It’s never easy to hold anyone’s attention for a particularly long time these days, so it was amazing that, earlier this month, for his Performa 17 commission, South African artist William Kentridge was able to engage a rapt crowd for a full hour at the Harlem Parish in New York. And it was all the more impressive for one strange reason: not a single intelligible word was uttered for the entire performance, titled Ursonate, in homage to Kurt Schwitters’s 1932 sound poem of the same name.
After the performance, I caught up with Kentridge, who explained how he first got interested in this odd form of verse. The performance had its roots in the year 1970, when, as a high school student in Johannesburg, Kentridge came upon Hans Richter’s book Dada: Art and Anti-Art. “I was completely struck by the wonderful mixture of sense, absurdity, and sound,” Kentridge said of Richter’s Dadaist sound poems. They reminded him of the language of Lewis Carroll’s “The Tale of the Mouse” from Alice in Wonderland, and of “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass, the opening lines of which Kentridge can still recite from memory:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Reading Richter’s collection of poetry, he was also reminded of the war cries his schoolmates sometimes shouted. In order to memorize the chants for the weekly rugby games, he explained, prefects would “thrash” the younger pupils. “The words were so well drilled into me,” Kentridge said, “I can still remember them 45 years later.” And without missing a beat, he proved it:
Ichi bella goethe, skeeta raama doota,
Saskanadi, son of kanasdi-boom.
Boedias boedias boedias assas,
Gee namallara gee,
Who are we? Teddybears.
It was the “strange mixture of absurdism and authoritarianism” Kentridge encountered at school that first drew him to Dada. Thinking of absurdism as “a logic that goes awry at some moment,” Kentridge later made the connection between the eccentricity of Dada and the “forced logic” of the apartheid system, “which became more and more entrenched” in South African society during the 1960s and ’70s, “right down to the absurdity of determining someone’s identity based on whether a pencil would stick in their hair or not.” To impose such strict rules was, in fact, nonsensical—nothing could be more absurd than this, Kentridge came to realize. In his own estimation, this kind of (unintentional) absurdism “became a form of naturalism.”
Throughout his recitation of Ursonate’s strange sounds, Kentridge spoke with a certain gravitas, as though his gibberish were truly important. Behind him were projected animations of his signature charcoal drawings of animals, marching soldiers, and a plump World War I German general. A caricature of the artist himself pacing back and forth even appeared at one point. Later, a band joined Kentridge on stage, bringing the performance to a head as the animations exploded into plumes of charcoal-drawn smoke.
There were no explicit references to today’s politics, but for Kentridge, the work does have resonance for contemporary audiences. “If one listens to the gap between political discourse today and the world it is trying to describe,” he said, “then one understands that not making sense rather than the non-sense of Ursonate is about the work we do, either benevolently or malevolently, in trying to make meaning of words and tying language to the world.” The result of that effort, he added, is an an act of “deconstruction and reconstruction, an anti-entropic activity. Something that fights against entropy, allows the vase to drop and shatter, so that we can make something from the broken pieces.”