William Kentridge and The Benefits of Doubt


Self-portrait, William Kentridge, 1988

by Daniel Bosch

He had started the series from inside Plato’s cave, so when William Kentridge launched his sixth and final Charles Eliot Norton Lecture with a retelling of the story of Perseus, he gave familiar things back to his audience—the myth itself, and art’s gesture of circling toward origin at closure. The return to ancient Greece, to foundational metaphors and myths, exemplified Kentridge’s insistence on reconfiguration and reworking, on the recognition of objects we have finished with, and yet cannot help taking up again. But this particular do-over also expressed Kentridge’s deeply-held resistance to Fate. Choosing a conclusion that was in part a starting over, Kentridge suggested an antipathy to his own trajectory, an aversion to his fated return to the studio and the work that earned him the podium in Sanders Theatre.

For Kentridge, the Perseus story is a crucial site of frustration, a fructifying crux in his yet-to-be written bildungsroman. He remembers hearing the myth read aloud by his father in a train compartment. (See locomotive and linked car after linked car—like copies of each other—chugging across the South African landscape, a foundational text of European civilization not quite baggage and not quite freight.) What about the myth exasperated young William? The urgent playing out of a gazillion contingencies in the lives of King Acrisius and his grandson, such that when Perseus launches his discus it lands, as it must, on his grandfather, who is disguised in sack-cloth and ashes and who has no idea where Perseus is at the moment he is killed by his grandson—after all. Such fate drives young William bonkers! In spite of human desire, thought, effort, and passion, the hero’s fate is—after all—sealed.

Kentridge’s lectures, called Six Drawing Lessons, demonstrated how his practices and his principles continue to draw on this resistance to fate. Is the Universe fated to move toward greater and greater disorder? Then, says Kentridge, I can get up every day and make espresso and push scraps of black paper (each was once a piece of a perfect rectangle) across a clean, white ground; I can record on film images of a woman throwing an over-sized mocked-up book against a wall—and then play the record in reverse, to fix an axis of symmetry and appreciate her as a palindrome; I can mark white paper with charcoal, walk away, and come back to erase that mark and make another; I can enumerate once again the major indigenous uprisings against South Africa’s colonial power, as if they had been slated for a permanent forgetting; I can lecture on one sub-topic while film projected on a screen behind me depicts my own boredom with that discourse, or stares at a stubbornly blank pair of pages; I can orate on the common physical gestures associated with oratory while I perform those gestures; I can compare the ramification of electricity in a bolt of lightning to the ramification of trees’ limbs and roots. I can get up every day and make espresso in my studio and under its influence I can put things in order, and undo them, and put them into a slightly different order. I can put on black pants and a white shirt and I can make my art and so doing I can introduce into entropy bits of order. I can make my art that fails, most of the time, as all art must, because that is my fate and because my fate includes how I must resist it.

It will be an art historian of the future who ponders whether or not such a profound resistance to fate is more or less interesting because it informs the work a young white South African who lived to see his country, which had been written on black in white, revolutionized, re-imagined, re-organized, re-started, its remarkable pieces revised, re-used, re-purposed. That art historian will have in Six Drawing Lessons a place to begin to seek an answer to the question, a place to return to when energies must be renewed. But Six Drawing Lessons won’t surrender answers willingly. They are more rebus than dissertation, their verbal and visual elements are ambiguous and poly-vocal. Fated to give six lectures, William Kentridge made six works of art, or one work of art in six movements.

Art historians like Benjamin Buchloh maintain that Kentridge takes up obsolete means of art production, and they rather grudgingly acknowledge that when his work is good its achievement comes at too high cost. Over 6 weeks in March and April Kentridge showed the form of the lecture itself to be obsolete. Yet over the course of his six trips to the podium, he showed us that the lecture’s fate is not so dire as he each week induced us—for seventy minutes at a stretch—to believe. Myths of slaying gorgons aside, there is only a very little heroism in smudging charcoal, in walking across a studio floor to snap the shutter twice; and returning to the paper mounted on the wall. But sometimes the man smudged with ashes is an animator, and sometimes the animator is a king.

When e.e. cummings gave the Norton Lectures sixty years ago, he called them “non-lectures,” but that did not mean that his presentations were continuous with his poetry—they originated from the prose world; they explicated, they argued, they expounded. Now William Kentridge has failed to lecture in a new way. I went to the first of the Six Drawing Lessons thinking, that in spite of a thousand disappointments, I more or less like lectures. Now I will never again sit through any such thing without recalling what happened six times in Sanders Theatre, when Kentridge assembled so many fascinating, uneven, contingent, obvious, powerful, and sometimes logically flimsy but still convincing moments in works that constantly open up new topics, constantly return to and re-work topics animated moments or centuries before. He showed us how his doubtful practices work; I know he is only a series of still pictures in a zoetrope, but when he spinned it Kentridge sprinted, rolled, disappeared, and reappeared, always with his theme thrust an arm’s length above his head in victory or stuffed folded into his back pocket. Kentridge refused to give the Norton Lectures as he has refused to accept fate: by cleaving to his limited but real strengths, by not running away from what has been decreed. Kentridge tossed Plato’s cave into the air, and it fell to earth as Perseus’ discus, and he was there to catch it.

William Kentridge is justly famed for his charcoal drawing, print-making, animation, film-making, theatrical direction, production design, and kinetic sculpture. Born in 1955, the son of a prominent South African civil-rights lawyer, Kentridge’s work in such media has followed the principal arcs of history in his native country. His command of his tools has enabled him to construct objects that respond intimately to particular moments in the struggle to end apartheid, yet at the same time to express universal ideals of justice, grief, and hope. Some years in the future, a retrospective view of Kentridge’s work will show him to hold a place with regard to South African visual art similar to that held by W.B. Yeats with regard to 19th and 20th century poetry and Ireland. Both artists’ works span two centuries and two eras; both artist’s works embrace human suffering, political turmoil, and great joy.

His Six Drawing Lessons were read from a notebook that was also a score anchored to a particular work of his making. According to its choreography he moved from the podium to other parts of the stage which represented different modes of thought; he gesticulated (while calling attention to and making fun of some of the communicative expectations created by his gestures); he referred to images projected on a large screen that both colluded with and contradicted him (many such images timed to arrive with particular motions he made); he had arguments with his critic-doppelganger—on film—over the qualities of his drawings and his verbal discourses; like a consummate juggler, Kentridge kept adding ball after ball. The rapt audience wondered: can he handle another? (Can we handle another?) And where will he draw it from? From Kentridge’s deep pockets he tossed philosophy, politics, physical comedy, social justice, physics and family reminiscences into orbit, without dropping a single element. Though there are a thousand moments I could single out to try to give you a sense of how the Six Drawing Lessons proceeded, let me give you a single example of the deliberately oblique but amazingly strong connectivity that characterized these works.

In the closing moments of lesson one, Kentridge spoke as we watched the projected image of a kinetic sculpture rotate on its vertical axis, from which sprouted a bouquet of dark matter, fragments of black paper or metal or plastic or charcoal. As these fragments moved in their orbits, fixed by armature wire about that axis, their silhouettes seemed, momentarily, to combine, to come unglued, and then to recombine in greater forms, each haunting, suggestive, but inarticulate. Quite quickly we understood that the rotating axis of the sculpture, though it stayed in one place, was headed somewhere, fated for some destiny. And voila! Precisely as Kentridge fell silent, the black elements in motion on the screen slowly passed their mark, then gently rotated backward into place, the place, so that we could see, finally, how his carefully disposed fragments came together to make a whole—in this case a drawing of a manual typewriter. (Kentridge had reminded us moments before that such machines, metonyms for the development of mass communication in the late 19th century and its explosion in the 20th, were built in the same factories where the Remington corporation had made the rifles used in U.S. Civil war.) The initially incomprehensible—the in-motion, the fragmentary, the disjointed—had come, in its time, to rest, at representation and thus recognition. It was a bravura gesture, an admonition to remember the distorting and defining powers of perspective, anamorphosis, and point of view.

That small sculpture’s storied movement from kinesis to stasis is a ready allegory for a score of human behaviors, not the least of which is the artistic process, which begins with the raw ore of individual experience and emotion and ends, under the auspices of form and technique, with concentrated power and energy, with object fuel others can burn—a work. (Kentridge’s career-long fidelity to charcoal participates in this same allegory.) Yet earlier Kentridge had proposed a fascinating and more tenuous parallel, the notion of a Universal Archive preserved—at the speed of light—by photons departing Earth. In his kinetic sculpture, a single axis is the rotating center of fragments at a fixed distance from that center. Likewise, Kentridge proposed, the rotating Earth might also be the center from which a diaspora of fragmentary images has departed—the countless photons associated with each and every event in the history (and prehistory) of the planet. Using literary events from the history of English poetry, just to narrow our scope, such an archive might be figured in the following diagram, where it is understood that the greater the distance from Earth, the further back in time is the origin of the photonic “trace” of the historical event.

Thus every event not completely enveloped by darkness (is there any event so thoroughly shadowed?) is in some sense preserved, and in some imaginary sense, remains observable to an eye (or “I”) that could put itself in the right place. (A place, in the case of the light present at the drawing of Beowulf, some 1200 light years from Earth, and still moving!) “Once launched,” says Kentridge, “an image cannot be called back.” From the perspective of the Sun, then, the Earth is painted in the impossibly tiny shadows of every event which has occurred on it—our time is bathed in Borgesian light. With the closure of his first lesson, Kentridge suggested that from some fantastical and ideal viewing distances, perhaps, events in history and in our own lives make a kind of sense as compelling and satisfying as that felt when the kinetic image of a typewriter clicked silently into place.

A typewriter is, however, a beginning place, a tool, hardly the end-point of an artistic process. For Kentridge, art is the richer when it is suggestive rather than dictatorial, when the image and the word are always already “awaiting (their) deformation,” when the object is actively completed by the viewer/listener, rather than delivered as a hermetically sealed—fated—whole. He writes with both light and shadow, and insists on the moment of eclipse as the moment that makes certain kinds of sight possible.

Any account of my vision of Jorge Luis Borges giving the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in English in Sanders Theatre in 1967 and 1968 must be issued along with a plea for its correction by someone who was a witness. I love the book more than almost any I own. Yet I know Borges’ Norton Lectures only via their transcriptions, published by Harvard University Press as This Craft of Verse in 2000, more than thirty years after he finished reciting the final line of his sonnet “Spinoza,” the poem that closed the last of his six performances.

The editor of This Craft of Verse, Călin-Andrei Mihăilescu, claims Borges was a charming lecturer. Speaking entirely from memory, fiercely concentrated, blind Borges “would look upward with a gentle and sly expression on his face, seeming to materially touch the world of the texts—their colors, fabric, music.” Dust jacket photos confirm this impression: Borges’ face is serenely contorted as if he were listening to/wrestling with some angel—Whitman? Stevenson?—who prompts him from a literary elsewhere. Interviews from the period indicate that at the time Borges’ richest visual field was nothing but a golden haze. Yet the extraordinary beauty of Borges’ Norton Lectures is magnified by the fact of the occlusion of his retinal, as opposed to literary, vision. I cannot understand how Borges could command language without passing his eyes over marks on a page.

I engage Borges’ lectures only through marks on pages which their maker proved unnecessary. I was not even there, so you must not trust my gappy account, my failure to convey how the image of his speaking haunts me, how the mystery of his supreme command of mind and language taunts me.

But Borges was a friend of mysteries. “When I write something, I try not to understand it,” he explained in “A Poet’s Creed,” his lecture of April 10, 1968, in which he expounded an anti-rational, anti-egoistic mode of artistic production:

When I write, I do not think of the reader (because the reader is an imaginary character) and I do not think of myself (perhaps I am an imaginary character also), but I think of what I am trying to convey and I do my best not to spoil it. (117)

The artistic question Borges raises in his Norton Lectures is, how might the artist manage to fail to impede the conveyance of mystery?

William Kentridge set out after such a failure in his Six Drawing Lessons. Yet Kentridge as almost an anti-Borges: he’s a performer who has clearly thought hard about his auditors, whom he counts on being anything but fictional. Both lectures have been punctuated by Kentridge’s glee at telling a good joke, his consciousness of our peak of interest in a ripping yarn, his absorption in the throwing of conceptual punches that correspond to punchlines. In Kentridge’s performances colliding words and images maximize effects he clearly means to induce in the audience. (All the professors in the Sanders Theatre audience have caught themselves thinking, as they have laughed or made a connection Kentridge has carefully crafted, “Oh, so this is how a lecture can feel!”—and the effects of these lessons will be pedagogical as well as artistic.) But Borges and Kentridge play for the same team, the careful anti-rationalists. In spite of his animated presence, Kentridge’s Six Drawing Lessons succeeded in failing to impede the conveyance of mystery.

“A Brief History of Colonial Revolts,” like the other lessons, involved the fiction that it is located in a notebook, images of which were projected on a large screen at the back of the stage. (The notebook is a metaphor for the studio-mind of the artist.) Yet if in other lessons the images of the notebook’s pages were busy with line drawings and the cuttings and pastings of collage as Kentridge walked and jogged us from the shadow-painted back wall of Plato’s Cave toward the Enlightenment, in this second lesson they were mainly presented as blanks, labeled emptinesses giving only dates and places (“Waterberg, 1904,” “Vienna, 1791,” “Berlin, 1938,” “Parcours d’Atelier,” “A Geography Lesson, 1963,” “A Natural History of Dutch Lace,” “Viva Linoleum! Viva!,” “Paris, 1904,” and “Johannesburg, 201112.” The difference in Kentridge’s use of the notebook is an index of his shift from metaphorical frame to real-world history. As Kentridge put it, drawing an inference from the outcome of the Waterberg revolt in South Africa in 1904, “In the context of Colonial Revolts, an initial success is always a calamity.” The particular historical gravity of the decimation of thousands of the colonized at the hands (and guns) of colonizers precluded a return to the playfulness of the initial lesson. And the initial success of Kentridge’s showmanship in the first lecture was balanced by the relative blankness of the notebook from which he drew the second lesson. The success of the light brigade in lesson one, its having drawn us in linear fashion from ancient Greece to the present, promulgated the aporias and the see-saw instability of lesson two.

“A Brief History of Colonial Revolts” evoked mystery by leaving blank, by leaving out. Its emphasis on the purity and whiteness of the white page was deliberate, for the messiness of the studio-mind often fails to leave its traces, as if they might impede rather than convey. Which is not to say that Kentridge didn’t fascinate us, or that he himself isn’t fascinated by the world. His brief history included things like:

• a meditation on the disposition of museological dioramas that feature life-sized three-dimensional depictions of Africans “as in life” on the savanna: do they belong in museums of Natural History, or in Museums of Cultural History? Is their display more sensible (and sensitive) when it takes place beside taxidermied animals, or beside swatches of 17th century Dutch lace? (Kentridge defended the rightness of the “in-between” space where such a diorama now resides: it may not be destroyed, nor is it displayed)

• the miniature theatre built by Kentridge and called a “Black Box” which featured the measurement of skulls (c.f. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man)

• a chorus of four William Kentridges on film, speaking at once, separately, in tandem, in canon, in fugue, contrapuntally, an a capella group made Reichian music from the ambient sounds of the studio

• a brief list of the five times Africa has been invented:

–in 137 ACE, by Ptolemy;

–in and around 700 CE, with the spread of Islam;

–in the 16th century as an outline on a map (the first vision of Africa as a continent);

–in the 19th century European “rush” to conquer and divide it;

–in the 1920s, when Pan-Africanism offered a new vision of Africa and the African that erased geographical boundaries and embraced an idealizing essentialism

• a personal “Geography Lesson,” datelined “Johannesburg, 1963,” which comprised the deliberate erasure from a World Map of every country on Earth that did not recognize the South African government as a legitimate at the time; the punchline of which was that though most of Asia was left blank, insular Japan survived—the Japanese having been declared “honorary White people” according to the strange certainties that characterized Apartheid

To list the entire set of historical and artistic events and objects that Kentridge touched upon in “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts” would be to misstate its principal message. The lesson was about how the gaps between things we know and experience limit and shape human understanding and can be powerful resources for artistic practice. In “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts” Kentridge collocated emptinesses and avoided the conventional logic of evidence, for the collection of evidence would put him, and us, in the position the Enlightenment-driven colonizers, the slave-traders, the skull-measurers, the proto-eugenicists. He sang a paean to the benefits of doubt, for no one who steadfastly acknowledges the gaps in his or her knowledge will write a science of race that subordinates some humans to others on the basis of skin color in spite of a million data points that contradict that subordination. The benefits of doubt do not solely accrue for science: the artist too, Kentridge emphasized, must operate from a rigorous uncertainty, a knowing that acknowledges how little one knows.

For Kentridge history accrues, falls dead, is born, washes up, piles up and may be artfully arranged, but the most powerful place that accretion might happen is in the artist’s studio, which is a metonym for the human mind. Kentridge’s studio space is an experimental, “black box” theatre. In it light is not the pure light of reason only, but dimmed by ethical responsibilities which cast are cast as shadows when one operates “in the presence of the other.” This studio is “thick with time.” In it is heard “the cacophony of excess and uncertainty” into which the artist invites the viewer. Kentridge’s studio-mind is not a purely rational mind, but a “cloud-chamber” (he is unafraid to borrow metaphors from “hard” science), a miniature theatre within which one circulates, even if one does not quite understand. It is “a Limbo, where a failure of understanding becomes the only correct understanding

In his short animated film, “Mine” (1991) Kentridge depicted a South African minerals magnate at repose—someone had made his bed, and he lies in it. As in a dream, the static magnate’s lap is transformed into a desktop, upon which a French press coffeemaker appears. When the heavy-handed CEO depresses the coffeemaker’s plunger, he unwittingly initiates a journey to the center of the earth: the plunger drills a deep shaft into the mine of the title, into the vast shadowed realm which underlies our doing, our thinking, our aspiring. Each stratum passed by the plunger is crowded with artifacts natural and unnatural, bodies and things once covered, now discovered—for the moment—Kentridge proceeds by incremental mark-making and dutiful erasure. As it metaphorizes artifacts as ore to be collected and refined, “Mine” asks “How shall we explore and exploit history?” Kentridge’s answer is that we must depict it so we can see it, but then we must immediately alter it.

From MINE, William Kentridge, 1991

In “Vertical Thinking: A Johannesburg Auto-biography,” the third of his Six Drawing Lessons, “Mine” is not only the place where a resource (a consequence of natural history having taken its course) is exploited by commerce (a conditioned response to social conditions), but first-person possessive pronoun. Yes, Kentridge’s short film tells us about the Universe, about Earth, about Africa, about South Africa, about the Transvaal, about Johannesburg, but as we draw closer to ground zero, to Kentridge’s grade school, and to the eight or nine year-old Kentridge in a particular desk in that school, we reach the pinch of the funnel, a person-point of resistance named “William,” for whom the images that make up the film are “mine.”

It exerts a lot of pressure, such a vertical consciousness, the idea that ultimately the Universe rides atop your own personal barometric column. Such pressure might be measured in units called “atmospheres.” Or it might be figured by masses that crush dark carbon into translucent diamonds. Or its effects over time might be expressed by more compactly by a singularity, an extraordinary cataclysm, such as the impact, two billion years ago, of a tremendous meteor just 100 kilometers from what is now Johannesburg, which was in part responsible for the disposition of minerals in the area and thus, eventually, for the gold rush that led to the founding of Johannesburg in 1886. (The Vredefort impact site is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.) It might be said, using a pop psychological shorthand, that only a child who is conscious of his place in such a vertical column could have produced Kentridge’s art—that the incidents and accidents on the surface of the earth could not provide a sufficient account.

Kentridge acknowledged such vertical pressure in his suggestion that in certain acts of creation one might, over time, construct a vertical counter-funnel, an ever-widening inverted tree of family that would ramify in the metaphorical soil below one’s feet. (Here the equivocation of artistic creativity with procreation is mine, not Kentridge’s.) Cosmological above, and genealogical below: Kentridge’s consciousness of how he has been fixed in place is matched by a consciousness of how his descendants might disperse his genotype, diluted by half again and again, at each generative nexus. Above him, an infinitely expanding reference point, born in the big bang and withdrawing at the speed of light; below him a pyramid which takes literal generations to build and which grows, oddly enough, from its base down, while at every level it maintains vestiges of the artist at its apex. If it is an arrogance to see one’s self at the crux of such an hour glass, the vision isn’t entirely self-aggrandizing: each of us who has offspring might eventually be seen to reside at the top of a pyramid written in Gs and As and Ts and Cs and made light by the empty spaces in its helices. And it might be said—to our shame and to our glorification—that in each piece of work one leaves behind one leaves at least a trace of one’s self.

In neither of Kentridge’s vertical funnels is there room for necessity, or fate: he could have been born in Pretoria, or Peoria. His as-yet unborn grand-daughter may become President of South Africa, head of Apple Computers, or a poet who writes dispatches for an online arts journal. Kentridge acknowledged such contingency again and again, most poignantly when he proposed that the artist-making-the-image and the artist-looking-at-the-image ought to be joined in a trinity with the artist-who-drinks-tea-but-who-for-some-utterly-contingent-reason-feels-compelled-to-bring-a-French-press-coffeemaker-into-the-studio—the one who prompted the artist-making-the-image to discover that a boor might bore as deeply as Kentridge wills him to. Kentridge’s auto-biography is just as contingent: “What if I had been slightly better at making art in the manner of Jules Olitski?,” Kentridge mused. “What if I had been only slightly less bad a student in acting school?” The success of the artist-who-makes-images it seems, is predicated upon his failures.

Kentridge the film-maker finds the limits of contingency in frames where tiny acts of making take place. Sometimes the frame is as narrowly-defined as the short cyclical trip he makes from the paper to which he presses his charcoal and eraser to the camera a few feet away and back to the paper again. Sometimes the frame’s audible form is the sound of a smudge or two followed by the clack of shoes on cement flooring followed by clicks of the shutter; a coda of clacks sounds his return to mark-making. In this narrow compass, under an infinite immensity and above a gradual diminishment of self, Kentridge walks back and forth, solving no big problem at once, making works that address world-historical issues a thumb-rub at a time.

Kentridge’s artistic confinement, his practice of walking back and forth between the camera and the image on the wall which is always just about to be once again in-progress, repeats the fundamental motion of agriculture. At the point where the first large scale cultures became viable, humans plowed, sowed, weeded and reaped and as we did we passed over the same terrain and the horizontality of our passage induced a vertical imagination that found its expression in lines of verse, the root of which means “to turn” as one turns a plow. The decisions Kentridge makes in his minute to-ings and fro-ings are akin to the decisions a poet makes as she works her measure over and over again.

Late in “Vertical Thinking” Kentridge turned his hour-glass image on its side, as one might do when one wishes to stop the marking of time’s passage. With his funnels horizontally rather than vertically-oriented, he imagined their point of contact not as a person but as the pin-hole aperture of a camera. On the diurnal, outside of the box, the Universe pelts the hole with a constant stream of photons. (Here we are outside Plato’s cave, in the blinding glare of reality, thank you very much, Enlightenment rationality.) Inside the camera (as in the cinema, as inside Plato’s cave) a funnel of light is projected from the pinhole toward wall where the images it bears appear and our subjectivity is our only tool.

English “epistemology” comes from Greek epistasthai, “know, to know how to do,” so the title of the fourth Drawing Lesson—“Practical Epistemology”—is slightly redundant. But hold the blue pencil. Redundancy and repetition—“that bad backwards walking”—do not equal waste in Kentridge’s studio, where the artist’s effort is to try “to find from the action and the repetition what the rules of the game are.” Under such a rubric fall any number of Kentridge’s artistic practices, from making nearly endless series of small and therefore similar adjustments to a charcoal drawing, changes that add up to an illusion of animation, to stillness transformed; to minutely arranging and re-arranging bits of torn black construction paper against a white background (and photographing each arrangement to fix it as a “moment” and not merely something spatial); to marching onto and over a chair in Muybridgean style, then splicing copies of the film that recorded this spectacle into a sequence so long it must be read as metaphor; to pacing the studio container (“830 laps of the studio”), book in hand, chanting the words to a beloved poem. A studio so busy with repetition and redundancy, argued Kentridge, is a “space for the medium to lead,” a space wherein the artist may follow and play with his materials, even into whimsy, even into stupidity. But the studio space is not purely aleatory—the operations inside its containers tend to be unsystematic (nothing so limited as the values on a die, for example) and do not have the sweeping quality of randomness. The play Kentridge described is closer, I think, to the play that Johan Huizinga postulated as a ground of human culture. The discovery of its rules brings more joy more than fear; we might figure joy as the adult, and fear as the child in tow, tightly clasping joy’s hand.

For Kentridge the artist is always at least two artists: one who makes and a second who knows how to look at what he has made. But this pair of co-parents makes possible a third artist—he who having made, and having looked, understands how to revise, finalize, sharpen, perfect. Yet in Kentridge’s studio there resides a fourth incarnation of the artist: he who can exploit the other three artists’ efforts to discover new possibilities to be explored in the next making.

One of the fourth Kentridge’s favorite tricks is to turn a thing the other way round or inside out. The simplicity of reversal notwithstanding, it is a sophisticated tool in his arsenal because when the fourth artist conscientiously employs reversal the made thing is renewed in its physicality. Studio artists who say phrases backwards, who walk backwards, who closely observe the filmic traces of actions in reverse, they all re-physicalize the past. Since the object of their attention has already been accomplished in its positive dimension, studio artists can count on it to repeat the physical strengths which reside in the original and to engage an audience’s delight in skillful undoing—delight, especially, in the skillful undoing of time.

Kentridge’s Six Drawing Lessons used both stage and screen to demonstrate how this works. Early on he strode from stage left toward stage right speaking a simple line of English, and then put himself on “rewind,” reversing (repeating) his motions backward while speaking those same words in Hsilgne. Later he spoke as a short film describing the making of a kind of reverse drawing was projected behind him. Kentridge had set a cylindrical mirror near the center of a large white sheet of paper. Accompanied by the words, but independent of their narration, images of his hands and tools made and erased “negative” marks (repeatedly) on the paper until a “positive” image appeared in the reflective surface of the cylinder. Without the reversal in the mirror, the marks on the paper are an illegible scrawl; without the studio practices of studied negation and reversal, forward and positive action is less-well understood. Kentridge spoke of the value of using a mirror to re-learn what he already knew how to do; the clear implication was that we are daily surrounded by mirror-images that we do not see for themselves but that hold the potential to alter our relationships to our tools and to our visions.

Two images of the studio where the four Kentridges come to “know how to do” persist for me. One is an agonistic self-portrait: the artist violently scratching and scraping and gouging and abrading his mirror-image in a polished copper plate in a frenzy that belies his showman’s flair. (Be wary if Kentridge asks you to come upstairs and see his etchings! But laugh with him as he recites a few of the tools and moments in the etching process as proof of its inherent erotics: the bed, the blanket, the sheet, the open bite, the spit bite, the sopping of excess liquids.) The image sticks with me because it shows how ardently any one among the different Kentridges might at any point resist the images of Kentridge that are produced by his own practices.

The second image of the studio is contained in the short film “A Voyage to the Moon” which Kentridge produced in homage to the 1902 short film of the same name by motion picture pioneer Georges Mèliés. In Mèliés’ original, an artillery shell full of contentious wizard-scientists is fired at the moon and strikes it in an eye pretty close to where the Mare Imbrium, or Sea of Showers, awaits meteors. Recapitulating a common colonial narrative, the shell’s payload disembarks and begins to explore the moon, only to discover complex and resistant life—sublunary mushrooms and humanoid creatures. The wise moon-men seem to know they must be willing to die to defend their fungi, and the wizard-scientists are more than willing to dematerialize them into puffs of dust. Outnumbered, and panicked, the terrestrials regain their shell only to fall back to Earth—how did Chuck Yeager put it—“like Spam in a can.”

In Kentridge’s version, Mèliés’ unprecedented voyage is inverted, distorted, eerily present. A lone artist mills about his small studio. Mills. Makes. Unmakes. Mills some more. For the 830th time, perhaps, an espresso pot is launched from the studio into outer space, and at blast-off the studio is re-launched as the interior of an espresso pot which is heatedly progressing toward communion with a heavenly body. When Kentridge-the-artist-astronaut gazes through the time-thick lens of an espresso cup as if into space, he finds sweet contours he himself has drawn—a lovely female form, and a nice twist on a common colonial narrative. In the next frames, we see the artist greedily zooming in to see more of her—he’s added two more espresso cups, and he twists the handle of one like the focus band on a sophisticated camera lens. Kentridge’s “Voyage to the Moon” never quite gets there, and so movingly portrays long-distance longing; the arrival of the imaginary lover in the studio as a “real” naked female reconfigures the Kentridge’s ascent as a Pygmalion-like falling in love. What if she wants sugar in her coffee? Is that a contingency beyond the artist’s control? Some of the most beautiful drawings in this contemporary “Voyage to the Moon” are attractive because they are not precisely made by Kentridge. He depicts the spill of the milky way by inverting positive images of ants eating sugar poured in sweet contours on a white ground. When Kentridge shows the ants’ motion in negative, white ant film “stars” perform for him in a heaven of sucrose, follow their appetites against a blackness too dark to be matter, the purely empty space of the vacuum. The viewer both knows and doesn’t know what he is seeing. The wily ants’ attempt to colonize his studio has been accommodated by all four Kentridges at play. And the artist has arrived back home, where he is fated to begin again, and again, all over again.

Piece published as an abridged version of a series of dispatches, originally published at The Arts Fuse


1. William Kentridge’s six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures were completed in April 2012. They can be viewed here.

2. The Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry was endowed in 1925 by C.C. Stillman (Harvard 1898). Incumbents are in residence through their tenure in the Chair, and deliver at least six lectures. The term “poetry” is interpreted in the broadest sense, to include all poetic expression in language, music, or fine arts.Previous holders of the Norton Chair include Gilbert Murray (1926-27), T.S. Eliot (1932-33), Igor Stravinsky (1939-1940), Charles Eames ((1970-1971), Leonard Bernstein (1972-1973), Frank Stella (1982-84), John Cage (1988-89), Nadine Gordimer (1994-1995), and Orhan Pamuk (2009-2010).

About the Author:

Daniel Bosch is a Boston-based poet and the winner of the Boston Review’s first annual poetry contest. Daniel is also a poetry critic for The Arts Fuse.