The return of William Kentridge

Negotiating the tortuous driveway towards William Kentridge’s Houghton mansion, I consider the artist’s move from Bertrams – the decaying urban detritus of Johannesburg’s randlords – to the aloof splendour and green lawns of what might be called his ancestral home.

Kentridge drew inspiration from Bertrams for a good decade. He and his family lived with and befriended the denizens of this suburb-turned-ghetto, where formerly grand old mansions now cast cataracted eyes on the corner drug merts. The characters on those corners and streets have limped through Kentridge’s films and prints as scarred survivors of history and articulate prophets of urban apocalypse.

These days, South Africa’s most effortlessly famous artist is making work that is more and more an allegory of the fragile self dreaming omnipotence in a world of confused hyper-realities. His latest opus, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (The Return of Ulysses) is a distillation of Monteverdi’s 1640 opera about Homeric legend’s famous voyager.

In Kentridge’s adaptation, which has its South African debut at this year’s Standard Bank Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Ulysses is lying in a Johannesburg hospital, an erstwhile Greek hero besieged by failing health and a head full of memories.

Ulysses is also Soho Eckstein, the consuming technocrat of Kentridge’s animated visual world; the über-capitalist become briefly contrite patient in a film called History of the Main Complaint; and now the existential focus of an opera staged in a replica of a 17th-century circular anatomical theatre.

Ulysses, I figure, pulling up to the Houghton house, must surely also be Kentridge’s alter ego Felix Teitelbaum, must also be Kentridge himself. There is something appallingly poignant in the thought.

I allow myself this speculative fantasy because Kentridge’s work invites it. Pitched perpetually against the pinstriped Eckstein, Teitelbaum/Kentridge is a naked trickster who weaves magic and steals wives, who sees truths about the world, sometimes choking on those he excavates about himself.

Through these animated doppelgängers, Kentridge offers flagellatory tales of South Africa’s historical violence. He also offers himself, a mediated self to be sure, but one surprisingly willing to be scrutinised and psychoanalysed.

That a part of that analysis has finally struck an exceedingly low note is one of the reasons Kentridge and I are meeting. In a recent review from the London Sunday Times, reprinted here in The Sunday Independent, critic Waldemar Januszczak calls Kentridge’s show at the Serpentine Gallery a “bloodbath and guiltfest” – the “tortured angst” of a “voyaging South African miserabilist”.

If Januszczak’s barbs are strung together, what emerges is an image of Kentridge as a narcissistic, racist, macho cartoonist whose heavily clichéd works reek of self-serving angst and plastic political correctness.

But the real shock is delivered in this barb: “What is that aroma wafting up from the characterisation of the rich and pinstriped Eckstein? I’m damned if it doesn’t smell just like anti-Semitism.”

The shaky critical assumptions and wild logical leaps in Januszczak’s review are too convoluted to detail here. But racism and anti-Semitism are not accusations that are lightly levelled, particularly at a Jewish artist with sound political credentials, and in a cultural climate in which representing cultural or racial “others” (including, it seems, the Other in the self) is a minefield of explosive potential.

In the low-key comfort of Kentridge’s home, I begin an interview that I want to be more personal, less smoothly practised than those we have had before. I ask him not to be glib and urbane.

Instead of being shocked or amused, he considers this carefully, concluding that urbanity is part of his modus operandi. Uneasily, I concede.

“When you read a negative review,” he muses, “you tend to forget the good words and get stuck in the bad, no matter how much contempt you might feel for them. You rely on people you respect not to see it in the same terms. Janus has hated my work for 12 years, so I wasn’t all that surprised.”

Does he think that there’s a general climate of political witch-hunting in the United Kingdom?

“Some people can’t get into the work because they don’t get the irony; they simply read into it a narrow sense of apartheid tackled head-on. It amazes me that they can’t see the irony in a cat battling with a tripod, or in the title Paris: Second Greatest City after Johannesburg.

“But I don’t claim to offer an accurate sociological view of South African society. For them, it doesn’t correspond to a known image of society, hence the lack is found in the images rather than in the viewers.”

But it must be new for you, this criticism?

Kentridge crosses his legs and smiles. “One Copenhagen critic said that Faustus in Africa ‘felt longer than an evil year’. Another chose the title ‘so worthy and so boring’. I once even woke up with my own headline for a review: ‘Wooden Woyzeck fails to ignite’ - but sadly it was never used.”

This is Kentridge the Glib, Kentridge the Urbane, at his amused – and amusing – best.

He continues: “So much contemporary work sets up a series of riddles, and invites the audience to take part in that game. The extent to which you succeed is partly a measure of your skill at wooing, but it also depends on the mood of the people watching. You might see an acclaimed film on a bad day and hate it, and vice versa.”

What about accusations that the work is unrelenting in its aesthetic and its themes of loss, violence and longing?

“So much of the work doesn’t come from an area of choice. I often set out to make a comedy, and by the time I’m finished, it’s just not. That’s what I love about Robyn Orlin’s work – her comedy is effortless.

“I’m often astonished at the difference between my impulses and how they inform the work, and how the final work is seen. I think that people tend to overinterpret images, but then that also makes me aware of possible interpretations I might never have thought of.”

Have you been accused of anti-Semitism before? “No, I would think I’d be accused of too much Semitism. The accusation saddens me because that’s not how I want people to be looking at the work, but it’s not something that affects my soul.”

Closer to home, Kentridge admits to being “terrified” about the South African debut of Ulysses because, he says, “it’s expensive and had better be good. There are so many people involved [including a chamber music ensemble of six directed by Phillippe Pierlot, five puppeteers, seven singers and 13 puppets], and they all have to be awake and ready when they get here.”

Despite being so tone-deaf that his children beg him not to sing, Kentridge has absolute confidence working in the operatic genre.

“I’ve always used music in my own work, and I’ve been involved with opera as a listener for many years.

“There are ways of talking about music that aren’t musical, but that are refreshing for the singers. When I was was working with them I kept thinking of Barney Simon talking to actors about how to inhabit a sentence. It’s similar with musical phrases.”

With so much work and a good deal of critical acclaim attached to his name, does he, I wonder, get tired of himself?

“I do, but I find it difficult to work in a completely different way. I try different strategies and techniques, but the work ends up as more of the same.”

As I leave, Kentridge stands in the black night on the emerald lake of lawn, an etched silhouette with a raised hand.

He is Teitelbaum beholden to Eckstein’s ghost, a peripatetic Ulysses with greying hair and a family.

He is himself, more of the same, a product of a place misplaced by the politics of difference.

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