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A QUIET STUDIO DAY WITH WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: AN INTERVIEW

20 May 2019 Milo Vermeire

“I hope this answers your questions, this is William Kentridge in my studio in Johannesburg on May Day, the 1st of May, a quiet studio day.” With these words the world-famous contemporary artist William Kentridge concludes the audio recording he sent me as a reply to my email with questions. While listening to the recording, I almost feel like I’m there in the studio as well. I hear the sound of the piece of paper crackling in Kentridge’s hands, an occasional bird chirping in the background and at one point a plane is flying over.
 

Doing an interview via email and recorded audio might seem as a really distant way of communicating, but it can actually feel really personal and up close. The distant approach makes it possible to hear someone speak his mind directly into your ear, without any distractions a regular personal interaction can bring about. There is no response needed, there’s only one open channel sending out a stream of thought-provoking ideas and stories. Below you will find the transcript of Kentridge’s answers to eight questions related to the Holland Festival and the theme of ‘landloosheid’. Questions about home, the politics of uncertainty, the absurd and the best advice he ever received.

Behind the scenes of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier
Behind the scenes of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier


What makes a place a home, where do you feel at home, and have you ever felt like your home has disappeared?
“Home is a place where when you arrive, they have to let you in. When estate agents are […] trying to sell you a home, you say to them: ‘No, a home [is something] one has, what one wants to buy is a house’. So, there’s a sentimentality and nostalgia implicit in the word ‘home’ – as I suppose shown clearly in E.T. with ‘Phone Home, Phone home’ – which makes me a little bit weary.

Where does one feel comfortable and at ease in the world? [For me it’s in] many different places: in the physical home in which I live in, in my studio – which feels like home – and in the context of collaborators […] where there is the ease of contact, of communication and familiarity, of not being on your guard, that makes one feel at home.

Conversely of course, in South Africa one is much less at ease at home than one is when traveling abroad. There’s a sense of danger at street corners, around the house at night: a product of the violent crime levels in Johannesburg. Which means there’s a vigilance associated with being at home in Johannesburg […]. Which is why, when sometimes arriving in a European city where one can walk the streets at night and spend one’s time in outdoor cafes, one feels: ‘Ah, this is what home could be.’”

Home is a place where when you arrive, they have to let you in.

Behind the scenes of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier
Behind the scenes of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier


You mentioned earlier that the art of animation, almost automatically, builds in an element of uncertainty. For the films don’t have a script or storyboard but evolve naturally in a process of adding, erasing and experimenting with drawings and images. They show a process of thinking. By not knowing the answer in advance, it demonstrates the agency we all have in understanding the world. Are there some certainties you can always fall back on, despite using the positive force of uncertainty?
“Yes, uncertainty is often used rhetorically. So, there’s no uncertainty in what it was to oppose apartheid for all the years of my childhood, adolescence and younger adulthood. But there’s a big uncertainty in how one constructs a society afterwards. Uncertainty means also leaving the space for many different possible answers and solutions. It’s easier to be more certain about critiques, than positive programs. As we know, all the questions about development and foreign aid are not certainties, they’re full of vexed questions: whether you give people fishing nets, whether you give them fish or whether you give them food aid – we often know the way in which food aid has destroyed farming economies of people. So, the things which one assumes should be certainties: we know people shouldn’t starve and people should all have food, but the long-term ways of the consequences give us pause. They’re are often different solutions to big questions and there one should try to make a space for a multiplicity of answers.”

Detail of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier
Detail of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier


You have spoken earlier about how art reveals that we don’t perceive the world as passive receivers but that we are the ones constructing meaning and are shaping the world around us. You also said that the world can be seen as a process of unfolding, the same thing can have a very different meaning or form in a different context. Politics of (un)certainty play a role here. This reminds me of the commencement speech ‘This is Water’ by David Foster Wallace, where he emphasizes the importance of ‘learning how to think’ and actively choosing what to think and deciding which things get to have ‘meaning’ and which don’t. Wallace’s point of departure is that we have to question our ‘default setting’, our ego, and to have more critical awareness of ourselves and our certainties. How do you choose what to give meaning?
“There’s a kind of clarity of judgement in his formulation which feels very alien to me, and I wouldn’t follow that. As if one decides in advance: ‘these things are worthy of our attention and these things are not worthy of our attention’. My experience – and this is the experience of making art – is that there are many projects which start off as projects we should not give our serious attention to. [Projects] which are at the edges of what I’m doing, but which during the course of making them have turned into very central […] ways of working. And so, this deciding, before you are engaged with something, whether to give it any importance or not seems to me very unhelpful.

I know that of course we fall back onto our usual comforts of what gives pleasure, what gives us anxiety, and try not to work through those. But that’s a real psychoanalytic question of how we challenge ourselves, how we stop repeating the symptoms of a neurosis again and again. And I’m not sure it can be solved through decision-making, saying: ‘this I choose to affect me and this I choose not to affect me’. That’s a little bit like Lenin saying I choose not to be affected by these people starving, because if more people starve, the revolution will get quicker. […]

Talking about giving meaning is always connected to how one responds to something emotionally [… and] how one goes through the world. And there, one’s only hope is to keep track of one’s emotional attractions and repulsions, which in the end will reveal who you are. It’s very hard to try to decide in theory who you want to be or that we could decide that easily how to remake ourselves as human beings.”

My experience – and this is the experience of making art – is that there are many projects which start off as projects we should not give our serious attention to.

The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier
The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier


The work The Head & the Load combines a horrible history of (unrecorded) death and suffering with a manner of storytelling related to Dadaism and the absurd. How did you bring these two elements together? Or how are they already related?
The Head & the Load has both the kind of a sober history and the absurd, as you correctly point out. Our experience from working of Ubu and the Truth Commission - which was a combination of documentary evidence from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and the absurdist form of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu - was that the closer we bought the documentary material together with the comic-grotesque or Jarry, the more the comic-grotesque was given a gravitas by the documentary material and the form of the comic-grotesque made us see and hear the documentary material in a different and deeper way.

Our trouble with documentary material [is that] we’re so used to documentaries and terrible documentaries on television and film, that they get glided over very easily. And the only way to try to get out of it in the film and documentary medium is through horror and shock. We were trying a different approach, an experiment - which maybe didn’t work - of a different combination.

Behind the scenes of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier
Behind the scenes of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier


There’s also a deeper answer to the question and that has to do with the belief in the absurd as a way of describing the world. The absurd as a kind of naturalism. If one wants to describe apartheid, one falls into the absurd immediately, because the whole system of the racial segregation became absurd. There’s a break in logic and then you follow this broken logic to the nth degree. So, you end up testing who people are by whether a pencil or stick is in their hair or not. The absurd is not the English idea of the joke or the stupid or the silly, but the understanding of a logic that shifted out of a cartesian rationality.”

If one wants to describe apartheid, one falls into the absurd immediately, because the whole system of the racial segregation became absurd.

What does ‘being an associate artist’ to the Holland Festival mean to you? Do you feel these kinds of roles are important to play as an artist, anno 2019, within a manifestation like the Holland Festival?
“It’s the first time I’ve done this. I’m discovering what it is. I was interested to do it because there’s a particular work from The Centre for the Less Good Idea, the small art centre we have in Johannesburg, which I thought should be seen by a wider audience than the audience we get in Johannesburg. Both in itself and for the artists involved to have a chance of showing their work more widely and hopefully getting other invitations to show that, and other work that they would make.

I see myself absolutely not as a curator of this kind of festival, although within the centre I do understand that the experience I have – having worked in many festivals and many different mediums and theatrical forms – does make it possible for me to help people jump over hurdles which seem insuperable to them within their work. So, it’s more of a kind of mentoring that I see a role for myself in at this stage of my trajectory, more than becoming an artistic director of a festival.”

The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier
The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier


Are there specific elements of artistic practice or approach that you share with (fellow associate artist of the Holland Festival) Faustin Linyekula?
“I think Faustin and I, we share the need and the pleasure in making studio spaces or art centres in each of our cities. As a lifesaving thing for ourselves: to find the collaborators we want to work with in other projects and to build a community of which we are part – rather than just doing something for other people. It has both a selfish and immediate element to it, but it also has a sense of helping to make a city like Johannesburg more livable. To make a space in which there is a meeting point for artists, and musicians and filmmakers to work together in a supportive and manageable way. To not having to produce a Hollywood movie or Broadway musical, but to find the pleasure of the energy that comes with different genres and different artists sparking ideas that each would not have had on their own.”

I think Faustin and I, we share the need and the pleasure in making studio spaces or art centres in each of our cities.

What is the best advice you have ever received?
“I think the only advice I never received is what one kind of already knows and the advice serves to reaffirm or to confirm an impulse. […] But I think the most helpful piece of advice I got was from the great South African photographer, David Goldblatt, who died in the last six months. When I was a young artist and I asked him how he knew what to photograph, he said: ‘In the end it doesn’t matter what you photograph, what you’ll always be photographing are your fears and your desires and whatever the subject; in the end the work will be about you. If it’s pretentious, that tells you about yourself, if it’s too modest it tells you who you are also.’ So, in the end the work becomes a sort of self-portrait of the longue durée.”

In the end it doesn’t matter what you photograph, what you’ll always be photographing are your fears and your desires and whatever the subject; in the end the work will be about you.

Behind the scenes of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier
Behind the scenes of The Head and The Load. Photo credit: Stella Olivier


You work internationally and are a globally recognized and renowned artist. At what moment did you learn to have all this ambition?
“There are two stories here, the one where we were young students with some friends, we sat around the dinner table and I said ‘All right, let’s think ten years from hence, what will be the best outcome that you could imagine for yourself, what could be the worst outcome you could imagine for yourself and what do you think is the most likely outcome?’ And of course, what was terrifying with that, for some people their most likely outcome was close to their worst imagining, and for others their most likely outcome was close to their best. And at that stage, with no expectation of it, I said what I would like best would be to be invited to do exhibitions in different museums and to be invited to do different projects for those exhibitions in museums.

So, I suppose that was at the age of 25, that idea of wanting the work to be seen in an institutional context with a kind of enthusiasm for new work being made.

The other story in this regard was when I did my first big, international project, which was a project at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in which I was showing a new film. Exactly the kind of dream I’d had when I was much younger. I found I was very frustrated with the projectors they bought, [they] were not the right quality and the walls weren’t painted quite the colour. I was getting more and more frustrated with the specifics of the installation, which were the same as the installations in all the small galleries I’d ever done, and I don’t know why I thought it was going to be different in MoMA. But at a certain point I had to step back and say: ‘You’re now 40, you have to imagine yourself at 18 or 25 and say to this 18-year-old self: Here you are, in the Museum of Modern Art, having you work shown next to the Picassos, the Cézannes and the Matisses. Just get a grip on yourself and enjoy the moment, not for you now, but on behalf of your 25-year-old self.’”

William Kentridge and Faustin Linyekula are the associate artists of the Holland Festival 2019. Kentridge’s latest production: The Head & The Load opens the festival on the 29th of May.

 

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