Kentridge's idea lights up Jo'burg

Artist William Kentridge during his exhibition "Notes Towards A Model Opera" at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. (James Oatway/Sunday Times/Gallo)

Artist William Kentridge during his exhibition "Notes Towards A Model Opera" at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. (James Oatway/Sunday Times/Gallo)

  At Arts on Main in Maboneng, where his private studio has been located since 2009, William Kentridge has opened The Centre for the Less Good Idea.

Kentridge’s work is a thread that weaves its way through Johannesburg like a power cable: sparking through his animated films and illuminating the key thematics of a city built on being mined for gold. His images are made to work as their fullest expression, many of them an accretion of years of redrawing, each iteration having added more powerful symbolic meaning.

Into his work he brings powerful ideas from many corners of the world, as if this is where those ideas belong. And this place, Johannesburg, is all the better for it.

Hedley Twidle, writing in the Financial Times, recently commented: “Compatriots, fellow Johannesburgers – we have watched with pleasure and perhaps pleasant surprise just how big WK has made it in the art world. The surprise comes partly from how he has managed to become genuinely global by remaining unashamedly local.”

He goes on to say: “Dürer, Hogarth and Daumier; the whole intellectual apparatus of the Enlightenment; the art of the Russian Revolution and other failed utopias of the 20th century; far-reaching mediations into the nature of space and time – all of the above have been filtered through the singularity of his Joburg.”

The artist is a Jo’burg figure. He has a quiet and generous presence. He is the man in his uniform of black pants and a white shirt, participating in city life with no fanfare. He is supportive of Jo’burg’s artistic community, around at gallery openings, donating work in aid of a multiplicity of artistic causes, sitting quietly in the back at an author’s talk.

In performance, where he seems most at ease, he is someone else, a man with a megaphone, his voice booming out, his thoughts often accompanied by a cacophony of sounds. He is a man of many mediums and accomplished at all. From sculpture to painting, drawing to filmmaking. His art is forever creating connections with the world of ideas and this place, Johannesburg, this city that inspires so many competing thoughts.

His language often points to anomie, discord and the centre no longer holding while his art creates its own centre and sense of harmony. In his earliest film, Johannesburg 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989) a naked Felix Teitelbaum, the vulnerable artist in Kentridge’s films, stares out at the horizon to a huge sign before him that reads “Captive of the City”. Nearly 30 years later the artist is still a captive of this city, and captivated by it. It’s a place he describes as “obviously and manifestly dysfunctional … And yet, in amongst this there are still astonishing things that are happening, of civic invention, of finding different spaces, of different groups coming together, of music, theatre, of writing being done.”

He pauses to issue a disclaimer. “It’s not to say that the dysfunction of the city causes the flowering of other things, but it’s interesting that even in a place which you could describe as disastrous there are things which are fantastic.”

The Centre for The Less Good Idea is one of those fantastic things, a space funded by the artist for collaboration and creation, and for ideas to flourish without the usual confines and constraints imposed by institutional or corporate funding.

The less good idea from which the centre derives its purpose is not a bad idea. It’s the idea the artist comes to while reaching for the ideal and idealised good idea. The place in which art is made is in that act of striving. It is also the space before art is limited by its need to be packaged and consumed.

In Kentridge’s words, whether it be a piece of choreography, music, a book or a painting, “it is very often in this making and looking, making and looking [of the artwork], that we suddenly recognise new elements we hadn’t anticipated when we started the project. And if we are open to this process the most interesting connections and ideas happen. These in fact become illuminating of the larger question.

“In trying to realise the first good idea we are thrown back on the imperfect. That’s what I would refer to as the secondary life of the work, or the less good idea.”

In practice, the centre based at Arts on Main will be fully funded by the artist and will host two seasons each year. Each season will run for six months, culminating in a series of public performances.

The Season One programme culminates from March 1-5, bringing performers together, from poets, dancers and musicians, to filmmakers, an isicathamiya group and even professional boxers from The Hillbrow Boxing Club. The curators of this first season are Kentridge, writer and poet Lebogang Mashile, theatre-maker Khayelihle Dominique Gumede and dancer and choreographer Gregory Maqoma. Each has drawn artists from across disciplines to the centre to create a combined cast of more than 60 people, among them a highly-skilled production and technical team.

The programme includes a short film festival and works by Samuel Beckett and Wole Soyinka, bringing dramatic worlds together in previously unimagined ways. A centrepiece will be a procession from the traditional medicine market at Mai Mai to Maboneng on Sunday, spaces that are representative of the discrete pockets in which Johannesburgers dwell, side by side within a few city blocks and yet in worlds of their own.

“The work is proudly experimental,” says artist Bronwyn Lace, who has been appointed as the centre’s “animateur”, pulling the threads of the process. “The centre is a safe space to test ideas, to perhaps fail. It’s a place of trial and error.” The work of the centre has been shared with an audience daily via social media well before the ideas have been resolved. “For an artist, it’s a space of enormous freedom,” says Lace.

As Kentridge explains it, the centre’s work is geared very much towards artists. “We are very happy that the general public can come and watch some of these results at the performances. But the heart of it is really those moments of revelation and recognition that happen at some point in the different rehearsal processes.”

It’s also an interesting intervention into the city’s artistic community as one imagines the connections fused in the seasons’ processes will long outlive and outlast the six-month process, refuelling Johannesburg’s cultural life.

If anything, as cities go, Jo’burg is the less good idea. No sea or waterway, no natural beauty until a tree-planting spree yielded an impressive urban forest. We all know the really good idea is Cape Town. And yet through Kentridge’s eyes and the many worlds his work reveals even this less good idea has a chance of being a superb one.

Find the full programme and booking information for Season One at       lessgoodidea.com. Performances run from March 1-5

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