Kentridge Matters

The term “Renaissance” has been lobbed around here in South Africa with alacrity for some time. Ever since the much publicized death of apartheid, not only are we supposed to be on the lip of an African Renaissance, but everything is said to be in the throes of rebirth and rediscovery.

Inevitably, many see this concept as a red herring and paint it morbidly: there is the homeless, the neglected, the pessimistic . . . all those who are left behind. William Kentridge isn’t one of those who are left behind, but his story leads me to question the many values embraced by the African Renaissance. Particularly from my Johannesburg vantage point, and the idea that “Kentridge” is a rubric in local art.

But take a step from a continent flooded with reacknowledgement, and look at a different picture: The Renaissance Man. One who’s accomplished at anything he sets his sights on. This is Kentridge. Not yet 50, he’s charmed the overseas world with his hard hitting, haunting, visually seductive yet meaty work that gives possibility to almost any scenario.

Kentridge was born in Johannesburg in 1955. The son and grandson of prominent legal practitioners, Sir Sydney QC and Morris MP respectively, 21 years later, Kentridge graduated from Wits University in Politics and African Studies with an incorrigible passion for the theatre. He completed a Parisian course in mime and an etching course at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, where he subsequently taught. Always a storyteller, Kentridge allowed his printmaking to laterally lead him toward drawing, filmmaking, and eventually, the theatre, all of which garnered him serious interest from the biggest and best international art collectors.

The late 1980s saw him slip the restraints of stagnant drawings and begin shooting short films, vignettes if you like, but ones resting on the seductiveness of process, in which he would painstakingly draw and redraw each still: erasing drawings in soft charcoal on heavily toothed paper and drawing new images into their afterimages. These were drawings and films obliquely resting on South African narratives, vagaries and idioms. The films were intelligent and labour intensive, and grew in length and complexity.

Things moved ahead: after all, a film is a film is a film. It might be a series of a hundred drawings, but it’s not alive. Today, where the intricacies of technology are common parlance for most artists, Kentridge’s work needed to feed off new media in order to achieve visual ideas. But it is about more than technological dexterity. Of course he uses all the processes that make things tick smoothly, but hands-on process is a very important part of the work. Much of the trick of his work is its lack of trickery. And so, while the work bears a hand-wrought feel, its visual fluidity rests on the viewers’ ability to suspend their belief or understanding of process. This process opened the way for live performance in 1992. Now, as a director of such a beast, Kentridge, could deal with a live platform, performers, a huge backdrop for projected drawings, and inevitably, drawings brought to life in the form of puppets.

One of the more important aspects to Kentridge’s opera and theatre work, the puppets, are made of wood or torn paper and operated by visible puppeteers. They sing, they narrate, and after a minute or two, in the awareness of the audience, they are no longer bits of wood or paper, but eloquent actors and narrators who can make you laugh or cry.

The masterminds behind the puppetry were Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company. And the collaboration between them and Kentridge gave reality to fine art become extravaganza. This might be Goethe invested with local idiom, or Monteverdi sung to African dialect, but whether or not you had a command of the language, or the musical metaphor, the texture of politics in South Africa, which was enmeshed into the classic tales woven, didn’t matter. The spectacle and the beauty of inanimate objects coming to life remains overwhelming and awe-inspiring and central to the work as art.

The originating culture of these works was rich with tradition and timbre, the culture by which they were being used was profound in its diverse cultural values. The actors, stage sequences, time spent planning, and professionals involved in the creative process, all collaborated and were of course, hand picked by Kentridge, the director.

Which opens up a bit of a can of worms: Kentridge is not an operatic director nor is he focusing directly on consistencies and literary intricacies to a work written long ago and far away. The thrilling relevance of a Monteverdi opera brought to life under Kentridge’s directorship is about interpretation and translating idioms into local values. So when we see Ulysses returning to Penelope in a place which smacks curiously of Johannesburg, and returning not from a journey but from a stress-related stretch in hospital, or we understand Alfred Jarry’s Ubu to be an apartheid bigot, we understand that these as handles of poetic licence, where the artist dovetails classical literature with the doings and beings of his world in his time.

This is something we all do, not only as critics but as people with sensibilities; it is why some narratives move us but not others, because they resonate in our experiences. But it is also where the plot thickens.

I can’t vouch for “Monteverdists”, who after exposure to Kentridge’s Il Ritorne d’Ulysse get confused about authorship, but I can contest to problems of authorship when it comes to giving the collaborators credit they deserve. This is a question raised by Kohler, the puppeteer. The rubric “Kentridge authorship” is very powerful, and has been known to bleed over into works to which he may have contributed conceptually or directorially, but not technically or physically. This is not to cast indictment on either practitioner, because the quality of the work is uniformly sophisticated, but it is, I daresay, a danger on the part of any similar collaborator.

But should it matter? With his conceptual experiments, collaborative projects and performed artworks, Kentridge has succeeded in awaking everyone to the notion of classical narrative, fabulous music, the South African gesammtkunstwerk — that is, everyone who’s worth their salt in visual art-in fact. That is everyone, it seems, but Johannesburgers, these days.

Johannesburg’s never really nursed a reputation for tight-fistedness or dramatic conservativism. As we sit on the verge of cultural reemergence, is now the time to begin? Admittedly, my criticism might be harsh, but it’s based on sour grapes as hell hath no fury like a thwarted Kentridge aficionado.

Kentridge’s most recent operatic piece, which has a suite of etchings and a body of drawings that came out of work on the project, is a production based on Italo Svevo’s novel, The Confessions of Zeno. It’s a story of an ordinary middle-class man with all of his fallibilities and inconsistencies that make him human, intact. A heavy smoker who can’t/won’t quit, having recently lost his father, dallying with infidelity, he could be you, or me, for that matter.

Kentridge comments: “Zeno, the hero . . . has remarkable self-knowledge. But it is knowledge without effect. This absolute inability of self-knowledge to force Zeno to act, or at other times to stop him from acting, feels familiar. The teasing out of our ambiguous sense of place, and the convoluted relation we have to our own sense of self, formed the starting point for the work of transforming the book from someone else’s text into a piece of my own making.”

I hear it’s extraordinary, but unless I find the wherewithal to travel 1,000km to see it in Cape Town during this month, I won’t. Not with Johannesburg’s current infrastructure. It debuted in South Africa at last year’s Grahamstown Festival but was shown to European audiences first, at Documenta 11 in Kassel in June.

Unlike with most visual artists, the bums on the seats are not as important to Kentridge as is the creative side of his work. Unlike most people who come from extremely prominent roots, Kentridge works very hard at perfecting his craft. He is at a happy stage in his career when it doesn’t matter whether critics behave scathingly or audiences get disappointed. He has become a rubric. But at least, in this great and noble picture of African Renaissance, he is still ours.