Zur deutschen Fassung in der taz-Beilage vom 21. Mai 2015. [PDF, 5,9 MB]

William Kentridge: „Refuse the Hour“, 2012. In Zusammenarbeit mit Philip Miller, Dada Masilo, Catherine Meyburg, Peter Galison. Foto: John Hodgkiss
© Stephanie Berger

Renate Klett: Let’s begin by talking about the “Drawing Lessons”, the common thread connecting the exhibition and the festival. They were based on an invitation by Harvard University, as part of the renowned Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Then William Kentridge decided to create a stage version and developed a version for Hamburger Schauspielhaus together with dramaturg Rita Thiele. They were sensational shows and there was enormous applause. And William was fantastic! It’s hard work, being on stage alone for three hours – but he didn’t study with Jacques Lecoq for nothing. Looking back, I’d say that this was by far the theatre highlight of that season, nationwide. Such intelligence, humour, presence – marvellous.

Angela Breidbach: The “Drawing Lessons” have many different references to Kentridge’s work. The first five “Lessons” are rather like traditional lectures. They have titles like “In Praise of Shadows”, “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts”, “Vertical Thinking” or “Practical Epistemology”. The latter provides the concept for the two “cabinets of wonders” at Martin-Gropius-Bau. The sixth “Drawing Lesson”, entitled “Refuse the Hour”, was first presented in 2011 at the Johannesburg Market Theatre, using props, kinetic sculptures, music and instruments. Lectures, exhibition and performances form a circle: William presents himself onstage, he shows how he created the pictures, he creates the pictures, he puts the pictures into the exhibition, where they always show how they were created, with himself as protagonist.

RK: And then he smudges or erases them.

AB: Exactly, a smudged traced that loses itself and impedes recognition. In both “cabinets of wonders” in the Berlin exhibition, the pictures are in the process of creation, which brings them closer to the performers on stage; they have entrances and exits. The “Drawing Lesson” called “In Praise of Mistranslation” dealt with the blurring of information. Rilke’s poem “The Panther”… –

RK: …in Jardin des Plantes, Paris“ –

AB: …was this lecture’s subject, because it is difficult to translate into English. Every translation brings forth new meanings. The panther paces in circles. Kentridge compares himself to this image, in the sense that he finds his pictures while wandering around his studio. The picture emerges from a circling of the picture, knowledge can’t be pinpointed, smudging and mistranslation are among his best qualities. It breaks up into fragments and shreds of thought which re-emerge here and there, forming new chains of association. In this cross-over between performance and exhibition, it’s fun to rediscover individual motifs in different formats.

RK: This was already true of “Woyzeck on the Highveld”. In my mind, this South African version of “Woyzeck” is the best among the three theatre productions that Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company made. It is a typical Handspring-show, but by adding Kentridge’s moving images, it gains totally new dimensions. During the scene where Woyzeck shaves the Captain, there is a screen showing a series of Woyzeck’s attempts to lay the table correctly. Where does the fork go, or the knife? Panicked arrangements, again and again, in increasing desperation. There is no immediate connection with the actual scene, but it clearly shows the pressure this ill-treated creature is under, the fear, the excessive demands. Or Kentridge draws the dolls and the music that is playing in their heads: Classical for the Captain, drums for Woyzeck. This is only a brief moment, but it immediately clarifies the two worlds they come from. And whenever Woyzeck and Marie are onstage, you hear African music, which determines the class they belong to, quite en passant.

AB: In the work of the Handspring Puppet Company, the protagonists hold large costumed puppets in their hands. Even the singers of a Monteverdi opera carry their own dolls and perform with them, as a double figure. In the monumental production “More Sweetly Play the Dance”, the participants of a procession again carry large pictures in front of them – heads, doves, palm branches. In this current piece, the origins of this form of art between theatre and museum become apparent again: The performers bring their pictures to life and, at the same time, they themselves are the pictures.

William Kentridge: „More Sweetly Play the Dance“, 2015, 8-Kanal-Videoprojektion, Farbe, Ton, Megaphone, Videostandbild © Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery (New York, Paris, London); Goodman Gallery (Johannesburg, Cape Town) and Lia Rumma Gallery (Naples, Milan)

RK: That is one of the Handspring Puppet Company’s methods, hence the name “Handspring”. The same actors were involved in “Woyzeck” and the other productions. They are in fact actors and not puppeteers and so we can see how tiring it is to hold up the puppets – The Hardship of Life – because they are very heavy, solid wooden puppets.

AB: Double figures have been an important subject in Kentridge’s work, ever since his film “Stereoscope”. When two pictures show the same thing, there will be doubling, division and, ideally, integration. The double image in the stereoscope creates a new spatial dimension. If there is a breakage line between two perspectives of one thing or one person, the effect can be either creative or destructive. When both perspectives exclude each other, alienation occurs, also as a political dimension.

RK: Kentridge likes to play with films running backwards. A torn book, a smashed bottle putting itself back together again. Would you say that according to your definition, this is more destructive or more creative?

AB: These backwards films? They are magic.

RK: What does that mean?

AB: In one “Drawing Lesson”, he tells us that his eight-year-old son is allowed to paint in the studio, to spread everything out, open all the pots of paint, take out all the brushes and spread the paints on the walls, while Kentridge films him doing this. They watch the film backwards. The brushes go back to their tins, the paint goes back into its pot, walls and clothes become clean again – and the son says: “Cool, can we do that again?”

RK: “But first, we have to clean the studio!” (laughs) He’s done this many times before, for instance with soap bubbles. He smashes a bottle and soap bubbles come out. When the film runs backwards, the bottle puts itself together again.

AB: On film it is entropy in reverse. But life doesn’t work that way. Things are a burden and don’t clear themselves away. In other films that show processions, there are people carrying their entire households on their backs.

RK: In Cape Town, I once saw a woman in the street who had tied a huge chest of drawers onto her own back. Or in Kinshasa, families take turns to carry their war invalids who have no wheelchairs on their backs. Kentridge’s processions are no pure fiction, but an artistic elevation of reality.

AB: Carrying your belongings, your pictures, your family members on your back is the deepest form of existential uncertainty a person can feel and it is always present in Kentridge’s work: flight, migration, the foreign land. At the centre of the images he chooses, there is always the uncertainty of life, too.

RK: Uncertainty, a central figure of thought for the project „NO IT IS !” here in Berlin is doubtlessly very important for Kentridge, almost a philosophy of his. You can find its traces in his entire oeuvre. But it is also a key word for the African continent: In Africa, everything is uncertain. It’s now, right now – and no one knows what will happen tomorrow. That explains many things that politicians in the rest of the world don’t understand. There is always uncertainty – and I’m only saying this to explain that Kentridge should be understood not just as a European but also always as an African. Uncertainty is a key word for the entire continent – a continent he loves very much, as his work clearly shows. In “Faustus in Africa”, for instance, a journey through Africa, this love can be felt, a love that should not be taken for granted in a white South African. Incidentally, he still lives in Johannesburg, rather than in New York or Berlin like everyone else.

AB: Kentridge also uses the premise of uncertainty as a discourse against enlightenment and colonialism, a period when it seemed as if everything could be controlled. The same applies to his topic of time: From 1900 onwards, the clocks were managed from London and Paris – a homogenous net of time was thrown over the world, which means that individual countries lost their zenith, their own time and were subjected to an authoritarian time. This was answered by an uprising of African countries that wanted their time back – “Give us back our time”. Some images of this can be seen in the video installation “The Refusal of Time”.

RK: That is why time has a quite different significance in Africa than it does in our regions. It isn’t a fetish like it is here, it isn’t rigid, but fluid. Time means waiting, and if we wait long enough, something is bound to happen.

AB: The musical aesthetics of Philip Miller includes the African measure of time. In African music, Philip explained to me, there is not only polyphony, but also polyrhythm, which means that everyone keeps their own voice and their own rhythm. This synchronization of different time rhythms seems to be a distinguishing factor of African aesthetics. Incidentally, it is not all that far removed from Einstein’s theory of relativity, which features in “The Refusal of Time”.

RK: After I saw “Woyzeck on the Highveld” in 1992, William Kentridge invited me to his studio in Jozi and showed me a series of short animated films about the life of Felix Teitelbaum; small, surreally elevated episodes, painstakingly drawn by hand, frame by frame. I was fascinated, but I had no idea how to classify it within the framework of contemporary art that I knew.

William Kentridge: „Other Faces“, 2011, Film, Länge: 9’45’’, 35 mm, transferiert auf Video (Farbe, Ton) © Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery (New York, Paris, London); Goodman Gallery (Johannesburg, Cape Town) and Lia Rumma Gallery (Naples, Milan)

AB: Those are the “Drawings for Projection”, which will be screened on a loop in a room in Martin Gropius-Bau. They can be seen there in chronological order.

RK: Great! These are early works, which nevertheless already contain all the typical Kentridge-elements. I find it fascinating that this artist can explore his topics for decades, continually considering, varying, negating and associating them anew, without ever becoming repetitive or boring. That he never rests on his success, turning it into a racket. Illustrating Schubert’s “Die Winterreise”, for example, is a totally absurd project and one could think “Oh God, no!” But Kentridge manages to do it, because he doesn’t actually illustrate, but rather contradict the music – giving it new room and letting us hear it anew.

AB: In a lecture here in Berlin, he said about “Winterreise” that he was looking for music to unite his film pieces and material that wasn’t used in the museum films, but as film snippets in his theatre works. Schubert’s “Winterreise” seemed to him to be an appropriate choice. So the process was almost in reverse: the film material was there and the music was added as a ‘score’.

RK: That is why it had such an effect of disparity, which was the most interesting thing about it.

AB: The sparse landscapes of German Romanticism, which we know from Caspar David Friedrich’s “Sea of Ice”-paintings, is a much closer match to the South African landscape than those of English Romantics, showing green pastures and wide fields. There is a contrast with the deathwards landscape sketched in “Die Winterreise”, which is explicitly about a landscape of death. This inverted colonialism is astonishing – a South African artist appropriating European culture in his pictures. Today, Kentridge is a kind of father figure in the South African art scene and has contributed to its international renown.

RK: Yes, that is his position today. In the times of Apartheid, he felt the negative aspects of the cultural boycott. He was an important artist even in those days, except that nobody outside of South Africa was aware of it.

AB: When was the cultural boycott lifted?

RK: If I remember correctly, it was only lifted when Nelson Mandela became president. I never travelled to South Africa during Apartheid, even though as artistic director of Theater der Welt, I was often invited. Instead, I went to London to see the Market Theatre’s wonderful productions there.
After Mandela was released, I went to South Africa for the first time, to the national theatre festival in Grahamstown. I was told that I was the first and only European there. On the very last day of the festival, when I was already pretty saturated with impressions – we saw four to five performances a day – there was “Woyzeck on the Highveld” by my beloved Handspring Puppet Company, featuring this William Kentridge, whom I had never heard of. I wanted to see this performance at all costs, but it was played somewhere out in the sticks. Grahamstown is a small university town with no public transport, no taxis – at least that’s how it was in those days. I came out of a previous performance and had exactly 20 minutes to get to this far-away place. So I did something you should never do in Johannesburg: I approached a woman getting into her car and asked her if she was going there by chance. “Hop in”, she said and I was very grateful. The performance was breath-taking and of course I immediately invited it.
The production was a worldwide hit, but Theater der Welt in Munich in 1993 was the first festival in Europe to show it and I am still proud of this fact today. Ultimately, we owe this to the wonderful woman who gave me a lift. By the way, I had to obtain approval from the African National Congress’s offices in London and in Germany. It was a period of transition, marked by great infighting. Even during the cultural boycott, the London ANC-office approved the performances of the Market Theatre, which were extremely critical and political productions. They were an exception to the rule. The ANC in Germany initially refused, because they had no idea what it was all about. So we went back and forth, I was on the phone with them for hours, until they finally approved the play.

AB: I wasn’t familiar with Kentridge’s work until 2003 – when I saw a video installation at documenta 11, and throughout the entire documenta, I was saying “This is it!” I met him in 2004, at the award ceremony of the Kaiserring in Goslar. We had a number of conversations under the heading of ‘Stereoscopy’, which were later published. When I look at the films today, I am still fascinated by the images’ nomadic existence; in a kind of metamorphosis, one item slowly turns into another. I feel as if I weren’t watching a film, but rather as if they were my own dream images in a process of permanent shifting. It penetrates into a layer of the viewer’s unconscious thought which I find fascinating. And then, of course, there are all the experiments and gadgets, the way he pays homage to Méliès’ trick art. I like both sides, the melancholy and the comical, grotesque aspects of the work.

RK: Yes, it is this metamorphosis from one state of being to another, but also the fact that he continues to develop these individual states further. He creates a procession and uses it in a theatre performance, films it and runs it backwards. There are images that run through the entire work, like a Kentridge-signature: the little espresso machine, the large funnel, old wall clocks. Everyday items that demonise themselves. The espresso machine explodes, the funnel swallows people, the clocks’ hands move in both directions. The realistic drawings at the back of the stage form a contrast to the sometimes almost expressionistic acting props used by Handspring. In “Ubu and the Truth Commission”, Mother Ubu carries a huge handbag-weapon with three bouncing hyena heads. Or there’s a gigantic wooden crocodile, shredding government files.

William Kentridge:
„Ubu Tells the Truth“, 1997 © William Kentridge and Handspring Puppet Company

AB: Musical instruments and practicable tools, puppets and kinetic sculptures form transitions. “The Refusal of Time” shows an elephant, a large kinetic sculpture that does a kind of pneumatic thing, as if it were pumping time and images. The kinetic image recurs to the movement of bodies, as for example in the choreographies that Dada Masilo created for more recent projects. The studio is a place where one thing emerges from another, where images accumulate and can end up making noise.

RK: À propos: Kentridge has a new studio in the trendy artists’ quarter of Main. It is very beautiful and huge; he has all the space he needs to wander around in his panther circles. And he can hold workshops with large teams there, experiment with many people, with an open end.

AB: The studio is important to him. He describes it as a place of excess, where everything moves from the inside to the outside. This shows his investigation of the analytic, or rather the discourse of enlightenment – one of his sentences is “against the argument”; this also appears in the exhibition as lettering –

RK: … “NO IT IS !“

AB: Exactly. In English, an argument is also a dispute. Arguments lead to contention, with both partners steering the thought towards their own points: “This is my point, this is what I stand for, and I want it to win.” In the studio, this form of excess of images runs in the opposite direction. Everything moves from inside to outside: I start with a point, as Paul Klee described it, point-line-surface, towards the space. I start from the point, guided by the pen and it becomes more and more and then sound is added, then dance, then the brass band, it’s getting louder and louder and more and more. He is celebrating a wonderful excess of images.

RK: And this way of thinking is certainly the better way for art.

Die Ausstellung „NO IT IS ! William Kentridge“ ist vom 12. Mai bis 21. August 2016 im Martin-Gropius-Bau zu sehen.

Im Rahmen von Foreign Affairs 2016 sind Performances, Lectures und Installationen von William Kentridge im Haus der Berliner Festspiele und dem Martin-Gropius-Bau zu erleben.