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William in Exile

Thoughts on Failed Utopias

William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera (2015)


And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. . . . and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers —
perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


Moral certainty ends in brutality; doubt is the precondition of humanism. William Kentridge inhabits this conundrum; he has a strong ethical viewpoint, but he shies away from persuasion. The inherent danger of confidence about anything is his work’s only surety. He is secure in his methods and bullish in his beliefs, but he is the patron saint of ambiguity. His qualm-riven art consistently reverts to a critique of dogmatism. The narrative within his time-based projects follows the structure of dreams: associative rather than declarative, and reliant on multiple layers of meaning that may remain obscure to the viewer, as they do to the artist. Images — now oddly fast, now oddly slow — transform from one thing into another, with meanings that can be teased out only partially, opaquely, and after the fact. Kentridge’s drawings, films, sculpture, theatrical productions, lectures, and ephemera limn the compelling but necessarily fruitless impulse to know. Lucidity is not the fruit of experience, but the delusion of innocence; all we can aspire to grasp is the rough shape of our ignorance.

Yet contingency here manifests in playfulness more often than in despair. That phenomena are indecipherable does not mean that they are disastrous. Injustice is presumed to be an ineluctable characteristic of the world, and one must confront it even if trouncing it remains impossible. Kentridge never lapses into the existentialist proposition that everything is pointless; he merely elaborates on the idea that we seldom know or can even guess the point of anything. Kentridge’s anxiety is more agnostic than atheistic, allowing for transient coherence and provisional revelation. But beauty is not incidental to the artist, nor is humor unserious, and questions are worth asking even if they have no answers. His work is tentatively resilient, full of quiet yearning for the principled clarity he has already disavowed. It is infused with the poignant lyricism of valuing hope over hope’s fulfillment. “One of the tasks of the years has been to find strategies to keep clarity at a distance,” he notes.(1) Both the melancholy and the exuberance of his work hinge on the impossibility of resolving most human problems. He has also said, “There is for me more than an accidental linguistic connection between executing an idea and killing it.”(2)

Many of Kentridge’s questions are universal ones about the nature of making things. He draws inspiration from a coffeepot, a printed book lying open, or a tree branch brushing his studio window, though he maintains that such objects have to meet the process of drawing halfway by presenting forms amenable to being rendered in charcoal. He indicates the repetitive nature of experience by returning to certain things — stars, megaphones, rhinoceroses, cameras, high-mast lighting — that spring up in his world, vanish from it, and recur. He draws the metronome, erases the metronome, draws the metronome again. He has likened the deployment of this personal iconography to the conventions of commedia dell’arte with its stock characters and situations. Periodically, someone or something joins his troupe, and someone or something else gets the hook.

“There is for me more than an accidental linguistic connection between executing an idea and killing it.”

“This idea of taking the world as a single element and then splitting it apart is one of the fundamental activities of the studio,” he explains.(3) His work is ostentatiously handmade, and the marks of process are likewise evident in his thinking, his ideas linked to the obsessive ruminations that honed them. He is interested in “the links, jumps, and visual and verbal games not that we can do, but that we can’t stop ourselves from doing.”(4) I once described to Kentridge how I tried not to perceive faces and landscapes in an abstract painting. “No, no,” he said. “You are doing a kind of violence to yourself. The very nature of our seeing is that we witness the clouds and the animate forms we associate with them in the same moment. That’s what keeps us intrigued. We look at Velásquez and we see twenty small, feathery brush marks of white paint on a Holland blue canvas — and we see also the lace collar of the infanta. That is the nature of our seeing and of our belief.”

What makes Kentridge’s sleight of hand compelling is that it is unabashedly a sleight of hand. The fallacy of art, in his view, is to take everything away from the tree except the tree itself; the triumph, to invite every association, because when we see only the tree, we see nothing at all. We are bound to construct logic out of the fragments we are given, and the visibility of Kentridge’s evolution illuminates the viewer’s progression towards intelligibility. “How we apprehend art is a model of how we apprehend the world,” he told me. “Demonstrating the process is part of the argument. I will show you how this is done, and it will still work. That’s not the willing suspension of disbelief; it’s unwilling suspension. You will never stop trying to make coherence of the world coming towards you.”

Kentridge’s predilection for the domestic, the personal, and the internal is balanced in his work by an equal preoccupation with the political, the social, and the universal. It is often unclear in a given drawing or sequence whether we are seeing an inner world or an outer one, since neither can be relied on for narrative coherence. “The activities of the studio, which sometimes seem so uncertain, can be a way of understanding the fragility outside the studio,” he explained to me. He seduces his viewers with scraps of lucidity; it is hard to tear yourself away from one of his films even if you can’t decipher the meaning of its successive images. He labors to make what happens so intriguing that the viewer will not become distracted, but he refuses to do so through cogent, sequential storytelling. The work constructs what he has called the “fragments of who I am at the time” and thereby splits and constructs the viewer, too.

“The very nature of our seeing is that we witness the clouds and the animate forms we associate with them in the same moment. That’s what keeps us intrigued.”

The line between private wars and public policy is porous in Kentridge’s art. The periphery and the center, the personal and the collective, the absurd and the coherent all receive their due. South Africa is usually the explicit setting of his work, since the landscapes of Johannesburg, its suburbs and townships, and the surrounding veld are the ones he knows best. He renders them, smudged and barren, with economy and precision. South Africa is embedded here even when it is not represented. “What one is doing in one’s own studio doesn’t sound like the same question as what is happening in the country, but very often they are the same question,” he told me. “The personal concerns have to be interesting as thoughts outside in the world, and what I contemplate in the world has to have resonance in the studio: there has to be something to make or draw. I work through inversions and transformations.”

Kentridge’s mistrust of answers — and of the power that would assert them — reflects his formative experiences in apartheid Johannesburg. He grew up among some of the twentieth century’s most brazen and entrenched injustices, and though his was a household that fought apartheid, he was, like all white South Africans, one of its beneficiaries. He has both tenanted and regretted that unearned supremacy. The moral ambiguity of profiting from what one deplores is the first engine of his artwork. He perforce sat on benches reserved for white people, lived in neighborhoods reserved for his own kind, and employed people in his home whose lives were desolated by racial injustice. You could not live innocently in that place at that time; if you were neither a victim nor an aggressor, you remained an implicated bystander. Kentridge’s work is tinged with his implicit guilt, and in that light, his puns on moral relativism have a whiff of self-justification. Of course many earnest writers — among them Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, and Athol Fugard — have won the world’s attention by exploring this fertile territory. Chroniclers of the horrors of apartheid and the ensuing disappointments, they have pointed out their country’s most galling inherent ironies, but they have done so in a European storytelling idiom linked to Chekhov, Austen, and Zola. The form has not always accommodated the content.

White visual artists have not been similarly indulged. If they appropriate nonwestern African visual language, their work can appear condescending or craven. If they ignore their context, however, it usually feels trivial. It’s an old quandary: we participate in the systems we critique, and our critique thrusts us even deeper into that corruption. Many American and European artists hold onto the hope that the system from which they profit is not inherently, irredeemably evil, that the trickle-down of the art world’s free-market capitalism might somehow not be hurting the poor and besieged. Kentridge lived where such rationales were impossible, and therefore he was drawn to the philosophy of absurdism, which stands in direct opposition to moral certainty. It is scant coincidence that the rhinoceros looms large in the work of both Kentridge and Ionesco.

“You will never stop trying to make coherence of the world coming towards you.”

Cynicism about human ideals can turn so vigorous that it becomes an ideal in itself. “But what remains for me is a caution about large certainties, and a belief in constructive small-scale coherences,” Kentridge has written. “A belief in the provisionality of moments of meaning. It is not a question of constructing points of resemblance or affinity, so much as being open to recognizing them after the event, and perhaps integrating them.”(5) We have, he acknowledges, an “irrepressible human need of making sense of the world,”(6) but he resists that imperative. He both represents and embodies a deliberate incoherence, making sense of the world by embracing its senselessness, but keeping the possibilities of meaning open. He does not provide order, but neither does he dismiss the chance that it exists. “I argue here for something that is neither individual psychology nor a universality, but something I would call a recognised particularity,” he writes.(7) His process of discovery is often painful, but his actual discoveries are at least fleetingly satisfying. His imagery is always overdetermined, drawing on personal references, on other works of art, on politics, on words — on what it means to strive towards moral decisions in a relativistic world. The philosopher Karl Popper wrote, “Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”(8) In reifying that treachery of perception, Kentridge secures his artistic authority.


I first met Kentridge in London in 1988. His work appeared almost reactionary to me: realistic charcoal portraits and landscapes seemed hardly the stuff of new radicalism. The drawings I viewed were mostly evocative of the place where he lived, but they neither portrayed the tears shed in South Africa nor championed reform. They conjured the demoralizing aspects of brutality: the human detritus of racism, black and white, situated in a caricature of a Watteau fête galante. More from the perspective of Robespierre than that of the court, these semi-apocalyptic scenes embody the bleakness of the many on which relies the indulgence of the few. Yet his ability to sketch horror genially was already striking; a surprising generosity is hidden in these pictures.

I visited South Africa for the first time in 1992. Apartheid had been officially abolished the year before but was still in the last of its glory days, and the country seemed fearful and uncertain about whether any peaceful system could be forged in the aftermath of five vicious decades. One of the wages of institutionalized violence is the dread that if it is relaxed a reciprocal carnage will take its place. White-on-black, black-on-black, and black-on-white militarism all appeared to be escalating. Nelson Mandela would win the Nobel Prize the following year, and his passage to secular beatification was well under way, but how his aspirations to peace would play out was anyone’s guess. Kentridge countenanced the possibility that his home and way of life would soon vanish; his moral insistence on ambiguity met a pragmatic anxiety about an unknowable crucible in the sweep of history. He continued to draw impeccable dreamscapes of casual ferocity and raped land. This work reflected the legacy of racism, and of the exploitation of natural resources that gave rise to Johannesburg, a town that exists on the earth’s surface thanks only to the gold that is nearly gone from underneath it.

“At some stage in every opera production I think, ‘Why did I spend so many months working on this text? If only I hadn’t started this. Why did I think it sounded like a good idea at the time?’ It’s an occupational hazard.”

When I returned in 1993 to write about South African artists for the New York Times, I faced an impossible situation. By then I had cut my teeth describing how intellectuals stanch oppression, writing first about artists in late Soviet Russia and then about the emerging Chinese avant-garde. In those days, most western critics did not acknowledge even the possibility that interesting new art could come from nonwestern contexts. The standard argument was that such work either resembled work in the West, in which case it was derivative, or differed from it, in which case it was provincial. With some youthful bravado, I had set out to disrupt that parochialism and had found that I could translate fluently between foreign societies and my own.

In Soviet Russia or post-Maoist China, there were essentially two camps: the “official” circle that accepted or celebrated the existing power structure, and the counterrevolutionary underground whose members attempted to redeem their own identities from a dehumanizing regime. In South Africa, however, a good-guys-versus-bad-guys scenario could not be drawn so readily. The regime had not insisted on cultural propaganda, as the Soviets and Chinese had, and no substantive body of pictures defended the apartheid status quo. The artists I met all aspired to a more just society, and their work manifested a blend of outrage, anxiety, and hope as the country lumbered towards its first free elections. Some of those artists were black and some were white. By law, they had been forbidden to mix, though most had done so regardless. Black artists were presumed to be righteous even if naïve; white artists, to be hypocritical even if sophisticated. Liberal white artists such as William Kentridge, I was repeatedly advised, might champion the right positions but had not offered to die for justice. It was unclear even to those artists themselves how much they would do to hasten their fall from hegemony.

In Moscow, no one had supposed that I was a party member, and in Beijing I was never mistaken for a Red Guard, but in Johannesburg, I was white, and therefore implicated in the conflict. Allowed to go where black people generally couldn’t, I had no claim to innocence. I was not an aggressor, but I was at the very least a privileged spectator in a country of victims. The country felt particularly unsafe then: you could be carjacked at any street crossing, and no one with power or money could be certain of having either a week later. South Africa was on the verge, but no one knew what it was the verge of.

“Remember that the absurd is not the same as the foolish or the meaningless. The absurd is an expression of how broken logic is carried through to brutal effect. The Nose is absurd, but it is not a joke.”

Johannesburg, Second Greatest City After Paris (1989)

By then, Kentridge had produced several of his animated films — or “drawings for projection,” as he prefers to call them: Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989); Monument (1990); Mine (1991); and Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991). These first ventures into the medium that would come to define him in the public eye present a kaleidoscope of dualities and multiplicities — among them, the odd peace and hidden vulnerability of protected lives in a country torn asunder with bloodshed. They insist on the blandness of assault, echoing Hannah Arendt’s famous description of the banality of evil. They depict terrible occurrences, incomprehensible ones, and lyrical meditations, each evanescing into the next. Soho Eckstein — the dark hero of the films, an industrialist whose life of ease apparently rises from a knack for exploitation — finds his coffeepot becoming an elevator into the mineshaft; the monument he builds turns out to be a living person who shames him instead of glorifying him; the landscape is ravaged with billboards, mast lighting, and loudspeakers. Soho finds himself alone as his wife’s absence fills the world, and black people gather on the horizon in ambiguous mobs. There is no chance of innocence here, not because whites oppress black people, but because the world is dark and corrupt, and everyone’s privilege is built on a foundation of someone else’s suffering.

Monument (1990)

Kentridge emphasizes the making of marks over the making of stories; these films are not reducible to synopses. They are wildly labor-intensive; each involves thousands of acts of drawing and erasure. A powerful tension exists between the meticulous gradualism of his technique and the abrupt world he chronicles, in which people are murdered and quickly forgotten. The beauty with which he draws this ugliness creates a palpable, radical aesthetics. Evil may be banal, but its depiction is quite the opposite. Kentridge maintains that he set out to make comedies, not melancholy films, and blames the way his skies grow dark on the accumulating residue of smudged charcoal. He admitted to me that the films are always self-portraits. “Am I melancholy?” he asked. “I don’t think I am, but you’d have to ask my wife or children, not me.”

Mine (1991)

Structurally, in Kentridge’s view, his films are more like music than like books: they are sequential and cumulative, but not narrative. “Of course decisions are made, and each is a carefully constructed piece. But I work from vagueness to something that feels finished without a very clear meaning; it’s all impulses and directions,” he said. When I first saw these films, I worried that I couldn’t quite follow them; only later did I understand that not following them was the idea — though Kentridge told me that he was “also very bad at narrative coherence.”

Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991)

His interest in process is borne out here. We see the method by which he has arrived at an image — and the method by which he erases one. Drawings exist as the result of marks made and marks erased; the reiteration and variation of that evolutionary process, in the films, becomes the work itself. He constantly assembles and disassembles images, making us acutely aware that apparently complete works can be easily smudged into shadow. The erasure makes us more conscious of the pictures we would have liked to sustain. The final drawing of any of these sequences may be sold or exhibited, but the other high moments in the progression are gone from us. Who is to say that we wouldn’t have preferred the Mona Lisa the way it looked a week before Leonardo finished it? At least we don’t have to see what he painted out. In Felix in Exile (1994), landscapes and lives are expunged and reconstituted, expunged and reconstituted. The privileged nearly drown; the humble bleed slowly to death, alone. The gloom is elevated by the seductive rhythm manifest even in the blood that pours from the heads of the dying, each corpse obliterated by sheets of indistinct text, as though muffled by the inadequacy of language.

Felix in Exile (1994)

When I visited his studio in Johannesburg in 1993, Kentridge was in the first flush of his collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company, and had just directed the spare, dystopian Woyzeck on the Highveld. Georg Büchner’s nihilistic portrait of an impoverished Everyman incapable of rectitude is transmuted by Kentridge and his collaborators into an exposition of the way poverty and oppression undermine people’s ability to think in principled terms. Kentridge’s version argues that the underclass is not defeated by its immorality, but, rather, is immoral because of the crushing circumstances of its subjugation. Woyzeck’s appalling act of murder spreads as a red stain in an otherwise black-and-white animation. Yet the antihero in this production is not the murderer, but those who so damaged him that they rendered him enfeebled, anarchic, and deadly. When I watched Woyzeck on the Highveld, all Kentridge’s earlier work suddenly seemed to constitute a visual language for pitilessness. In his later Faustus in Africa (1995), apartheid appears as the misguided bargain, greed’s brief moment of power bought at the price of hell. Kentridge’s early, bruised landscape drawings and dreamlike animations seem terrifyingly material when they are complemented by a coherent narrative thread; this work brings us face-to-face with the immorality and sadness of our daily lives. In Kentridge’s world, we are always guilty creatures at the play.

Woyzeck on the Highveld (1993)

Faustus in Africa (1995)


Many artists dream of achievements beyond the realm of their primary talent, but few are able to master multiple art forms. When painters perform, when poets illustrate their own work, when composers write librettos, the results are often lackluster; most talent is singular, and love for another medium of expression is not to be confused with skill in it. Even filmmakers who direct stage plays stumble, and few great dancers show comparable genius in choreography. Performance artists can nosedive when they perform something other than their own art, and architects who undertake stage design often misapprehend theater’s intimate scale. The ambition to create a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art that encompasses all media, founders when a real talent is overshadowed by aspirational ones.

“My concern has been both with the existential solitude of the walker, and with social solitude — lines of people walking in single file from one country to another, from one life to an unknown future.”

Kentridge’s multifarious ventures have succeeded because they reflect a coherent vision and a broad set of skills. His theater and opera productions support a consistent understanding of how beauty infiltrates the grotesque; of how dark psychic energy threatens every native joy; of the inevitability of venality, error, and chance delight; of the temporality of good and evil. His oeuvre reminds me in some ways of a hologram, which requires multiple inputs to imitate life. The components do not clutter but, rather, clarify his vision; if you take away any piece, what remains is blurred. Kentridge’s operas revel in the extravagance of the form; since his first effort, Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse (1998), he has gravitated towards big productions with many actors, which seem antithetical to the pared-down intensity of his puppet shows. Yet the work retains a surprising intimacy. The projections in the operas have a handmade and experimental quality; in the midst of the larger spectacle, they seem to be windows onto the private corridors of another mind. The inconsistency between these formats is often challenging. “At some stage in every opera production I think, ‘Why did I spend so many months working on this text?” he explained. “If only I hadn’t started this. Why did I think it sounded like a good idea at the time?’ It’s an occupational hazard.”

Trailer: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (1998)

As Kentridge himself has pointed out, a dancer who presented a painting onstage and called it her dance would be ridiculous, but in a post-Duchampian world, an artist can define a lecture he has written or an opera he has designed as his art. As children seek limits against which they can push, Kentridge seeks respite from his relentless imagination in the work of other people, which forces his vision to shift. Operas provide an exoskeleton for his insights. An opera production is not a diversion from his “own” work, but, rather, another path into it. His work in the genre has generated films, lectures, drawings; those components are incorporated into the operas. It is an elegant reciprocity. Nor does Kentridge’s work on opera compete with the content provided by librettists and composers; rather, it subsumes their vision. His approach is both radical and scholarly.

In his second major opera production, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (2005), he engaged with the ultimate fallacies of the Age of Reason, noting how very exciting it is to impose order on the moral or natural worlds, and how soon that order collapses. Mozart’s music is an aural apotheosis of equilibrium in which Kentridge delights; his animations affectionately call to mind the tools of navigation, astronomy, and mathematics that were being developed and refined around the time of the opera’s premiere in 1791. Having foresworn his own sense of coherence, Kentridge enjoys borrowing someone else’s, but the arrangement is temporary; he holds at bay Mozart’s confident assertion of the possibility of divine symmetries. Kentridge is appalled by Sarastro’s benevolent tyranny, but he is not immune to its seductions. Pamina’s kidnapping into light is pertinent to the current vogue for “bringing democracy” to societies that have shown no active inclination towards it; Sarastro shares modern leaders’ failure to grasp that forced liberalism is an oyxmoron. Such quandaries dance around Kentridge’s Magic Flute, lending it a surprising modernity — not through updated sets and costumes, but through a hard-won, twenty-first century skepticism.

Die Zauberflöte (2005)

The Magic Flute epitomizes orderliness; The Nose (2010) is exactly its opposite. Shostakovich’s score is not easy, an exercise in high drama interlaced with alarming explosions of sound. Fortunately, Kentridge’s affection for disharmony dovetails with the avant-garde; he extracts the delicacy coiled inside musical dissonance as he does the morality hidden within turpitude. Like Shostakovich and Gogol, Kentridge responds to the social order by marking its outlandishness. “Remember,” he told me, “that the absurd is not the same as the foolish or the meaningless. The absurd is an expression of how broken logic is carried through to brutal effect. The Nose is absurd, but it is not a joke.” This work reflects his trifecta fascination with the Enlightenment and its promise of coherence, the Russian Revolution and its false assertions of coherence, and the absurdist/Dada perspective that denies the possibility of coherence. Both apartheid and Stalinism conformed, at least superficially, to an extensively argued rationality. Shostakovich’s communist allegiances and Kentridge’s white allegiances each represent an ambiguous accommodation to difficult realities; they neither belong to the power they lampoon nor are completely detached from it. Kentridge refers to the Soviet Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “deluded belief in the purifying effect of violence,”(9) a belief shared by some factions in the African National Congress (ANC) during the necklacing days of apartheid. Yet even these ominous ironies have their playful side, and Kentridge takes to the Russian habit of finding the hilarity within oppression. He has a fondly ironic relationship to his own generously proportioned nose, to the Jewish nose, to Soho’s nose, to Gogol’s nose — and while his production touches on profound political truths, it is also resolutely personal. The Nose is about a divided self; South Africa resists its divided self; the artist evinces a divided self.

The Nose (2010)

In developing the installation drawn from The Nose, titled I am not me, the horse is not mine (2010), Kentridge used eight screens in one room, each displaying different footage to create a jarring oversaturation of information. “You can’t construct a single meaning from the piece,” he told me. “The viewer always has a set of impossible choices, and the only certainty it offers is of fragmentation.”

Opera is in some ways the most artificial of forms — we do not sing when we’re dying — and Kentridge relaxes in artifice. His lectures, in which he speaks with mannered sincerity, are uncomfortable by design; they indicate that authenticity cannot withstand the artist’s wit, his sense of tragedy, and his wholehearted irony. In the fully acknowledged artifice achieved by an operatic librettist and composer, Kentridge can relax about his own role as an artist. Within opera, he cannot be held solely responsible for too much beauty; here, he is allowed to supplement an existing concord instead of creating a suspicious new one.

I am not me, the horse is not mine (2010)


Nostalgia is difficult for a South African, though even a tormented relationship to the past can exert a Faustian pull. But if nostalgia is difficult, so is erasure; tough times are often harder to forget than to remember, and the triumphs of the new South Africa remain contingent on their precedents. That charcoal shadow in Kentridge’s films and drawings is the look of a nation in the embrace of triumphant reinvention yet in the thrall of its own most desolate history. When the condition of his country seemed hopeless, Kentridge found strands of hope. Then what had seemed impossible came to pass, and the social ethos slipped relatively smoothly into democracy, much aided after 1996 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What can an artist who argues that truth is impossible do with a process focused on stripping away secrets? In Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), Kentridge makes use of words actually spoken in these truth-hunting sessions. Reconciliation is not the same as forgiveness; it may be impelled by nothing more than a pragmatic desire to move forward, a mutual agreement to prioritize the present over the past as a means of building a more profitable future. “In Paris after the Second World War, it was the end of politics, and existentialism sprang from that perception,” he observed. “In South Africa following the end of apartheid, it was the beginning of politics, which comes with very different requirements. In Paris, you kept your sanity by resisting the obvious pessimism; in South Africa, you had to resist being caught up in optimism.”

Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997)

Kentridge is a master of parades: people march and march through his animated films; a line of three-dimensional silhouettes makes up Procession (2000), a sculpture series in which figures stride towards nothing we can see; ranks of singers in The Nose shift rapidly from the configuration of an assaultive mob to that of a weary queue. “My concern has been both with the existential solitude of the walker, and with social solitude — lines of people walking in single file from one country to another, from one life to an unknown future,” Kentridge has written.(10) The marchers seem always fixed on their progress, but one often cannot guess their destination, nor is it clear whether they know it. Kentridge’s films move with methodical deliberation, yet their topic, finally, is transience. He writes wistfully of how “the logical argument is always mired in nostalgia, a private memory inseparable from objective pronouncement.”(11) Kentridge’s homesickness is resolutely trained on the recent past, a pre-electronic Eden lost to the ubiquity of digitization. Born in Africa as a result of the centuries-long, global Jewish migration, Kentridge embodies that unending wandering in quest of the land of milk and honey. In portraying displaced people, he evokes the cruel displacements of apartheid, including that of the people who migrated from the townships to work in his own house each day; he also reflects on the perhaps more fortunate displacement that kept his family from Nazi death camps, introducing them instead to relative privilege in Johannesburg.

Shadow Procession (2000)

In his 1923 poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1934), Wallace Stevens expresses the artist’s inevitable immersion in his own creation, how the attempt to see something ultimately distorts that seeing:

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

It has been said of South Africa that in no other place have the greatness of nature and the smallness of man been in such stark contrast: that the majesty of the landscape, forced to witness the indignity of human prejudice, is made keener by the contrast. Kentridge has referred to his native land as “a place whose appearance is so different from its history.”(12) What to do with the world’s enthusiasm for the new South Africa with its heroic Mandela preaching his own bequest of forgiveness? How can an artist sustain his cynicism in the face of such good news?

Like Stevens, Kentridge is interested in how humanity is layered over nature, in how our perceptions are determined by ourselves rather than by their objects. “Each project is both a project of itself but also a reprise of biography,” he writes.(13) The impossibility of vanishing from his own work may be what tempts him to the bravado of inserting himself into it shamelessly. He enjoys the public gaze not only for his art, but also for himself. “So the act of drawing, like the act of mapmaking, becomes a way of negotiating who we are in the world,” he writes, “of meeting the world halfway, of defining one of our edges. The drawing is not only about the world, it is obviously also about us, the person making the drawing, and the people looking at the drawing. We both receive the world, and impose ourselves onto the world.”(14) In another essay, he describes “a shift between being a coherent subject and understanding that coherence is a construction — that behind this clarity and the certainty of who one is and what one is doing there are a series of uncertainties that may come into conflict with each other.”(15) The artist’s purpose is not to recreate the inner or the outer world, but to be a membrane between them. Art, he maintains, “is a halfway point between the world and ourselves.”(16)

Art, Kentridge maintains, “is a halfway point between the world and ourselves.”

Kentridge has written much about his own work, and his lectures-as-performances have become part of his oeuvre. He describes agonizing over his presentations, and how his wife, Anne, will say, “You must go to sleep. If the words come not as easily as leaves to a tree, better they do not come at all. Your job is to make drawings, not to do the words, leave those to other people.”(17) But if Kentridge is a draftsman, a director of operas, and a filmmaker, he is also his own critic. There is little text in his films, but outside them, a logorrhea can take hold; he is both the singer of Stevensian song and its analyst. Asked about his practice of drawing on printed books, he has said that it is his intention to establish the supremacy of the image over the word, or, equally, to establish the inseparability of the two. But drawing in books, like making films, imposes a sequence on the work of art: the image may be supreme, but one is never far from the script. Kentridge has described being jealous of the way language and image blur in Chinese literati culture, where the quality of calligraphy enhances the content of a text, and where the brushstrokes used for poems are the same as those used to paint bamboo.

In his lectures, Kentridge displays videos of himself and interacts with them to comedic effect; he parades both the self that draws and the self that critiques the drawing, illustrating the divide between the one who knows what is needed and the one burdened with execution. “Nothing is understood in itself,” he has written. “Its meaning is always a construction we bring to it. Confronted with the clearly half-understood, where we are aware of the gaps we must jump over, we become aware of our complicity in the ways we give meaning to something.”(18) With his installation The Refusal of Time (2012), Kentridge demonstrated how the things we assume to be fixed and reliable are nothing of the kind. The imposed structures of colonization failed to vanquish the underlying cultures of Africa. We are not all merging gradually into consensus, not building an inevitable coherence. “There is both an image of history, but also a history of the image, which cannot be separated from it,” he writes.(19)

The Refusal of Time (2012)


Kentridge has said that the palimpsests in his films and drawings originally seemed to him a grave misfortune, the result of imperfect erasing — and then a friend remarked that it was the most interesting thing about the work. The pentimento of his first imaginings haunts the image that is preserved. There is no present tense in Kentridge’s work that is not mottled by the past. These shadows are most sweetly manifest in his intense love of history itself: Plato, the Enlightenment, the failed ideologies of African colonialism and the Russian Revolution.

His decision to exhibit in China responds to the country’s long history of despotism and to the vigor of the scholars who for centuries have expressed the vitality of truth when their rulers seemed intent on alienating it. It responds to the naïve vigor of Mao’s epigrammatic certainties and Jiang Qing’s revolutionary propaganda. He describes with amused wonder the “enforced enthusiasm” of Chinese art during the Cultural Revolution, when liberation was expressed through Revolutionary Operas in which actors and actresses had their feet “rebound” into western ballet slippers. “It was a place as peripheral to Paris and the origins of ballet as Johannesburg was to England, and it was likewise appropriating cultural symbols for purposes ridiculously at odds with what they had first signified,” he said.

“All calls to certainty, whether of political jingoism or of objective knowledge, have an authoritarian origin relying on blindness and coercion — which are fundamentally inimical to what it is to be alive in the world with one’s eyes open.”

Mao’s pithy, proclaiming moralism propels the artist into complexity. “All calls to certainty, whether of political jingoism or of objective knowledge, have an authoritarian origin relying on blindness and coercion — which are fundamentally inimical to what it is to be alive in the world with one’s eyes open,” he writes.(20) This point of view overlaps with the oppositional strain in Chinese art after the Cultural Revolution. It was expressed by the Stars in the late 1970s, in the work of many participants in “China/Avant-Garde: No U-Turn” in 1989, and in the first wave of Political Pop, Cynical Realism, and conceptualism that followed the Tiananmen massacre. Kentridge’s ambivalent matchmaking between text and image and his disdain for coherence conjure Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky and Gu Wenda’s Temple of Heaven. Narratives of power and corruption, of absurdity eternally questing after harmony, and of a terrible intimacy with transience are powerful ideas in Chinese art of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. They are themes, also, in the Chinese literati tradition, manifest in the work of exiled painters and poets a thousand and more years ago.

William Kentridge | Drawing Lesson Two: A Brief History of Colonial Revolts (2012)

It is reductive to speak of Kentridge as a necessarily South African artist, and it is therefore doubly reductive to speak of him as a South African exhibiting in China. But he is the product of his own history. Kentridge observes parallels between the failed utopia of apartheid South Africa and that of Maoist China. His work appraises the colonization of Africa as evidence of Enlightenment ideas hideously contorted; today, China is effectively recolonizing Africa as it constructs the continent’s infrastructure. This is done for economic and political gain; Enlightenment ideals do not complicate the African-Asian relationship as they did have the African-European one. “It’s not clear whether colonialism is an adequate term to describe China’s current role in Africa,” Kentridge remarked dryly.

The artists of the 1989 Show in Beijing were outsiders to the catastrophic events of their own country. No one could accuse them of being in the thrall of the Gang of Four, or of acting as ad hoc agents of Deng Xiaoping’s government. Some were once Red Guards, but in the present tense of their artwork, they were essentially clean. Chairman Mao occupies a complex status in China. His image retains its talismanic properties, and comments about the ruthlessness of his campaigns are usually salted with admiration for the progress he achieved. A South Africa in which there had been no apartheid is an entirely cheerful fantasy of greater probity, but a China without communism is a place mostly populated by impoverished, uneducated, oppressed peasants serving a tiny and decadent elite.

“The drawing is not only about the world, it is obviously also about us, the person making the drawing, and the people looking at the drawing. We both receive the world, and impose ourselves onto the world.”

If, as Zhou Enlai is reported to have said, it is too soon to judge the French Revolution, then how are we to judge the new South Africa? Mao’s model operas are performed not only to recall a vanished time, but also because they embody virtues still considered heroic (at least officially); propaganda from the apartheid regime, on the other hand, is a ludicrous embarrassment. F.W. de Klerk may have shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, but according to a moral algebra that remains powerful in South Africa, there is no such possibility as being clean for white people; the simple fact of being white tarnishes you with implicit culpability. Many white South African artists, set on fighting that presumption, have either discounted their experience as overlords in an unjust society or displaced their narratives to work as though they were merely exiled Europeans. Kentridge’s work draws on the process of growing up among inherent contradictions. He unabashedly communicates deep moral convictions yet recognizes that they cannot change the ills to which they pertain. In China, where censorship remains the order of the day, the government implicitly accords power to imagery, believing that it can generate — or obliterate — the principles of the revolution. But the South African government never feared artists as the Chinese leadership has and does, and censorship of pictures was never a priority. This disinterest may have protected artists, but it also disenfranchised them. How to compare a production of The East Is Red to Kentridge’s The Nose? One implicitly responds to the other; we go most wisely not from ignorance to knowledge, but from the delusion of knowing into the authentic morass of uncertainty.

Kentridge’s response to the broken world is to refuse to solve its problems, but he does not use that refusal as the basis for amoral posturing. He toys with the nihilism that says the world is an irreparable disaster, but in the end his work is not itself nihilistic; it asks us to conflate our ideas of good and evil with the unknowability of human experience. “I work from vagueness to specificity,” Kentridge told me, “but not to clear meanings. The viewer has to construct much of the meaning for himself.” We cannot oppose fundamentalism with an alternate fundamentalism. Our only defense is nuance, that acceptance of irresolvable external and internal polemics that allows humanism to overcome fascism’s malice and postmodernism’s ethical carelessness. It is hard for a work of art, carefully made, not to take the artist from chaos into clarity, not to follow Sarastro’s shining light of coherence. Kentridge’s work is constructed with painstaking purpose, but he resists his Sarastros. Popper wrote, “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.”(21) In his refusal to promise us anything, Kentridge lifts us out of that hell.


01 William Kentridge, “Soho & Felix,” in William Kentridge: Five Themes, ed. Mark Rosenthal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 67.
02 William Kentridge, introduction to Ubu and the Truth Commission by Jane Taylor (Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 1998), xii.
03 William Kentridge, Thinking on One’s Feet: A Walking Tour of the Studio (Madrid: Ivorypress, 2013).
04 Ibid.
05 Unless otherwise cited, all quotations are from William Kentridge, interview by Andrew Solomon, February 5, 2015.
06 William Kentridge, “A Dream of Love Reciprocated: History and the Image” (lecture, Humboldt University, Berlin). Translated by Klaus R. Scherpe in “Lieb’ um Liebe”: Geschichte aus den Bildern von Schuberts “Winterreise,” Europa in anderen Kulturen: Mosse-Lectures an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, ed. Klaus R. Scherpe and Elisabeth Wagner (Berlin: Verlang Vorwerk 8, 2015), 105–25.
07 Kentridge, Thinking on One’s Feet.
08 William Kentridge, “In Praise of Shadows,” in Six Drawing Lessons (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 1-32.
09 Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1972).
10 William Kentridge, I am not me, the horse is not mine (Johannesburg: Goodman Gallery, 2008).
11 Kentridge, “A Dream of Love Reciprocated.”
12 Ibid.
13 William Kentridge, “Landscape in a State of Siege” Stet, vol. 5 (November 1988): 15–18.
14 Kentridge, “A Dream of Love Reciprocated.”
15 William Kentridge, “Meeting the World Halfway: A Johannesburg Biography” (lecture, The 2010 Kyoto Prize Commemorative Lectures: Arts & Philosophy, 2010).
16 Kentridge, Thinking on One’s Feet.
17 Kentridge, “Meeting the World Halfway.”
18 Kentridge, I am not me.
19 Kentridge, “A Dream of Love Reciprocated.”
20 Ibid.
21 William Kentridge, “In Praise of Shadows.”
22 As quoted in Jon Winokur, In Passing: Condolences and Complaints on Death, Dying, and Related Disappointments (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2005), 144.

Published in William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; Koenig Books, London; Marta and Cosentino, New York, 2015. Book prepared on the occasion of William Kentridge: Notes Towards a Model Opera, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, June 27–August 30, 2015.