Into the vortex with William Kentridge

A still from William Kentridge's video work, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old.

A still from William Kentridge's video work, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old.

‘I think of myself as an artist making drawings even when the charcoal is replaced by an ink word,” William Kentridge states in the thick of his Six Drawing Lessons (Harvard University Press), an extraordinarily elegant book, bound in linen with a dust cover of acetate.

The only book in the current spate of Kentridge publications that has been penned by the artist himself, this is not quite a book: it’s an art work. It’s a repository for film and orchestral interjections. It’s a playing field where words are tossed hither and yon, sometimes falling into logical sequence. Sometimes not.

‘Six Drawing Lessons’

This is the published version of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures, which Kentridge was invited to present at Harvard University in 2012. They were performed/presented in South Africa in 2011 to great audience acclaim. Compiled thus, they’re a curious piece of work. When you first plunge into them, if you approach the book chronologically, you might consider it abysmally self-indulgent. Kentridge’s presence and persona, his history and ponderings are unashamedly present in these pages. Written in the first person, it begins with Kentridge taking apart the notion of speaking in public, considering it a bit of a performance in itself and a bit ludicrous to all intents and purposes. He highlights his nonidentity as a public speaker, or a writer or a lecturer.

But as he allows his train of thought to skitter through and explain his take on shadows, doing everything from embracing Plato to holding the hand of his eight-year-old self on the beach at Muizenberg, so many years ago, something astonishing begins to happen and the Six Drawing Lessons prove worth persistence in your reading. The first lecture is the most self-deprecating and, in many respects, the weakest. Built on the traditions of philosophical writing before him, the material unpacks the notion of standing up in public and saying things to people, as it backtracks and underplays what it is that he is doing and what things mean and represent.

‘Is Kentridge a snob?’

Littered with self-consciously clever one-liners, the chapter is not without the kind of charming Kentridge an insights that play with the sense of humour and humanity in a man who comes across as supremely arrogant to the layman, given his unequivocal success and eminent roots. Is Kentridge a snob? As you read, you unpack and reformulate an understanding of Kentridge the man, something not always evident, particularly in his earlier work. There is a level of levity maintained, as there is one of curiosity, which is both direct and frank, describing a Kentridge who is not always as openly present as this in any other aspect of his oeuvre.

In the second chapter, we find a rich foray into the interface between colonialism and racism. Chapter three considers Johannesburg as the heart and nexus of his career. By the fourth chapter, you begin to reach an understanding of the overall plan of the text, stretching from universal heights in focus and honing down into the more specific. Here is Kentridge in the context of his Houghton studio, pondering things. Pondering how time works and how he can make things feel like they are resonating backwards. And why this matters. Indeed, much of this beguilingly small book is focused on the nature of time.

Chapter five offers some achingly beautiful observations about mistranslation and the value it brings. Here Kentridge stretches his focus from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke translated into English from the original German, and the final chapter offers a glance at a line, a phrase in that poem. The book is a vortex of thinking. You won’t emerge from it able to draw, but you might have gained rich insights into some of the toing and froing, some of the complicated unsettling realities that comprise the working methodologies of this, arguably South Africa’s most well- known visual artist.

‘Kentridge is present in every word’

Describing the process of making intaglio prints, in a framework so erotic, it takes your breath away, Kentridge uses the format of these lectures and this book in a manner that touches stream of consciousness, his own exploratory gestures and the stuff of which he is made, in terms of his history, his forebears and his roots. It’s mostly an eminently readable text. That ghoul of self-indulgence and self-deprecation never fully vanishes; Kentridge is present in every word, every observation, every aside: you forgive him.

There is so much tucked and secreted and presented in this little book that you will emerge the richer for having read it.

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