and the ‘E,’ which is engraving – using a burin that cuts into the metal and sets off a little shaving of copper, so that you get a very clean line. These were the very simple techniques used in this set of etchings.
This etching is of the Nose and Tatlin’s monument which he designed for the Third International. Tatlin’s original monument was made just after the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917, so in the era before Shostakovich wrote his opera. We have two timescales here. Gogol writes his story in the 1860s, and Shostakovich writes his opera in the 1920s. My interest was to take the work that Gogol had written and look at it in terms of the period in which Shostakovich was writing his opera. This Monument to the Third International was designed to be a tower that was going to be 400 metres high, and have a congress of people in a revolving theatre. It was to be a huge structure, based partly on the Eifel Tower, but of course it was never made. What was made was a six-metre high model of this tower. This model, which was made by art students in Moscow, was paraded through the streets. There was both a film taken of this, and a photograph of it. I had seen the photograph, and there was a memory of the photograph, and there was a drawing of the memory of that image done onto the copper plate, and then a print of that plate, and then a photograph of that print, and then a digitising of that print into the computer, and then a projection onto the screen. So what you’re seeing is a projection of a digitisation of a print (reversed of course) of a drawing of a memory of a photograph of a model of an idea by Tatlin.
We go through this process because one of the things I’m interested in is the analogue nature of memory, and the analogue nature of the way we live in it. The fact that every shift, from the idea to the model to the photograph to the print to the projection, is an imperfect rendering of it. We’re not in an age of digital copying of things with exactitude. It has to do with understanding our memory as analogue, rather than as digital, and the failures of memory being some of the most productive and important parts. The failures of understanding, the possibilities for productive misunderstanding and mistranslation. Nabokov, when he writes about Gogol, says ‘how can any of you who only speak English understand Gogol at all?,’ the way that many people say, ‘oh, you can’t understand Rilke if you don’t understand German.’ And it’s true, one can’t understand Gogol and one can’t understand Rilke in the same way, but there is much to be said for not understanding in the same way, and for misunderstanding in different ways. I’ve never been to Dublin, but I have a very clear sense of Dublin from Ulysses. It may be a completely false understanding of the city, the streets may not look anything like I’ve imagined them, but nonetheless it exists as a coherent image of a possible Dublin.
In working on the prints, one of the journey’s The Nose had entailed me trawling through boxes of many postcards, and taking out all the ones that I hadn’t ever wanted to work with or to look at again, and allowing the Nose to enter all of those images. This is a Manet, a lady with a beautiful pink hat that the Nose visits. It became clear at one stage that we were going to need a sequence of the Nose in love. Kovalev spends the story terribly embarrassed by the fact that he doesn’t have a nose, because how is he going to talk to all the pretty women he wants to see. Maybe, he thinks, his nose has been taken from him by the mother of a woman he doesn’t want to marry, to force him to marry her.
This is a reference to the newspaper scene, in which Kovalev goes to place an advertisement for the return of his nose. The newspaper clerk says that it is impossible to place this advertisement – ‘we have to think of the reputation of our newspaper.’ At the end of the short story, when the Nose is back on Kovalev’s face, the author reflects back on the story that he’s just told us. He says, ‘Only now, after much reflection, can we see that there is a great deal that is very far-fetched in this story.’ This is what Gogol writes about the story he has just finished telling us. ‘Apart from the fact that it’s highly unlikely for a nose to disappear in such a fantastic way, and then reappear in various parts of the town dressed as a state counsellor, it is hard to believe that Kovalev was so ignorant as to think that newspapers would accept advertisements about noses. No, I don’t understand it, not one bit, but the strangest and most incredible thing of all is that authors should write about such things. That, I confess, is beyond all comprehension. No, I don’t understand it at all. Firstly, it’s no use to the country whatsoever. Secondly, but even then, I simply don’t know what one can make of it. And yet, if you stop to think of it for a minute, there is a grain of truth in it. Whatever you may say, these things do happen in the world. Rarely, I admit, but they do happen.’
This was a page of a sketchbook in which I had been taking notes of images to make for the etchings, and I decided to make an etching of the sketchbook. There was a megaphone for the nose to talk into, there was a horse for it to be on, there were bits of the newspaper, and I simply made an etching of that page of the sketchbook. This is what I wrote when I first thought, ‘what do I say about this print?’ Then I tried to remember what had actually happened when I made that print. It had nothing to do with the sketchbook at all. This is talking about trying to reconstruct an idea after the image. In fact, what I think I was doing was testing to see whether one could do a perfect circle with a dipping pen and condensed milk on an etching plate. And to see how fine a line one could get with a dipping pen, and then testing various images out. This was a test plate at the side, and then I decided to etch it, so it’s really a print of an etching before it became an etching.
There’s something about a man trying to prove his civic greatness which is slightly ridiculous. If he just stands up it’s always too small and doesn’t work. If you put him on a pedestal, it’s slightly better. But put him on a horse and he immediately becomes heroic. There’s something about the shape of a horse, the way a horse fits snugly inside one’s legs, that makes a horse seem made for a person sitting on it, on top of a civic monument. One of the things that the Nose wanted was the civic monument, to be turned into an equestrian statue. My task was to find out whether I could make a horse which was not worthy of being an equestrian statue. The horse, of course, has many references, obviously from Don Quixote. One has to take the precursors of Gogol, and Cervantes is a very clear and earlier precursor in the way in which he was both the author and denies authorship of what he is writing. But also in the way in which the horse Rocinante becomes such a central character in everyone’s imagination who’s ever come across Don Quixote in one form or another. Of course there’s also the horse in Animal Farm – George Orwell writing about what happened to the revolution in Russia, where the horse stands for the labouring masses of the Soviet Union. I discovered that, try what you might, a horse stays heroic. Even when it’s reduced to the most minimal set of sticks and lines, it somehow holds its own. I think that is why we’re always so keen to be portrayed on horses – a horse will make up for any lack that we have.
This is the Nose in love. One must understand there is an Eros of printing itself. The etching press has what is called a bed. There is a blanket which goes across the bed, and one is always afraid of dirtying and getting stains on the blanket. We’re always concerned with the clean sheet of the piece of paper. We etch either in terms of a spit bite or a foul bite. There’s a drypoint. There is an extraordinary Eros within the printmaking process itself.
Now we come to the section in which the Nose is lost. One of the questions, when making the opera production, was how to represent this on stage. The Nose itself was represented on stage in two forms: either in terms of a projection, or sometimes also in three dimensions as a papier-mâché nose running through the crowds. But for the singer who is supposed to not have a nose, the character who has lost his nose, we tried many different things. We tried covering it with a white piece of paper, and he just looked like Hannibal Lecter, we just saw shadows and strange shapes. The makeup artist of the Metropolitan Opera was very disappointed that we didn’t want huge prosthetic makeup that would expand his whole face at the front. In the end we decided to leave his nose as it is and hope that no-one would notice. Which was in fact fine, because he fears he’s lost his nose more than he necessarily has lost his nose. But we spent many, many weeks and many different experiments trying to solve what was actually a non-problem at the beginning.
It taught me a lot about masks. One thinks of a mask as being about the mask itself. When someone puts on the mask, what you see is the mask. But in fact the opposite happens. When someone puts on a mask, what you see is the body. If you put a mask on and someone moves, what you are completely, intensely aware of is what their body is doing as they are moving. You may look up at the mask, but essentially it enlarges every gesture. The red nose of a clown is really just the smallest mask. What that tiny mask does is to magnify what the rest of the clown’s face is doing. So you see the eyes, the mouth, with great clarity, because the nose is covered up with a tiny mask which you would assume takes your attention, but which in fact deflects your attention. This absence makes everything else around it very clear.
When one thinks of the group photographs taken in the Soviet era, the photographs in which Trotsky was airbrushed out – like a nose disappearing, he’s disappeared –one is intensely aware, in every group photograph from the Soviet Union of that era, of trying to see what has been airbrushed, who’s there and who’s not there. Instead of making us forget Trotsky, it makes us remember him 15 times more – either because he’s literally been airbrushed out, or he might have been, and we’re trying to track any possibilities of that.
There’s a famous photograph of Lenin, taken just after the 1917 revolution. It was taken on the balcony of one of the the prima ballerinas of the St. Petersburg ballet, Matilda Kshesinskaya. The Bolshevik Party took over her mansion, and Lenin famously stood on her balcony and gave his speech; this is what we see in the photographs. A few years later Levitsky, the great Constructivist artist, designed a podium with the idea of Lenin making further speeches it. Before the podium was built, Lenin had died and things had changed, and Levitsky never got to build it. It was another monument, like the Tatlin monument, which existed as a possibility rather than as a fact. One of the strengths of both of these things is that they exist as a possible image and thought in our head rather than as mass of concrete and steel. To make this image I simply used my studio stairs in my studio, and as with a number of these images they are a composites – in this case a photograph of my legs, with a paper cut-out of the nose. That is in fact the way that most of the animations for the opera production were done. Very simply.
Te opera is written in 1928; in 1930 it is performed for about six performances, and then it is stopped. From then on, things for Shostakovich get worse. Pravda declares that his music is muddled and not music, and in 1934 we have the Writer’s Congress in which Socialist Realism becomes the dogma for artistic production. Shostakovich himself was never arrested, and was never thrown in the Gulag, but we have to remember what happened in that era. For some people this was proof of the fact that he was simply a party hack following the dictates of the orders from above, and other people say no, in fact, he was a secret dissident all the time. But the thing we have to understand is that neither being a faithful follower of the party nor a determined opponent to it, counted as a real factor in deciding whether you survived or didn’t survive the 1930’s. There were both strong opponents and very loyal followers who were destroyed by Stalin. So that ceases to be a question. Shostakovich himself did survive, but there were many people like Meyerhoff, the great antinaturalist director, who was so influential on the way we think about theatre now, who didn’t survive; he was arrested in 1939 and shot in 1940. But from that period on, Shostakovich certainly was living with a packed suitcase next to the door, waiting for the three-in-the-morning knock.
In 1926 – two years before Shostakovich writes his opera – Anna Pavlova came to Johannesburg. They built a special small stage for her in the Zoo Lake, and that’s where she danced. Afterwards, she left her ballet slippers with someone who’d helped her at the concert, who was in fact the mother of Ingrid de Kok, the Cape Town poet. This was an image based on Anna Pavlova. The nose at one stage was going to confront Anna Pavlova and then I thought, what the hell, let him take her over entirely. There is something about the ability to give these extraordinary qualities to this Nose, to this invention, that is not bound by the limitations of our lived reality. I didn’t feel I had to be able to dance like Anna Pavlova to put her in the animations. When I was young my sister had many ballet books, and there were great photographs of Anna Pavlova and other dancers. My daughters growing up didn’t have any of these great ballet books, but they did have a series of wonderful children’s ballet books called Angelina Ballerina, who is a mouse ballerina. And I suddenly realised, one of the images of the Nose has to do with Angelina Ballerina.
This is a series of Central Committee members, some of whom survived the purges in the 1930s to the early 1940s, some of whom did not. Zinoviev was shot in 1936, and he’d been a member of the Central Committee since 1922. These images were marked down as remembering. In the opera itself, which is set earlier, there’s not a place to explicate fully the post-history of the story. But in this set of etchings and in other works which came out of the project, there’s a series of other references further on and further backwards, and forwards too. Kamenev was shot in the first show-trial. Molotov, we must remember, was a member of the Central Committee until 1956, and who only died in 1986 at the age of 95. And Kalinin.
One of the strange things is the strange closeness and difference of Russian writing, of the Cyrillic script. Now HOC (and the series is called “Ad Hoc”) is pronounced “nos,” and means “nose.” An “H” in Russian is an “N,” and a “C” is an “S.” You remember stamps that used to be “CCCP” . I was always astonished at how you could get from “CCCP” to “USSR.” There’s something about that shift in orthography, that corresponded to the strangeness and distance that we all had to that part of the world. For many years the whole of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Bloc, had to be taken on trust as even existing. South African passports couldn’t ever get us there. It was news from some completely different part of the world that it was there at all. It was exxtremely strange for us in South Africa, it wasn’t just like American anti-communism. The contradictions here are very interesting and complicated, and it’s astonishing if you think of the route we have taken, from parts of us which seem so rooted in United States and in Europe, and other parts where we’ve had such a different trajectory to where we are now. The fact of the Communist Party and its connection to where we are now is either ignored or very troubling in other parts of the world. But I’m sure that many of you here would have known people who were either in the underground of the Communist Party, or were connected to it, or had a sense that it’s existed around us. What could be more absurd than our own South African national fencing champion being the person who blew up the Koeberg nuclear power station? These are the contradictions that we live with, and the shift in lettering, for me, is a distant reference to the state of contradiction.
One of the things in the opera production that I was interested in doing was to understand our complicated and troubled relationship to this part of history, of the world and of the 20th Century. For me it became very important that the opera was not simply an elegy for what happened, what Stalin did to the arts in the 1930s, which is the easy route that people want; but rather also to understand it as a celebration of the possibilities that existed, that were stamped out, but that existed nonetheless as possibilities. To understand that contradiction is central to where we are. The first opera I did was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which for me was an opera about the Enlightenment. The point about the Enlightenment is that it is certainly our least-bad best option in which we are living. But we have to understand that part of the Enlightenment – not the whole of the Enlightenment – was the whole colonial enterprise, and that part of the Enlightenment were the genocides that happened in the colonial era. Not necessarily in its name, but ineluctably connected to it. But we acknowledge that the fact that there was the genocide of Hereros in 1904, is not enough in itself to allow us to throw out the whole Enlightenment project.
For me, at this time particularly, it is important to go back to the different roots of emancipatory possibility, and to ask: where did things start to collapse in the whole socialist project that existed? One can trace back the Enlightenment project to one of the founding myths of Western civilisation, Plato’s myth of the cave, bringing lightness to dispel darkness (obviously one of the fundamental ways we still see ourselves). One of the other fundamental stories that we try to understand and use to make sense of the world has to do with the relationship between masters and servants. And it was being solved – how does one negotiate, how does one end the tyranny of one person over another? Hegel had his solution, saying, “with the triumph of the Napoleonic armies at Jena in 1806 we had World Spirit coming to know itself, and we had the creation of the citizen” – the citizen was going to be the site of the end of struggle. Then we had Marx who said, “no, the end of the master-slave dialectic is going to be the proletariat coming to know itself” – that is to say, the proletariat will be the new citizen. And then we had Lenin saying, “no, in fact, it’s not going to be the citizen or the proletariat, it’s going to be the Party.” So this – and it’s not something that simply existed in 1917 – is part of a long tradition of an idea developing. One has to understand is that it’s not a matter of saying that Stalinism was a mistake in the process. One can trace the very roots of Stalinism in Leninism, all the way back into the very origins of it, in the same way one can trace colonialism and the damages that it did right back into the very heart of the Enlightenment, but still within that try to hang onto the emancipatory moment within that.
This is a long discussion of one rather stupid etching. But it has to do with hope as a political category. Of what is still possible. Of not saying that, because this has been a disaster, the entire enterprise, or the entire impulse behind the enterprise, has to leave. This in a strange way comes back to when Gogol writes, saying, what is the purpose of this story? Who does it help? It doesn’t help anyone, it’s of no use to the country. The value of the story is precisely in its not having any use to the country, not having an instrumental function, in showing rather the possibility of imagination, and of thinking in a completely different way.
When I went to school, in the first year I was there we had pencils, and the second year we had dipping pens. The instruction we had when using a dipping pen was that you had to do what was called copperplate writing, which is light upstrokes and hard downstrokes. You’d get a big blob of ink, and you’d try it again and the nib would snap. In the third year of school, long before any of us had mastered copperplate writing, Bic came in with ballpoint pens, and that all disappeared. I never mastered it. On copper, great engravers manage to do beautiful copperplate writing, and it’s an extraordinary skill which was explained to me by someone who once saw my engravings at an American university, and who said, “Come, I’ll show you how to do engravings. You’ve got to sit parallel to the table, feet together, with your one arm flat, and don’t turn the plate, and don’t turn the bureau.” I still couldn’t do copperplate. So this is an etching of the idea of copperplate. A drawing of the possibility of writing, rather than actual copperplate.
An etching is also a testing of ideas. Remember, you have three different stages. You have your damaged plate which has been inked up, and this plate goes under a roller where it’s subjected to enourmous pressure with a sheet of paper on top of it, so that the ink from the plate goes on to the sheet of paper. It comes out the other end, where you lift off the blanket and take off the sheet of paper, and you have then what is called a proof, an image of the plate as it is inked up. That’s like a logical syllogism. You’ve got a proposition, which is your drawing on the plate, and you send it through a process, and at the end you see if the proof works, if you believe the proof. If you don’t, you change your first proposition, and send it through the press again, and see the print that emerges on the other side.
In the same way that “Hoc” means “nos,” means “nose,” “xxx” in fact is Russian for “laughter.” The X is like a “ga” (as in gaan huis toe) – so this is actually “ga-ga-ga-ga-ga.” In the opera there are many sequences in which a lot of laughter is written, and there’s something fantastic about the contradiction of ordered laughter, laughter on command – the conductor does his nod and the whole chorus bursts into laughter. This is an etching of laughter.
At the end of the opera, of course, the Nose returns to Kovalev’s face. He wakes one morning, the nose is back on his face, and that’s the end of the story. Then the question is: what happens to the Nose that’s been leading its independent existence? It’s past its use value, it’s tried to make it into the ranks of the world, it’s tried to be in love, it’s tried to be an equestrian statue, but in fact it’s back on Kovalev’s face. It’s come to the end of its time, and in the proper way of the 1930’s, the way that it’s done is not with a firing squad but with a single bullet to the back of the head. In the great book Darkness At Noon, Arthur Koestler’s attempt to understand what had happened in 1930’s Russia, the end of the book also is simply a bullet at the back of the head, which is described simply as a blip on the surface of history.
These are the set of prints. It’s not so much a question simply of how these relate to the opera or the story as I have described it, but trying to understand: what is it to make these prints? What is it for Gogol to have set out to write that story or for Shostakovich to have made his opera? What is it that we do when we try to make some artificial artefact, some piece of art in the world? Nabokov, the greatest writer on Gogol, writing apropos of Gogol – but it’s a thought which goes a lot of extra ways as well – writes: “If parallel lines do not meet, it is not because meet they cannot, but because they have other things to do.”
There’s a sense in which, when you live your life, there’s a beginning and an end and no stopping – it’s a one-way journey the whole way. One of the things about making art is an attempt, in the parallel journey of making art and living, to make things that can go back in time, that can stop, that can do a side loop, that can take their own journey, that we can come back to and re-read and re-see. They are milestones along the way, as we go through our life (which we know is going to end at a very finite, definitive time), making a parallel line that goes off on its own side-journeys on the way. The nature of that side-journey has to do with trying to understand the grammar of each of those journeys. I described in some detail the technical way of making an etching, because, with these prints, the rules, the grammar of them, has to do with what the medium itself makes possible.
Gogol is working with words and ideas, and with the relationship between describing the world and the world itself. He locates himself very clearly in the area one could call the absurd. The absurd is not the same as the comic, it’s not the same as the dreamlike, it’s not the same as the ridiculous. It has to do with understanding the shifts that actually exist in the world, and then following such a shift, or such a change of premise, to its ultimate conclusion – how far can one push that along? If you say that a fundamental shift in the world is that a nose can separate from its owner, how can we follow that with the greatest assiduity, to see where that will lead us? What is entailed by it, what are the rules of that game? This has to do with the importance of play. Not to say that play is simply childish activity, but saying that play is giving yourself over to other rules, rules which may be ad hoc, which may be gratuitous, but nonetheless following those rules with great seriousness of purpose. In dreams those rules constantly shift and change, and that’s why there’s nothing more boring than listening to other people’s dreams, while one’s own dreams are completely fascinating. So this is not necessarily the same as a dream-logic, although it’s related, but rather to understanding impossibility and contradiction as central to who we are and how we operate in the world.
Thank you very much.
[Unknown speaker – same as at the start]:
Thank you. We’re going to take some questions, and we’ll do three or four at a time and then allow William to respond. We’re going to do this for no longer than about 10-15 minutes. We don’t want to exhaust William; he’s given us an incredible amount of things to think about.
Thank you very much for that, William. It was really beautiful to hear you talk about those etchings. I just wanted to ask you a little bit more about the nose, because of course it would have been different if Gogol had written a story about an ear or any other part of the body. The nose is not just any arbitrary signifier. It’s a particular racial signifier in the 19th century. It’s a sign of masculinity. It’s tied up, as you’ve said, with sexuality. I’m interested in how you think about that particular part of the anatomy, and if that had any part to play in how you conceived of your own staging of this.
You were talking about absurdism, and there is quite a long tradition of it – you mentioned Cervantes, who’s a precursor to Gogol, before him probably Rabelais, and then obviously there was Beckett. I’m just wondering: when they talk about the grain of truth, and the way that it’s a medium where there’s a bit of play between the person who’s writing and the person who’s reading these literary works, how does that translate to a medium for visual expression to actually make some comment on life? How does the absurd in some way help us to reach that grain of truth?
Can you say something about the relationship between the music and the imagery?
The first question about the nose: There is an easy, reductive interpretation of the story which says that it has to do with Kovalev being anxious about getting married, and Gogol being anxious about this, and so losing the nose is like a castration complex, and he loses his masculinity when he loses his nose, and when he gets his nose back he can talk to pretty women again. And there’s obviously a sense, in the 19th century, when it was written, that people were losing their noses through two things: either through syphilis or as a result of the Napoleonic wars – people would return from battle with their noses hacked off, and so there was a trade in artificial noses. The third thing is that Gogol himself was very self-conscious about his nose. He had a remarkable nose, apparently very long and thin, and it hung down below his lip. When I was doing the opera I needed something that could cover the top half of a body. You need something that has some heft to it. In the end, the nose that fitted best was a kind of Ashkenazi-Baltic-Jewish nose. It’s neither specifically a portrait of my nose or my father’s, or my uncle’s – it’s similar to all of them in different incarnations. It either had to have some personal reference, it would be too gratuitous to choose any nose – a Roman nose, an aquiline nose, a snub nose… But certainly noses were and are very charged subjects. I was aware of those things, but tried not to make the easy interpretations. So the nose is given credit to be an independent being and go through his world.
The question of the truth and the absurd: I think that one of the things that artists can do very well, more easily than many other forms, is work with uncertainty, with riddles that aren’t solved. An image which suggests something, but which the viewer is certainly very busy completing. We do this every day; it’s how we go through the world. In its most primitive form, lying on your back and seeing shapes in the clouds isn’t a piece of great brilliance on our parts, it’s something we can’t stop ourselves from doing. It’s something that human beings do: we see something and try to make sense of it. I think a lot of the greatest pictures, the pictures which hold us the longest, are ones in which there’s some incompletion in a riddle that is given. There’s something both very satisfying and also very flat about the end of a detective story, when it’s all wrapped up and Poirot’s given the answer – in the same way there’s something completely and unbearably annoying about something like Twin Peaks in which there’s never an end and you want an answer that’s not given. So we’re caught between being unhappy with certainty and with complete doubt. Whenever a big truth is given, you know that just behind the big truth is someone standing with a cudgel to hit you when you say, ‘well, I’m not quite convinced.’ There’s always an authoritarianism, and that’s one thing that we’ve certainly learnt over the last few hundred years – to mistrust all certainty. That’s one of the great things about the Gogol story; he says, ‘I don’t know what use this is to anyone, but in fact it is how the world is.’ So that’s important.
The music and the images: Shostakovich wrote the opera when he was twenty-two. He’d just come out of music school, he’d heard Berg’s Wozzeck sequence, which had been written a couple of years before. I’m sure he’d heard Stravinsky’s Renard, written in 1922. Stravinsky was the great Russian composer at the time, Berg was the great operatic composer, and he wanted to take them both on, so he throws the kitchen sink at it. Everything he’d ever thought of as a twenty-two-year-old while at music school goes in. There’s a section for percussion by itself. There’s some liturgical music. There’s a quote of Tchaikovsky. There’s jazz music. So it’s about collage, eclecticism, and a riot of possibilities in the music.
Athol Fugard, two nights ago, said that when he writes a play he commences with image, not with idea. You referred to that same notion when you opened up your talk tonight. Would you like to draw any parallel between theatre and art?
Can we just have a clarification of the location of the place. Is it particularly Russian, or…?
To start with an image, rather than an idea: I read about Athol Fugard writing his new play, which starts with a report or an image of a woman with her two children being killed by the train on the train line. I’m not a writer, so I’m not sure of the process of writers doing it. Directing an opera is certainly different, because there is a given story and a libretto and music. Starting with an idea, which may be a good idea, it may be a bad idea, or starting with an image, and then doing it and seeing what that suggests. So it’s not completely ad hoc, any image will do, some image had to catch you, even if you’re not certain of what it may be. And then following that image and seeing what it suggests in terms of other images, in terms of movement. And then afterwards seeing what it all adds up to. Trying to give an analysis of it like this, after the event, is very much after then event and not before the event.
The question about the location: The location is very much St Petersburg where Gogol wrote the story and where the production is set, but it’s kind of an imagined St Petersburg. It has as much to do with Meyerhold’s kind of staging as anything else, the costumes of the police have as much to do with a Lizitskian constructivism – so that you can have a costume, but it’s also a big red geometric shape that can shift and move – it’s taking a lot of the suprematist and constructivist images and putting them to work, putting them in movement. For example, you have the nose with his red flag – that’s a reference, in fact, not to any of these artists, but to Charlie Chaplin, who in Modern Times walks down the street and sees a flag that someone from a protest has dropped and picks up the flag, and follows on to tell people they’ve dropped the flag, and he’s arrested as a socialist leader.
It’s sung in Russian – it’s a very Russian opera – and there’s something about the nature of the story that makes it very Russian, but there is a lot of Russia everywhere, particularly here. In all the great Russian writing you’ll see that people are talking, not much seems to be happening, and then you realise at the end of the chapter that there are three dead bodies lying in a pool of blood on the bridge. Or someone will be telling a story and in the middle of the story he’ll notice the Cossacks beating some Jew, and then the story continues. There’s an understanding that casual, autistic violence, violence that doesn’t seem to have a logic to where it comes from, is part of who we are. He’s writing about Russia in that case, but when we read that here there are many parallels, or it feels familiar even if you don’t understand it.
The production very clearly has a kind of commitment to the anarchic processes of making and the avant-garde as an irrational process, but there’s probably not ever been a more historically engaged and politically acute interpretation of The Nose. Could you talk a little about how you reconcile or hold together those two imperatives: the one which is just about following the line and the mark, and the other, which is an inquiry into the trouble of Soviet history?
In your formulation of the opera, how challenging was it to balance staying true to the opera with trying to expand on the imagery and the media that you use to portray the journey of the nose behind the opera?
I’ll answer those together, and it may or may not answer them completely. Let’s look at this image, which is the first scene of the opera. This is a scene in which we have a barber shop, with the barber’s wife, and the barber hiding at the top, and he’s found the nose in a loaf of bread and his wife is saying, “the police are going to be here, get rid of it at once.” So it sticks very closely to every moment of that scene, which is about three minutes long. We have a small mini-stage, which is the set of the barber’s office, ground floor, and the first floor is the barber’s room at the top, and the roof the barber’s hiding on, and the wife in it. The details of those two rooms are based on photographs of Russian barber shops from that era. But she has an astonishing series of notes in which she is barking like a dog and shouting “von! von! von! von!” four octaves higher, very very loud, very fast, the first eight on the beat, and then the next eight off the beat – it’s very complicated for anyone to sing. What is projected around them, for this moment, is the word “boh,” pronounced “von.” So, on the one hand, it’s using the text as expanded, on the other hand it’s also using the fact of typographic design, the way in which letters in the 1920’s and earlier in Russian were part of the visual language for making images. Not simply for advertising, although a lot of what they did was taken over by advertising. The production itself did two things. You had detailed images of people in their small rooms where you focus on the scenes very clearly, and then huge projections. It was a production done with one massive projector which covers the entire size of the Metropolitan Opera stage, which is about 20 meters wide and eight stories high. It’s a beautiful stage to project on. It’s about people either being lost in a projection, where they’re swallowed by the immensity of cinema and the totalising vision of a big projection, or are very clearly seen in their small, particular spaces. In that sense, all the clues were given, both by the music and the era in which it was written, and by the astonishingly interesting political history of those artists at the time.
Thank you. It remains for me to thank you, William, for tonight’s talk and for giving us some insight into your extraordinary artistic practice, and for the way in which you draw us into seeing artistic practices as a site of knowledge, and particularly the idea of a practical epistemology which I think you’ve clearly articulated in your talk. Many, many thanks indeed.
Edited transcript of a lecture delivered at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 2010.