Notes on (REPEAT) from the Beginning

William Kentridge



We forget the punch line of a story. Or remember the punch line, but forget the trajectory towards it. A corollary to this: some things, which have very clear starting points, go astray on their journey and are lost or at least their end is forgotten. And in reverse, some completed projects seem separated from their origins, there is a gap between the projection of them as idea before the work starts, and their existence in the world once they are begun.

I am trying to pin the origin of Breathe. This is  (at the time of writing this, half way through its construction) a film of four or five minute’s duration. The film is made using torn black tissue paper which successively swirls and falls, making either random patterns, or falling into specific images – a singer, a megaphone (already done); a telephone, a close up of a mouth (still to be made). The rhythm of the papers swirling, gathering and dispersing is given by the breathing of the singer.

I have used torn paper puppets in many projects. These puppets’ limbs are joined and articulated by wire twists that keep the body coherent while allowing the limbs to be repositioned. For live theatre work, these puppets are operated with sticks from below. For stop frame animation, they are laid flat and the limbs moved by hand. The wire twists are useful (the figure stays as one being), but not essential. I started animating these paper figures without the wire twists, so the limbs of the figure could extend, leave the body and return. A unified coherence was one state – the most common – but not the only one for the body. Its elements could shift across the ground and re-gather.  Disintegration as well as movement became the natural potentia of the figure. I had an idea to take one of these figures (typically with 8 to 12 elements) and see if they could be moved around the table with a hair dryer. I then had a hard but unsuccessful week of trying various techniques. Making a box so the pieces of paper would not just shoot off the edge of the table. Curving the corners of the box so the papers would not just lodge in the corners. Three hair dryers to try to make a vortex to keep the paper in motion. None of these worked – the whole system was abandoned.


An Aside on Disintegration

Breathe and its companion pieces Dissolve and Return are made initially to be projected on the fires screen of La Fenice opera house in Venice.  They are shown while the audience enters the auditorium, and the orchestra is tuning up before the performance of the evening’s opera.

The project at La Fenice is paradoxical and impossible. A projection is on the screen while people are entering the opera house. They are there to see an opera, not the projection. A projection needs darkness; there is light in the auditorium. The projection needs attention; just as the audience is brought to attention by the approach of the opera, the projection stops. The projection needs a relationship to the sound that accompanies it; there is no control of the sound as the orchestra tunes up in its own rhythm, with different variations each evening. You may know the kind of sound but not its punctuation.  Even the minimal structure of tuning is unavailable, as the fire screen is lifted before the final moments of tuning, when there would be a pause, silence, a specific note. The only reason to undertake the project is a masochistic need to see if anything can be rescued from such adverse conditions. (And the pleasure of working at that scale in that house.)  The audience has come to see an opera, but you make them watch a completely different work.

One of the operas to be performed while the fire screen projection is installed in Venice is Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. I mentioned this to Philip Miller, Johannesburg composer who is making the soundtrack for the fire screen projection. (Another of the contradictions of the project – the piece is for the fire screen, to be watched while the orchestra is tuning, but is also is shown at the opera house when there is no performance and hence no orchestra tuning. Either the piece has to be made for silence, or some equivalence has to be made for the absent orchestra. A soundtrack for a film that should have one in situ.) Philip was working with the idea of tuning up or warming up as the basis for the sound that is part of the film. The orchestra tuning is one of the sounds in an opera house before a performance, but there are also smaller scale events. A trombone player going over phrases of music in a corridor. A singer doing vocal warm up exercises in a dressing room. A repetiteur going over sections of the music. A whole chaotic prehistory of sound, before the clarity of the performance itself.

Philip Miller recorded various musicians warming up in Johannesburg and Cape Town. (We also had a recording of the La Fenice orchestra tuning up). We met with the editor Catherine Meyburgh to look at possible images and hear different sounds to propel the project along.

One of the many fragments Philip brought to the edit room was a recording of an aria from Gianni Schicchi. But when he recorded it, the singer Kimi Skota had been in Cape Town and he had been in Johannesburg, so she had sung the aria to him over her cell phone. This strange recording – initially intended as a guide to a proper recording – became the basis for Breathe. It is a familiar aria, but changed by the quality of the recording, and the arrangement of the music – sound taken from YouTubes recording of the aria, Philip’s piano playing  (which does sound like a less than excellent repetiteur), a trombone which was played in a Philip’s studio but was recorded from the garden.

I cannot remember whether I had started work on the confetti animation technique the day before I heard the music, or whether the images prompted the technique. Nor can I remember how I came to revive the abandoned wind and torn paper technique.  But when the music and the confetti were put together in the edit suite the rightness of the combination was clear. I had thought I would use the disintegration only in reverse, constructing images. What the particularity of the recording showed was the backwards and forwards movement, an intake of breath and the slower breathing out with the line of singing. 



I have been working on two-dimensional sculptures.  Using wire, paper, cardboard I have made a series of tabletop figures mounted on turntables. There is a conductor, several singers, a nose on horseback, a woman with a megaphone. Different pieces of paper mounted on the wire armature overlap or touch and together construct a drawing or silhouette of the figures.  There is only one point from which all the elements come together in the correct relationship to each other. The figures are made looking through the lens of a camera or at a projection of what the camera sees. So the three dimensionality of the constructions is flattened to two dimensions by either the camera or the projector.

In the starting position a clear, coherent image is apparent. As the three-dimensional object moves, its elements change their relation to the viewer or camera or light source, and the apparent coherence of the piece is ruptured. As the sculpture returns to its original position, it regains coherence. The sculptures are made to be filmed. They need the monocular vision of a camera to function. And they will be seen as projections on the fire curtain.  In this sense they are anti-sculptures, rejecting their three-dimensionality and hanging onto the flatness of projection. There existence as sculptures is accidental a result of what was needed in the film. And (or but) they are far more interesting as objects that if I had started out to make sculptures of heads or singers. They are not quite found objects; rather sculptural forms left over from an essentially flat process.

The orchestra tunes up. The chaos of different musicians tuning on their own, playing fragments of the opera to be performed that evening. Then a silence, a pause.  The oboe’s ‘A’. This picked up first by one instrument then by groups on them. The ‘A’ holds and then disintegrates again. There is circularity to the ‘A’ that moves round the orchestra from silence to noise back to silence. The first days of the whole project were spent listening to orchestras tuning, and feeling this circular movement. The turning sculptures emerged from this impulse.

The disintegration of the sculptural images was an attempt to find an equivalent to the sound that is the given of the piece – the orchestra tuning up. And to give an equivalence to the contradictions of the project itself.



Many years ago I had worked with Philip Miller, Jo Ractliff and Jane Taylor on what was planned as a chamber opera based on the Orpheus myth. One of the visual languages we had tried was to film the reflection of projections bounced off water. A projector was aimed at the swimming pool; a sheet was held up at the opposite side of the pool. The projected image was reflected (upside down) on the sheet. The image was coherent while the water was still, but any movement, a hand dipped in the pool, the leaf skimmer pushed across the surface of the water and the image disintegrated. The opera project did not come to fruition. But I remembered the experiments when thinking of other disintegrations to use in (REPEAT) From the Beginning. These water disintegrations became the basis for the next section of the piece.

(I write this note before the piece is made – there is a rupture between the timing of making an exhibition and making the catalogue). The key question here is one of pace and transition. A still image in water is disrupted as soon as the surface is broken. And it retains clarity only as the water becomes still – a much slower process. There are points of similarity and difference to the logic of a water image, and the sound of the orchestra tuning. If the reflected image is the equivalent of silence then the ‘A’ of the oboe is the rupture of the image and the orchestra following and diverging from the ‘A’ is the image dissolving and slowly reforming itself, becoming still as the orchestra goes back to silence. But the imperatives of the orchestra are different; there is a leader who calls for silence. The nature of the arrival of silence is very different to the slow slowing down of the water. So apart from all questions of what the image in the water is, there is the question of taming the natural rhythm of the water, so that it moves from the familiar movement of ripples and reflections to something where the medium is water, but the image is not simply aqueous. I know this will be a question of both speed of the image – speed of movement of what is filmed, and slowing down and speeding up the film. And of reversals, so that the disintegration of a still image can become its construction.

 In so far as there is a central logic behind the whole project, it is the argument of the fragility of coherence, in which the coherence and disintegration of images refers also to other fragilities and breaks. 

In this regard all the sections of the project are about anti-entropy, a gathering out of chaos to order, rather than a reversion from order to a state of dispersal. With each section the work is to make the disintegration. The completed image is the most simple task. Its apparent explosion is where the concentration is – as if the opera is the easy part, the tuning and the turning the real work.

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