South African artist William Kentridge has been busy in his Johannesburg studio during the coronavirus lockdown; some of the drawings he has made there in recent weeks are now on view in Marian Goodman Gallery’s virtual booth at the online version of the Frieze New York art fair, which runs through the end of this week. In other Kentridge news, his short film Mayakovsky: A Tragedy is now available online, and his Center for the Less Good Idea, a multimedia and performing arts center he created in Johannesburg four years ago, has been posting projects on Instagram.
With the Frieze drawings online, Kentridge talked to ARTnews about his new work and about how the pandemic and the lockdown has affected his creative life.
On Still Life (Extended Family)…
I’m still trying to work out why there was this impulse to draw a kind of Morandi-ish still life. It partly had to do with how vessels—primarily clay vessels—would stand as headstones in graveyards in parts of West Africa. In the still life they are maybe waiting to become gravestones, but it’s also sort of a family portrait—the grandmother as the big black jug and the other figures around it.
The drawing comes halfway to the viewer, and onto the drawing the viewer projects associations, memories, other images. We know that looking is 90 percent prediction and 10 percent reception of impulses from one’s cones and rods in one’s eyes. It shows our need, our wish, our desire, to try to find things that both make sense of the world and offer moments of comfort, which is obviously the terrain of all art makers over the millennia.
The question you asked of whether it is about a stilled life that we are here having here in South Africa—it’s certainly domesticated. There’s no travel outside one’s garden. There’s no buying of alcohol or cigarettes. There’s quite a puritan aspect to what the lockdown is. In fairness to the government, violent crime has been remarkably reduced. Trauma victims coming to hospitals are down by about 60 percent because there’s obviously no driving and far less alcohol, which is behind so much of violent actions.
In local terms in South Africa it’s been very interesting how it’s pushed us back into a kind of apartheid-era world of the separation of whites in privileged enclaves—with their houses and gardens and space to move about—and the majority of the black population in townships and informal settlements policed by soldiers keeping the lockdown rules enforced. It’s a strange South African moment of pushing us back many years. It’s a strange pain also in the sense that we have a government that is anxious about the very people who voted for it.
On Yes I Know the New Poem…
This drawing is a vase of lilies in next to a glass of water. It was first done as a very quick ink sketch and then I added a collage of white pieces of paper to be fresher petals to make the bouquet more generous. Then various words came in as kind of pistils and stamens of the flowers. Yes, I Know the New Poem—in this case, when the drawing was made, the new poem is the new poem of the virus and the lockdown and the new normal.
Phrases that go through it are collected from different poets: Yehuda Amichai, Anna Akhmatova, different sources that are strange reflections or associations. “Coughs full of reproach,” phrases like that—they connect to where we are but don’t have a clear position. It’s as if you can circle the subject and the meaning without being able to land on them. It seems to me that any attempt to have a definitive interpretation of what this pandemic means is a way of trying to understand and to land somewhere. But, for me, each of the landings feels unsatisfactory. The most one can hope is to circle around and try to find places where a possible meaning could emerge.
The glass was added at the end, and the flowers needed words to grow. Does it echo? What are the phrases that echo without me being able to say what I hoped they would mean? All these phrases—“a longing that passed without being satisfied,” “to tell the truth I have a feeling I have lost something,” “a resolution that lasted two weeks at most”— [the latter one] may be about me keeping fit during lockdown.
[In another piece in the studio] it’s a kind of diary of the time now. I’m not afraid. I dance a minuet with fear. Where shall we place our hope? Finding our fate and escaping our fate. There’s a sense of, What object should you touch? Is this the object which is clean and will keep you safe? Or is this the object that has the virus sitting on it? These are not thoughts that are unique to the moment, but they are heightened. They’re magnified in the complete roaring sound of the news.
On walking and thinking…
What happens before the first mark is made in a drawing, for me, is a lot of walking around the studio. In this period, that somehow expands to walking around the garden because that’s the extent of where one can walk. No exercise outside the boundaries of one’s property have been permitted until this week. Now we’re allowed out early in the morning to exercise as well. But walking is a natural activity in the studio—for thinking and gathering energy to begin working. Part of me thinks of it just as procrastination, and part of me likes to think that it’s productive procrastination. In this walk you have a peripheral vision of what’s around in the studio—and hopefully a kind of peripheral thinking of images and phrases that can start to cook.
In my studio I have a drawing of a landscape with the word “breathe” and a big tree and a flower. I need to try to work out how they fit together. What is the link that will bring them together? There’s also a paper puppet of a rhinoceros and a paper puppet of a coffee pot that I’d been animating, so that they do a kind of strange dance at night. The unconscious—what happens in the studio at night when the lights are out and the artist is not instructing all the paper what it has to do—always hovers at the edge of stupidity and rubbish. And I think stupidity is an important category for the making of art, for accepting the limits of one’s thinking and handing over to other kinds of unconscious impulses, drives, desires, and insights that one hopes arrive. The work is the test.
On how studio life has changed in isolation…
Generally, I have a lot of assistants, not making drawings or paintings but people who keep the database in place, who do all the photography, who help me with printmaking, who work in the foundry. Then there are the actors, singers, and performers that I work with very closely at the Center for the Less Good Idea and at other productions of mine. There’s usually a balance between working in a solitary way in the studio and working with many people on collaborative projects, but of course those are on hold.
In general, it’s been far more hours of quiet drawing, of being on my own—which has been kind of marvelous. There’s no possibility of traveling to exhibitions or mounting performances, and on the scale of sacrifices, for me, it’s not such a problem. But for many performers, it’s a very desperate time of no income.
It does feel like a blessing to have the comfort of the studio—the sense, after an hour of drawing quietly, of calm that descends. Sometimes there’s frustration if the drawing is going badly, but even then there’s still something about the physical activity of charcoal, paper, eraser, the walk backward from the drawing to look at it, the approach to it. In a bizarre way, it makes for extremely happy hours and days.
This virus is so much about the body and the body betraying the person. We all know at some point our body is going to deceive us—either the heart or the brain or some part will give in, and our subjectivity will be destroyed. This virus makes us aware of the provisionality of all the certainties we have in saying, “Well, I’ll go into the studio the next morning, I’ll be in the studio for the next month. And now one has to say, “I’ll be in the studio for the next month, all things being equal, if social distancing has worked. If the virus chooses not to come into the studio.”
For me, it’s fantastic to not have to have an excuse for the studio being the default position. For not feeling I should be out on a 10 mile hike out in the countryside, I should be swimming in the public pools, should be going to the gym, all the things I don’t do, but don’t do with a bad conscience. Now, I can not do them with a good conscience.