Triumphs and Laments: A Talk

William Kentridge

To start at the beginning. This is the Tiber River in Rome. We are looking toward Ponte Mazzini from Ponte Sisto. You can see the long flat wall. This was a project that happened on that wall. It was completed in April 2016 but started in about 2002. It is a 500 m wall, about 12m high. The walls of the Tiber River were built in the late 19th century to prevent the flooding of Rome that used to happen every year – every winter the water rises and it goes about halfway up the walls, depending on floods and storms and rains in mountains nearby.

The walls are made of travertine stone and one of the qualities of the stone is that it darkens to a dark grey. This is both through pollution and through bacterial growth. You can see where the walls are not made wet by rain, just below the parapet, the walls stay a fairly light colour. But the rest of the all gets a lot darker and there is plant growth on the wall.

The project began as an invitation from Kristin Jones to think about doing a project on these walls. She is a woman who had been in Rome for many years and had an idea that the river itself in Rome, unlike the Seine or the Thames, is very much not part of the city and was keen on doing a project that brought the river into the city. She had done some projects herself on the walls of the river and since 2002, when she took me on her moped along the river, every year she would phone me and ask, ‘have you got an idea, are you going to make a series of animated wolves to walk along the river in Rome?’ I could not imagine animating a wolf for 500 m. I was not quite sure what a wolf meant, though I knew a wolf was the symbol of Rome. But I started thinking. One of the thoughts that came was – that if one has this extraordinary length, it suggests a frieze or a procession. One of the friezes or processions that exists in Rome, which I had seen at a distance but was not familiar with, is Trajan’s Column. This was a victory column erected for the Emperor Trajan for his victory over the Dacian’s, a group of people north of Macedonia and east of the Danube, in 100 CE. The history of this war is engraved and carved in shallow relief in a spiral that goes around the column. You can see this is a drawing of it, different moments from the wars and battles – like a cartoon strip that circles around and around the column. The thought was – if you were to unwind this strip from Trajan’s column, and to place it as a long frieze, that would have been something of the shape of this long processional frieze that could be on the wall. One of the starting points was the idea of a long frieze rolled out along this wall – 10 m high, 550 m long from bridge to bridge.

There were times when I had worked with the form of a frieze. There is the series of tapestries of porters made over the past 15 years, woven by the Stephens Tapestry Studio. They were installed at the Wits Art Museum in 2015 one next to another, as a kind of frieze of silhouettes making their way across the wall. This was one starting point of thinking what does one do with this extraordinary wall that was on offer, of 500 m. Then I realized that there were many other projects I had done of these kinds of processional figures. There was a series of small bronzes sculptures made around 2000-1. A book made with folded pages with a procession across the pages.

I started with the idea that I would make an image of a frieze that would go along the river. This was about four years ago. I started with some drawings based on Trajan’s column. This is Winged Victory, interesting in that it is really re-purposed image: it was originally a Greek image of the invention of writing – the woman stands and does the first writing on the shield. The Romans took the Greek images and added the wings and turned into an image of Minerva as Winged Victory, and she sits in the middle of the column.



This talk was given in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016.

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