Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #160: “Artist William Kentridge on staying open to the ‘less good’ ideas.”
[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks , a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.
Susan Oxtoby: Hello, good afternoon and welcome to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. My name is Susan Oxtoby. I’m the director of film and senior film curator here at BAMPFA. Welcome to, “To What End? A visual lecture by William Kentridge,” co-presented by Cal Performances, the Townsend Center for the Humanities and BAMPFA. I really want to thank our campus partners for all of their work on this project and on the residency.
This afternoon, this lecture kicks off William Kentridge’s residency here at UC Berkeley, which will continue in full force in the spring when there will be a series of events in March, showcasing Kentridge’s work for stage, performance art, installation work and film. Some of those programming plans will happen here at BAMPFA and will be announced in our spring season, so keep your eyes open for that. It’s now my distinct pleasure to welcome Jeremy Geffen, executive and artistic director of Cal Performances, to elaborate on the residency project and to introduce William Kentridge, Jeremy.
Jeremy Geffen: Most of us spend our lives trying to do one thing well. In doing so, we grow to understand the particular challenges of perfecting that pursuit. So it is all the more impressive that William Kentridge whose works combined drawing, writing, film, performance, music, theater and collaborative processes should bring joy, solace, intellectual reflection and entertainment to so many, and in so doing should find the highest expression in each, often all at once.
His works are grounded in politics, science, literature, and history, yet always maintain a space for contradiction and uncertainty. They are as tied to the zeitgeist as they are to lesser explored corners of history. Their at once dazzling and deceptively simple visual landscapes and explorations of the both serious and absurd draw attention to our shared human experience. To have an artist of William Kentridge’s accomplishment, versatility, notoriety, and social conscience as UC Berkeley’s first campus-wide artist in residence seems a perfect match for the mission, values, and inquiry of this campus.
Over the course of this visit and his longer residency in March, there will be a presentation of his performance artwork, “A Guided Tour of the Exhibition: For Soprano with Handbag,” a retrospective of his film and filmed opera work here at BAMPFA in the months of March and April. And Kentridge will also give talks, participate in discussions, and give his own theatrical performance of Ursonate , Kurt Schwitters’ evening length work and the first Dadaist poem.
But the centerpiece of this residency is the U.S. premier of Sibyl , his work of music, theater, dance, and visual art that will take place in Zellerbach Hall at Cal Performances March 17 through 19. And will be the basis for a gala honoring him on March 17. Cal Performances has had the honor of organizing this residency, and we are so grateful to our campus partners and here at BAMPFA and at the Townsend and Center for the Humanities, well, at BAMPFA here in this beautiful Osher Theater.
I’d also like to thank some sponsors who made this residency possible, some of whom are with us here today. Pam and Richard Kramlich, Sakurako and William Fisher, Brenda Potter, Helen Berggruen, and Hillary Rand. And I would like to also recognize the patron sponsors of the performances of Sibyl , the Bernard Osher Foundation, Lance and Dalia Nagel. And now without further delay, I would like to welcome William Kentridge to this stage.
William Kentridge: Thank you very much. There’s a story that my father told me when I was young about a merchant from Baghdad who sent his servant into the marketplace. The servant returned from the market empty-handed and explained to the merchant that while he was at the market, he had seen in the distance the figure of death, the figure of death looked at him from under his hood and with his finger, he beckoned to the servant to come to him. The servant, terrified, had run home to the merchant, and the merchant understanding the terror of his servant told the servant to head off at once to Samara and the servant set off.
Later that morning, the merchant himself went to the market and there again, he saw the figure of death. And he approached death and he said to him, “Why did you give my servant such a fright?” And death said to him, “You know, I was very surprised myself to see him here this morning because I have an appointment with him this afternoon in Samara.” So that story sent chills down my spine as a child and it still does. Today, we are going to take one case study. We are going to look at the chamber opera, which we’ll be performing here in March next year, Waiting for the Sibyl.
I want to show how the different ideas in it come together, not just as a dissection of the piece itself, but as a broader question of how ideas come into being or the unpredictable way that things happen when those from dream theory, when Freud’s writing about dreams, he says, “All these images appear at different points or even at the same time in one’s head, and then as you are waking, you tell yourself the dream you have had.” And that is what he calls the secondary revision. It’s putting these different fragments which may have occurred in whatever order into a possible coherent story. And this is the dream that’s reported that the analyst and the patient would then work on.
So this is a kind of secondary revision of how the piece came together, but in the hope that we can also find a kind of tertiary revision in it. In other words, beyond the story of how the pieces came together, what are the underlying fragments that prompted different ideas to come out? But we’re going to stick primarily to the narrative of the piece.
Waiting for the Sibyl, it’s a one act opera. It’s a chamber opera that was made for Rome opera, the opera house in Rome. In 1968, Rome opera had premiered a piece called “Work in Progress,” which was made by Alexander Calder, the American artist. It consisted of Calder’s mobile suspended above the stage, mobiles on stabiles had come out of trap doors on the stage, a group of stage hands riding bicycles and figure eight around the stage. It had recorded music by three contemporary Italian composers, Niccolò Castiglioni, Aldo Clementi and Bruno Maderna. I just have to wake my computer up, and this is to give you a slight taste of what the Calder looked like.
[Video of stage performance. 8:00 to 9:00 during the video of the lecture.]
The first thing to say, I mean, it’s a very beautiful piece. It runs 19 minutes long. There’s no narrative, it’s a series of very beautiful images. But it’s, I think, interesting that it was made in 1968, which was obviously now here in Berkeley, a year of turmoil, but it was also the kind of the end of the ’60s, which in a way had a sense of an innocence. An innocence that questions were going to be solved and fixed. If you could get out of Vietnam, then a new world was kind of possible. It was still John Lennon with his love-ins, give peace a chance, a kind of innocence and optimism that seems impossible these 50 years later.
So the Calder was the first starting point. And obviously with Calder you have the idea of mobiles and the idea of mobiles is the idea of things circling and turning. And this put me in mind of a work I’d done some 12 years ago. It was a piece that was done for the Fenice Opera House in Venice, and they had a series of projects in which they invited artists not to make operas, but to make projections onto the fire curtain of the Opera House while the orchestra was tuning. So you do your work while the audience was coming in, and then when the audience and the orchestra was ready, your work would stop and the proper opera would begin. But this orchestral, this project going back from the quarter to this earlier one of doing something on the fire curtain, put me into an idea of, again, things that are chaotic but have a moment of coherence.
This is a transposition of the idea of an orchestra tuning. You have the chaos of each instrument playing for itself, and then the oboe gives the A, and then all the instruments take up that A, and then they start playing their own fragments. So you have a chaos and then a moment of coherence and then further chaos.
So that gave me an idea of thinking of making a series of sculptures, which are about chaos. They’re about images that don’t add up, but as the sculpture evolves, like a mobile, there’s one instant when all the different elements line up and you have a possible coherence and the piece shifts. And these are some of the sculptures that were made for the piece.
[Video of moving sculptures with music. 11:30 to 12:50 during the video of the lecture]
So that was the turning objects, which have a provisional coherence. And the sculptures are, once you see them, there is a moment where things line up. And once you’ve seen that it’s kind of fine that you are actually looking at the chaos. There’s a sense of even though you can’t see the coherence, you know somewhere there is that. That was the first starting point.
The second starting point was in fact a song cycle, a series of songs made with the composer of Philip Miller, which had its first performance also in Italy, not in Venice, not in Rome, but in Florence at the Bargello. So it was a series of pieces of music, of songs that had an accompanying film. One of the songs that we put together was in fact called “Waiting for the Sibyl.” And here’s a fragment of the “Waiting for the Sibyl” song.
[Video of a musical performance. 13:44 to 15:00 of the video of the lecture.]
That was one of the songs. To take the Freudian analogy even one stage further, a lot of the work that’s done in different projects gets recycled and reused in different projects. It’s a kind of repetition, a repetition of the symptom that keeps going on and on in the hope that eventually from this repetition, something will jump out and become something slightly different. So this film, or this thinking, this way of thinking about the film of images, not just sculptures that have a coherence and then fall apart became another element of relating to the idea of the Calder. What this film did or the memory of the song did, it brought the idea of the character of the Sibyl or the theme of the Sibyl into the turning sculptures and the Calder.
Now in cockney rhyming slang such as apples and pears, apples and pears rhyme with stairs. So in cockney rhyming slang, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, I’m going up the stairs.” You might say, “I’m going up the apples and pears.” But in fact, what happens is that you lose the second term, you lose the rhyme. So instead of saying, “I’m going up the apples and pears,” you just say, “Oh, I’m going up the apples.” And everybody has to know the pears that go with the apples. Or you say the word for feet, the rhyming slang for feet is plates of meat, and you don’t say, “Oh, my plates of meat are killing me.” You would rather just say, “Oh, my plates are killing me,” and you’ve got to know that that’s what’s missing to do it.
And in a way, the Calder then became our cockney rhyming slang, which was removed. The actual rhyme was taken out, and so it’s no longer performed with the Calder. It’s a kind of side story of how that happened.
When Calder made the piece in 1968, he did a sketch and drawing, but the steel pieces were manufactured and made by the workshop of Rome Opera House. And they sit in the storeroom together with all the sets of all their other operas under the stage or in a warehouse in Rome.
And when they reperformed it as they did now, they took them out, they repainted them a bit, they fixed up these old steel pieces. And when we wanted to do it, we obviously assumed we could take the pieces of Calder with us on tour. But then we run into the conundrum because for the Opera house, these are pieces of scenery, but for the Belle Arti that controls fine arts in Rome, these are Calder fine art pieces. So suddenly they’re worth many millions of euros and they have to be handled with white gloves, and you have to have an air conditioned crate in a special airplane to fly them. And the insurance became … everything made it completely impossible to use those pieces in it.
And we said, and Rome said also, but it’s fine, we’ll just make another copy of them. That’s fine. There won’t be Calder originals then, they’re just a copy. But then we ran into the trouble with the Calder Foundation and they said, “Oh, absolutely not.” They had copyright over the work and we could not under any circumstances make a copy of them. So they came off like the meat in plates of meat. They kind of disappeared from it. But the original rhyme was an important thing for us in our head.
So Waiting for the Sibyl in the end is about fate. It was made two years before our pandemic, but it’s not unrelated. It’s a question of what we can know and what we can’t know of what is coming towards us. It became during the pandemic particularly clear to everyone, that sense of vulnerability that everyone had before that there was a sense in the Western world in wealthy countries that everyone had the right to a comfortable old age. And COVID suddenly showed us that that was a false assumption, to assume that. We may have that, but that was not a given. But there are different stories of fate. There’s a story of the fate of the merchant of Baghdad, but there’s a similar one. And again, a story that my father told me, of the story of Perseus.
So this was a story that my father also told me. The story of Perseus, and going back to childhood stories is it’s not just a nostalgia. There may be an element of that, but it’s about trying to connect back to moments when emotions were so clear or senses of the world. So one thinks of the sense of injustice you feel as a young child, it’s never as burning as that. And it’s to try to get back to that clarity of judging the world. We become jaded. The first time we see a horrific piece of documentary footage, we are shocked. The more and more we see it, the more we can glide over it. So the stories from childhood are sometimes a way of trying to get back to what were the fundamentals that shaped how one sees the world.
So the story of Perseus. So King Acrisius of Argos to paraphrase the story, asked the oracle how long he would live, and the Oracle doesn’t give him an age, but tells Acrisius that he’s going to be killed by his own grandson. So King Acrisius has his daughter, Danaë, locked in a room with no window or door so that she can’t ever have a child, a grandchild. But Zeus, the King of the Gods sees her through a crack in the wall, and he enters the room as a shower of gold and he impregnates her. And I don’t remember how my father told that part of it to me. But anyway, Danaë gets pregnant, she has Perseus. Acrisius throws Danaë and Perseus into the waves hoping they’ll be drowned. But of course, as in all these stories, a fisherman saves them and he grows up on a different island of Seriphos and becomes the hero.
And in due course, sets off to kill the Gorgan, which is the story one mainly knows, Perseus slaying the Gorgan using his shield as a mirror to not look at the eyes of the Gorgan, being given winged shoes. And anyway, he has killed the Gorgan. He and he decides he will go back to Argos to tell King Acrisius, his grandfather, that in fact everything is fine. He has no need to kill him. The oracle is wrong, and he sets off. But King of Acrisius hears that Perseus is on his way and he knows that Perseus is on his way to kill him. And so he flees and he goes disguised as a beggar in ashes and sack cloth. And Perseus, before he arrives in Argos with Acrisius, he decides he’ll stop off at Larissa where there’s an athletics competition. And he takes part in the discus competition, and he takes the discus and he launches it up and it flies.
He’s a hero. So it flies past the markers of his rivals past the edge of the field up into the stands. And there on the back row it strikes and kills an old man, a beggar in ashes and sack cloth. And I thought, why did the grandfather have to go and sit in that damn seat? If he’d set one seat to the left or right, this could have been avoided. Why did Perseus have to be such a show-off? How could the discus know where it had had to go?
So in a way, it’s similar to the story of the merchant of Baghdad, but it’s about never knowing if you’re making the right decision or the wrong decision. If the chair is sitting in is the right chair or the wrong chair. And we all have that sensation. Whenever there’s a report of an airline disaster, there’s always the story of the person who was about to get on the plane but were held up in traffic and so missed the plane. There’s much less often the story about the person who arrived at the airport early and suddenly there was a free seat on the plane and they took that seat. But that sense of which was the right moment is a common sensation.
Now, there’s another story of fate, and this was the story of the Sibyl, specifically the Sibyl of Cumae, which is just outside Naples. So it became a very Italian project between Naples, Florence, Venice and Rome. But the story of the Sibyl at Cumae was that she could predict the future and answer all your questions, and you would go to her cave where she lived, and you would write your question on an oak leaf, “How long will I live? Will I survive COVID? What’s going to happen to me?” And you’d leave your question and she’d take the question and she would write the answer on another oak leaf.
And you would go to collect your oak leaf, but as you approach the mouth of the cave, there would always be a wind blowing, and so the pile of leaves would swirl around and you never knew if the oak leaf you were getting was your leaf, your fate, or somebody else’s fate. So this became the story of the Sibyl, and the pages turning became another element that I held in my head thinking about the project.
So the process of making the work, these are ideas that preceded the beginning of the real work on it. The work itself really starts with a workshop in my studio in Johannesburg, when we would gather, in this case maybe 30 people — musicians, dancers, actors, video editors, cameramen — to try to say from these different ideas what can be gleaned, what can be generated in this space? So it’s maybe a seven-day workshop or a 10-day workshop in the studio downtown.
I’m sure at the beginning I would’ve shown them the Calder from YouTube, I’d have told them the story of the Sibyl, we’d have looked at the film of all the pieces that I’ve shown you. But after that, there’s a big space for improvisation and invention, for thinking, “What is the sound we are going to have?” The invitation from Rome is to work with recorded sound and essentially with their stage hands. But I think, “What is the movement? Do we make one huge tree like the tree of the Sibyl, and that turns around on the stage with a huge piece of stage machinery? Do we have one singer and stage hands carrying objects around her?”
But the process is one of saying, “Well, all of these are maybe possible, but let’s work much more immediately and directly, not with something we first have to engineer and then look at let’s work with pieces of cardboard, with things immediately at hand.” What is the excitement that is generated in the moment of looking at an improvisation? We say, “Let’s follow that lead and see how far that will take us.”
We know that when you look at a painting or at an object, there are two things happening in the looking at it. You look at a picture of a tree. On the one hand, you have a sense of the world coming towards you, of the image of the tree, but also onto this image of the tree you are projecting onto it all the thousands of associations that rise unbidden, without you trying to get them there of trees, of other trees, of other images of trees, of what you’ve read about trees, of metaphors of family trees, all those different things come and meet the drawing or the image halfway. The image is a kind of membrane between the outside world and our inner life. And it’s the same whether it’s in fact just something we see with our retina or when it’s externalized into being a projection or a physical drawing, that sense of meeting it halfway.
So with the Calder, you have the images and the associations of things turning, but one also has the image of Calder making one of his mobiles for the Spanish pavilion where Picasso had Guernica being shown. We think of our costumes. Are our costumes going to look like a mobile or they going to go back into being Oskar Schlemmer costumes, which have a similarity to the abstract and colorfulness, to the abstraction and colorfulness to the Calder staybiles and mobiles. So what we do in that studio space is we construct an openness for recognition. In others words, we don’t have to know what we’re doing. We don’t have to have a root march, root plan. We don’t have to have a clear set of instructions or meanings. We say we have a body of possible languages we can work with and we open to what can emerge.
So our first idea was to have objects, not people turning. Objects moving around, people, very similar to the Calder. And I described that to the Rome opera and I said, “Oh, well it’s very simple. We’ll have 1 singer and 12 stage hands, and it would be very similar.” But in fact, within three days of working with singers in the workshop, to tell the truth, within about an hour or maybe in the first three minutes, I knew that rarely we needed live singers on stage and that a recording was going to be a really sad equivalent to what was happening in the rehearsal in the improvisations in the studio.
And a lot of the time, the work in theater is saying, how can we try to find a way of bringing you the excitement that all the participants feel in those first improvisations and rehearsals onto the stage? So it’s a question of watching a moment emerge and then trying to understand the grammar that made that special and then trying to learn the grammar so you can use it to remake that or other things on stage.
So at this point, I invited [inaudible] a choral composer and singer in Johannesburg to join me, and Kyle Shepherd, a wonderful jazz pianist to come to the workshop and let’s see what would happen.
The Calder piece itself is 19 minutes long. Its form is of a drop curtain coming down in front and scenes changing behind it, so you have more mobiles, then the curtain goes up, and then you see people on bicycles. The curtain comes down, it goes up. You see a different set of mobiles coming from the ceiling.
So he said we would use that form in Rome to show that connection of a drop curtain and of scenes changing. So we knew we would have fragments. It wouldn’t be one long piece, it would have different fragments that we came into the middle of and then we could work out what were those different fragments going to be.
And we were making it alongside The Centre for the Less Good Idea. Many of the participants came from it. And just to digress for a moment, The Centre for the Less Good Idea is an art center in Johannesburg that I co-founded about six years ago. It’s named The Centre For the Less Good Idea comes from Tswana proverb, which is if the good doctor can’t cure you find the less good doctor.
In other words, when the grand ideas cease working, then one needs to find smaller ideas at the edges, at the sides, at the peripheries. So it’s both about politics, the grand political ideas we know of the last century were disasters, people who were certain they knew what was best for other people, but it also refers to a way of working in a studio, of keeping a doubt and an uncertainty about your first idea such that other things can come in and shape and inform it.
So the workshop itself, we had singers, dancers, percussion, a video on standby. We had a long vocal and physical warmup as one does in these moments. And one of the early things we had to do is to find the voice of the Sibyl, what was the going to sound like? And one of the singers we work with does throat singing, can sort of sing chords a bit like Tibetan throat singing.
So I thought, what if we have the presence of the Sibyl as a female dancer, but we have the strange male voice coming through it to try to find a strangeness of voice. And that became one of the starting points. We also did a lot of time saying, well, is this going to be … the Calder was very much about European modernism, Western modernism in music, 1960s electronic music. Where should we begin? And one of our starting points for that was to spend a long time listening to, Stockhausen’s “Stimmung” which is a piece of music for voices all on one note, on B flat, kind of astonishing piece of minimalism that’s done.
So we would play a piece of the recording, the people singing, and the singers we had would then mimic that extremely accurately and we’d have the recording of the voice and the singers doing it, and then we’d fade out the Stockhausen and the voice of the singers would continue. And then it would start, and this was the interesting part, it would start being inflected by being in Johannesburg. So different breathing and rhythms and emphases would come out. It would resist the coolness of the Stockhausen and of that school of European music.
And so that became clear that we weren’t only going to be working with Stockhausen or Stockhausen-like or mimicking a European modernism, which would be there. In some of the music it’s very strongly there. But we would allow other music to emerge from the composers, from the singers, from the pianists. And also in the same way we worked with dancers from the center, particular dancers. And we had several dancers and said, “Well, what is the movement of the Sibyl going to be? How do we show the Sibyl on stage?”
Now in some of the Christian churches in South Africa, in fact in many of them there’s a kind of devotion which consists of clapping and turning even as the whole circle is revolving. And when this started happening in rehearsals, I’m not sure if the people doing it had thought, “Ah, here’s a Calder, are we going to make a Calder out of ourselves,” but it became a human mobile and that then became something to track and follow, became a way of thinking about the movement on stage. So at this point we had several elements. We had the voice, we had the idea of circling, we had dance, and we had the idea of the pages from the film that you saw, the idea of pages which could twist and turn. And of course in English as in Italian, and in many language, a leaf and a page are the same word, the leaves of a book. And so we had a sense, OK, the leaves of the Sibyl that she places and writes on could be pages of a book.
And one of the ways I’ve been working for many years has been in drawings in old books, there’s something about the texture of old pages that is irresistible. There’s a fact that you’re not working on a white sheet of paper. It’s already has a midgrade tone from the paper. Some paper absorbs charcoal, others let ink sit on the surface to pool. There’s fantastic paper from before 1830 which needs one needs old books to find. There’s also a sense of the strange position of books. We know that more books are published today than ever before. But we also know that old reference books, which used to be like the basis, the solid weight of where we took our authority of knowledge from are now almost a thing of the past. It’s very rare for someone to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. A lot of places are only on online now.
It’s very easy now to find second canned copies of Oxford dictionaries, which before would’ve gone down the generations with people. If I was in Oxford a few years ago in a library and it was full of tables, full of students and there was not a single book on any table. Everybody had their laptops who were doing their research that way, but the shelves around were full of these wonderful 14th century books of the annals of some Franciscan society. And I did say to the librarian, “No one is ever going to look at those books again. Can’t I just take two volumes to draw on?” Yeah, you can imagine how that went down.
But this idea of drawing on pages, there’s the idea of a flip book. You’ll know when you have a small book, children’s thing, you flip the pages and you see a single movement. Someone runs, someone runs across. Used to be a way of showing sportsman how to do a perfect shot. You’d have a baseball batter swinging and you could stop at any point to see exactly how that movement was. And that only lasts a second. But if you want that sense of the pages of a book going through telling a story, then one can do many drawings on many pages and put them together. And that was one of the ideas of thinking about a book of the Sibyl. So we have the pages, but we could gather those pages of the Sibyl into a single book.
So that was their idea of different pages that could be there. It’s very much about what is the history of these pages in the book. And in fact, we think of the end of Paradiso , of Dante’s Paradiso right at the very end in Canto 36 , he writes, “So in the Wind that stirred the light leaves were the pages the oracle wrote lost.” So there the sense of that book that Dante’s writing is also seen as the pages of the oracle. And right at the very end he said, we have, “But within the depths I saw gathered together bound in a single volume, leaves that life scattered through the universe.” So there was a little bit of that also sitting at the back of my head, writers who write about books as trees, as leaves.
And then it was, how does one learn the grammar of the book? What happens is you have an idea, and it may be an ethical idea, it may be a narrative idea, and it comes into the studio. And in the studio all of those considerations disappear and they are transformed into a series of practical or formal questions. So the idea of, you lose the idea, what is the meaning of writing the pages in a book? And you have the question, how does one do it? Does one need a different drawing for every frame? That would be 1,500 drawings for one minute of film, or do we need to see two at a time? But that’s still too fast. If we look at them six frames at a time, then it’s too jerky. So maybe we have to do the same drawing three times, but only film each drawing twice. So it becomes a strange madness of mathematics and fragmenting the world up into these particular small tasks.
In the same way, if you’re talking about what is the movement of the actors, how many times are there evolving for each time the whole crowd turns around? These are kind of the natural activities in the studio, but they’re of necessity, quite stupid questions and stupid activities. They’re not about big ideas, but the trust is that when you’ve worked on those, the larger ideas will find their way through the work and reemerge when you leave the studio. That’s why it can be however the distressing the subject is you’re working with. It’s not as if you’re making a sad line. The line you’re making is the same, whether it’s a drawing of a massacre or of a peony, the impulse and the energy in the arm, it really doesn’t happen if you say, “I have to have a lump in my throat before I can make the mark.” The bad faith of that will always come through.
The good faith of the studio is the work in the studio, working assiduously at solving these questions of image, mark, energy, tension, grammar. OK, so this was a question. These are improvisations in the studio saying, we have a book. Let’s have a projection of a book. And we have the Sibyl, and then understanding we can both have drawings that are in the book and texts, but if we put our projector at the right distance from the dancer, then her shadow will be the size on the page and it becomes a kind of living drawing. So you see both the dancer dancing, but behind her much larger is the projection.
So you hear the background, that [sounds: “shao ding ding”], that comes out of the “Stimmung,” and the other voice comes from a very different kind of traditional singing that start weaving together. So as soon as we had that big projection in the studio and that shadow in front, we knew we were kind of onto something. The costume designer found this fantastic sort of silk, the color of an autumn leaf, which was addressed from the 1850s I think in Paris.
And she phoned saying, “I’ve seen this fantastic dress. I think it’s right. It’s very expensive, it’s a real … should be in a museum.” And we said, “No, we’ll be able to try it.” And then we tried to recopy it, to try to make the same silk. And nowhere in the world could we find the same silk or anyone who could dye anything quite like it. So this original piece has been sewn and resewn and every seam redone and rebacked, which we still use. So there’s a mixture of good fortune, finding it, saying it’ll work well. Other costumes you’ll see were done in a very different way. So we’re starting to gather a language in the workshop of the dancing, of the books. It starts to gather its own energy.
There was another way in which when thinks of pages and images on pages and predictions, and this is in the form of the Rorschach test, one knows the Rorschach ink blot test, another psychological test where you make a blot on a sheet of paper, you squash the paper down and you open it and you get a kind of mirror image and it always looks either like a pelvis or a skull. And then patients are invited to look at that and say what they see in it.
And predictions made until very recently, maybe even still now, a lot of American companies would use a Rorschach test as part of the evaluation of potential employees. I mean, it seems like a parlor game from the 1920s, but it’s still there. So we thought, “OK, we have these pages and this double pages and we can make ink plots. Let’s see if that becomes one of the part of the languages that we’re going to use.” So first thing before we get to the Rorschach, this was our experimenting with finding a human mobile. What happens if we take the Calder mobiles and put them on stage, and here using cardboard prototypes for the costumes and then later on the actual costumes.
[Video of a musical performance. 43:56 to 44:46 in the video of the lecture.]
So those were the human mobiles. We had a lot of fun with different pieces of cardboard and color. And then this is the Rorschach, an experiment with the Rorschach. So these are the kind of things that are done in the workshop.
[Video of a musical performance. 45:00 to 46:05 in the video of the lecture.]
That was our Rorschach test. So we start gathering all these different elements. A last one I’ll talk about very briefly was going back to the story of Perseus and the question of the right chair and the wrong chair. So I thought, “Right, let’s start with chairs. Chairs are fine. We’ll see what happens.” So we started really just with the kind of musical chairs, not enough chairs for the performers. Who gets the chair? Who doesn’t? Whose chair is taken away? And then a question of, if you’re going to choose a chair, how do you know which is the right or the wrong chair? It became a kind of farcical scene.
At this stage, everything is given the benefit of the doubt, all these different improvisations. Later on, it’s a question which ones can keep their place in the work, which ones need to be scrapped, which ones need to be driven in a different direction. This is a further stage in rehearsing.
[Video of musical performance rehearsal. 46:55 to 48:26 in the video of the lecture.]
So you’re walking back from one to the other. Go further, further, further. So the chair. So in this workshop this becomes a question, how the hell do we make either a moving chair or a collapsing chair? The moving chair is easy, just had strings and people pulled it side to side. The collapsing chair, we first tried with elastic bands on legs that would splay out when you had your weight. And then later on, one of the people in the work said no, he had little radio controlled controller with little server motors and he would make a controllable collapsing chair, which is what we ended up with. But it’s also a kind of lost rhyme because we don’t tell the story of Perseus in the piece. We talk about the Sibyl, but it kind of was in our head as that question of which is the right chair, which is the wrong chair. It had enough of a sense of indecision or making the wrong decision or not being able to control the world.
All the associations that came out of seeing those improvisations of the chair, rather than knowing what the chairs had to teach us at the beginning. So the chairs kept their place and stayed in the production. So at the end of the workshop, we had six possible scenes. We had the Sibyl at the end of the first 10 days, we had the Sibyl in her book. We thought, “Well if she’s in her book and she’s answering the questions, maybe we need a waiting room where people will send their questions in.” So we had a kind of, the back office of the Sibyl was a seed we played at where one listens to different music in different leaves. One of the different sounds of the leaves. We had the ballet mechanic of the human Mobile. We had the Rorschach. We had the basic book of the Sibyl.
And then there’s a question of making a libretto. What were the words the Sibyl was going to be saying, which would be sung or read? And in the studio for years, I have a book which is just labeled, “Words,” which is a kind of a commonplace book. I write down phrases or lines of poems that strike me as interesting. And gradually over the years these accumulate, and when we’re in a project like the start, I trawled through those and took out, I don’t know, 150 or 200 lines from them. And then they were cut up and not literally put into a hat, because it’s not all aleatoric in that sense. It’s not relying on chance. It relies rather on good fortune, on fortuna, where the lines don’t come from nowhere. There were some impulse that made me choose them, but they don’t have a program. They don’t have a text they’re having to make. And then they put on the table and then grouped to try to see what is the kind of sense they are making.
And when they were grouped and put together, I sent it to the rest of the company and from the workshop and the designers. And they were all rather distressed at the rather bleak set of lines that had emerged. But the phrases might be phrases that these are some of the phrases. Some of them make sense. Some of them make no sense. Some of the ones that make no sense got into the libretto. Some of the sensible ones felt too clear and didn’t.
“But words, ah, yes words. The comic routines of poverty. Time passes quickly, very quickly. There is no remembrance of former things. All is vanity and vexation of the spirit.” That of course is from Ecclesiastes. “A bird shall carry the voice. I am not afraid. I dance a minuet with fear. I hold no cards, but I win every hand. Fresh graves will be everywhere. A different time is drawing near.”
“Blood smells only of blood.” This is from Anna Akhmatova “My house still spies on me. I will not lie in my own grave. I know the list of crimes. I am destined to commit.”
“A gigantic grief lay over the town and 100 tiny griefs.” That’s Vladimir Mayakovsky. “The huge summer has gone by.” That’s Rilke. “We must die. When? Within the hour.”
“Meaning that once clung together now float away in all directions.” That’s Rilke again. “My resolutions lasted two weeks at most. Half open clothes, a quick bearing of flesh.” That’s Cavafy. It didn’t get into the piece. “Let my body rein, let me travel, sojourn, snatch, plot, have forget,” John Dunn. “Now when I am dead and need tenderness, imitate the sleep of stones. I did not know this today. I knew it before yesterday. One half of you is me, the other half is mine. I have done that says my memory. I could not have done that is my pride. Finally, memory yields.” That’s from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. “Big words which make us so unhappy,” and so on. Series of different phrases to be read by an audience listening to the music.
There is one section of the opera which is called “Which Came into a Daughter,” thinking about what sort of predictions do we use in our life now? And this is a section which is called “Starve the Algorithm.” It’s spoken in to a megaphone. Initially it was my voice in the megaphone in the workshop. So you would see a projection and hear my voice and everybody said, “No, that was much too predictable. Sort of a middle-aged, elderly, white male voice of God. Take it out.” So when it was done, the pianist did the music very accurately to my pitch of voice.
And when it was redone with a much younger woman reader, actor, it changed it a lot, ’cause he kept the music the same, but her voice went a different, went in a different trajectory. But it’s about the, as we know, our current oracles, our current oracle is the algorithm. We rely on it all the time to see what the weather is going to be. We take out our phone and all these things, it tells us what images we need to see. Our Instagram has this crazy algorithm that decides that I like extreme carpentry and American football, so it doesn’t always get it right, but I’m sure it will get it right.
But we understand our conundrum. On the one hand, we want to avoid the algorithm, but on the other hand we are completely beholden to it. We need to also try to resist its machine thinking. Let’s say for example, that if you apply for a bank loan and use the words promise, God and family, then statistically, just statistically the chances are you won’t repay the loan. And so a bank won’t give you the loan, the computer will say no. But if you use the word university and three or four, four-syllable words, the chances are statistically that you will repay the loan. And so the bank gives you the loan, which means that everybody is then held down by the big data, by the actions of a large mass applied mercilessly to the individual, which is in a way kind of a definition of either tyranny or totalitarianism. Where the individual is subsumed under the big, big data. That we all know is our kind of paradox of where we live, of the contemporary world.
But one has to make a space for that which does not compute, that which cannot be owned by the algorithm. One needs to find a place for human stupidity in the face of machine intelligence. And at least in the studio, there’s a big space for this not knowing, for stupidity, for doubt, for uncertainty. One can think of the algorithm that surrounds us as this huge, fat sow with a tit for everybody to suck on. But instead of us getting fatter from the algorithm, we know that in fact it is the algorithm that sucks us dry. And the sow gets fatter and fatter and more and more bloated ’til, as Yates would’ve said, “Who knows what fatten self-satisfied beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” And we have to take our chances against this.
We know that through evasive action, we still going to meet the decisive strike. We’ll jump to the other chair, but the discus will still hit us. We know that through indolence and elegance we will do the work of fate. We know what will happen. But still we are amazed when it does happen. But this is the terrain we live in. We know the ending certainly, but in the space before the ending, we have to live and work as if the ending were not there. And I’m going to end with the last four minutes of the chamber opera.
[Video of chamber opera. 57:31 to 1:08:45 of the video of the lecture.]
Thank you, thank you, thank you. So there we have some time for questions if people have questions they want to ask, but I really don’t mind if people want to leave. But I’m happy to answer questions, but don’t feel duty bound to stay. I think that yes, they’re on microphones. I think there’s a question here.
Audience 1: First of all, thank you so much. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your work.
William Kentridge: Maybe we can bring up the house lights a little bit here if we can. Sorry. Yeah.
Audience 1: I was interested in, you were referring to the part where your voice over the loudspeaker was the European white god male, typical trope. But you’re also very consciously engaged in bridging and melding the European modernist tradition and your seemingly all Black cast and the cultural local things that emerge. So I’d love to hear more about how you navigate that in terms of authorship for your own artistry and collaboration.
William Kentridge: Yes. I think it’s very important that the performers are not hired performers who are, “Here’s a script, here’s a score.” They’re the authors of the music, the main singer were either … the main composer is with it. But all the other, the throat singing is what the throat singer brought to it. So yes, my name is the one that’s at the top, but the composer’s names in Rome, when we did it, you had all the great productions they’ve had in Rome where they’re composed, Puccini, [inaudible], all of those, and Mahlangu and Carl Shepherd were there in amongst them.
It’s a process of work that we’ve done for so many years and all of those questions you ask are there, but they’re not questions which we say, “Let’s stop for two days or a week or a month, or close the center down to address those questions,” as there’s some people who choose not to work at the center. And there are a lot of people who absolutely choose to do that.
But I feel very much that the participants are agents of the work and not simply people do … I mean, it was a joke about my voice. I think the other voice was a much … it was mainly my wife who objected to it and said it must … She’s always the sternest critic of all of these things. There were a lot of the cast members who were either being loyal or did want it, who said, “No, keep it as it is,” but I much prefer it in its new form. I would squirm every time it came on.
Audience 2: Hi, thank you very much. It’s just exquisite and beautiful. Can you talk a little bit about … the work is so multi-layered and multifaceted, the chronology of putting it together?
William Kentridge: So the broad one, so an invitation and then most probably a few months later, our first workshop and then the time for me to put together a libretto, for the costume designer to work on costumes, for the set designer to start shaping what size the projection surfaces would be. And then I think there’s a second workshop where someone brought … his radio control chair came into the second workshop, and then we had a kind of structure of scenes and worked quite in detail on those scenes. And then another period of maybe six months of revising, completing the libretto, completing all those elements, and then a usual rehearsal period. In this case, I think we had 10 days of rehearsals to do it.
Audience 2: My real question is, how does one element get to inform another? And is it …
William Kentridge: The music that we’d had in one section or the people moving might inform another scene where we say, “Well, let’s …” if everybody picks up a piece of paper, but they’re hearing different questions on it. And those different questions are represented by different sound. Someone picks up a piece of paper and in the paper you’ll hear laughter. Another piece of paper has an argument, a third has a news broadcast, a fourth one has a hymn that’s being sung.
Then we would have all the raw material from the other scenes who we’d already worked on to say, let’s use this. Remember this song? Let’s sing this song here when this piece of paper is picked up. We’d had one of the dancers in the Rorschach. What if she is animated by that sound but freezes each time the piece of paper comes down? So it feeds across this way quite … I suppose after each period there’s a reconstruction saying, “If we had to do the piece tonight, what would it consist of? What would it be?” And that shifts and changes with each repetition. And this question’s here also, here and here, up here.
Susan Oxtoby: There is one in the middle road here, and then we’ll come down front.
Audience 3: Thank you very much. We en encountered you in Rome in 2016 when you did the large graffiti project. And I don’t think of Rome as a particularly permissive city, right? It’s very difficult to get things done in Rome. Here you are again speaking of this incredible collaboration of challenging, clearly challenging artwork in Rome. And so in a way, it’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask you. Having witnessed that whole graffiti project, who gets the permission?
William Kentridge: I mean, the project in Rome was a piece of graffiti in the heart of historic Rome 500 yards long drawing on the walls of the Tiber River. And it started off with a Minister of Culture saying, “Contemporary art in the heart of historic Rome? Over her dead body.” When the project was finished, she said, “Could the Department of Culture,” which it was, “Publish the book about it?” And she wrote the foreword.
And when I met her at one of the dinners, her explanation was, “A little misunderstanding,” but I think it took … some people said it was possible because I was not Italian. It was possible because I found a great … The producers that I work with who are based in New York, who I could understand when they said no, it would be no, and if they said yes, it would be yes. And a lot of the answers I was getting in Rome, I couldn’t tell was it a no because it was impossible or ’cause I didn’t feel like it or because eventually that would become? So I needed someone in between.
But I think it was largely through the work of Italian journalists who knowing about the project and writing about it that shamed the authorities in at the Rome. In the River Tiber itself, there are 14 different authorities that control it. So the water is controlled by one, the bank is controlled by another. The wall at the edge of the bank is a third person, the pumping station is another one. And so there was a cascade of permissions that had to be done. And at a certain point, we knew the project. There were just two problems. We didn’t have permission and we didn’t have the money to do it. And the permissions are certainly the harder part to get, and was finally done largely through generosity of philanthropists in America, some of whom are funding this program here.
So a big thank you retrospectively for that project. And while that was on, the people from Rome opera approached me about that. It also helps having a very good gallery. Not in Rome, but in Milan and Naples that could intervene on my behalf. But yes, it is a kind of surprise that Italy has been the most fertile place for me to do public art, large productions. There was another question? Please.
Audience 4: I love the projections and of course I love your drawings and I was just wondering if you could talk for a moment about how you made those projections. Are these pieces that you created before, that you’re reusing? Did you hand draw them?
William Kentridge: Most of the things you see on the pages, those are drawings on pages and there are 1,500 drawings, whatever. They’re a lot. They’re a lot. Sometimes they’re very specific. If it’s tracing the movement of a … I’ll have a video of her dancing, so I can see, oh, in three frames, her arms gone across up to there and then have with the brush marks to get a rhythm of movement. There may have been, I don’t think … unless there were any drawings from other projects. I’m sure there’s fragments from this that will feed into other things. They’re drawers full of these pages which get rephotographed and could be reused.
Audience 4: 1,500?
William Kentridge: Yeah, more almost probably.
Audience 4: Wow.
William Kentridge: Yeah. But some of them are very stupid. Just a line, a mark. We made things, for example, when I’d make a little tree out of twigs and then photograph it as I turned it so that when I was painting the pages, I could see, oh, this little tree, this leaf is now in front of, that twigs in front of that one, which is very difficult. Just imagine if you don’t have a reference for that kind of animation. Yeah.
Audience 5: Thank you. Thank you so much for your work and [inaudible] today. I was wondering, what were you looking for when you wanted the Calder’s mobiles in your work? What was important for you, the shapes, the weight?
William Kentridge: No, I mean the Calder, it was the sense of turning, the sense of an artwork that’s not a static thing. I mean, it was that. That’s wonderful about those changing of the relationships between the objects and both playing with that, but also saying, can we … There’s a sense in that’s the modernism of which Calder is part where you take the world and you bring it into the studio and you allow it to disappear into a kind of abstraction and the pleasure of those colors and shapes. And for me, it’s been fine to say you take it into the studio and you enjoy and play with those colors and shapes and movements, but at a certain point you put it back to work and it has to go back out into the world. So it wouldn’t have been enough to say, “It’s going to be an abstract thing. We’ll have people turning and twirling.” It had to have not a narrative, but it had to have an impulse towards a meaning.
Audience 6: Hi, thank you for your talk. I have one kind of big question and one small question. The big question is you focused a lot on the sort of process in the studio with your collaborators. And in terms of audience reception, how, if you think in these terms would you know if a piece is, forgive me for using a binary, a success or a failure. And then the small question is, your talk today is called, “To What End?” What were some of the other titles of the talk that you would’ve given us?
William Kentridge: Well, the trouble with talks like this is that they’re planned many months in advance, long before I thought what I’m going to talk about. So it has to have a title, which is not so specific that people can’t hold you to it, but it has to in a way maybe invite people in to say, “What is he going to talk about?” So it was in fact, as you saw, it’s the last text of the … but that’s by good fortune. It’s the last text of the piece. And that is the question, “What does it all add up to?” I mean, as you know, it’s 4 in the morning, that’s what one sometimes thinks about. And then thank goodness, forgets about at breakfast. And the big question was?
Audience 6: Audience.
William Kentridge: Oh, audience. If a significant portion of the audience leaves halfway through, that tells you something. Doesn’t tell you everything, but it tells you something. It’s always as the maker, you’re not a good person to ask. People who like your work come up and tell you. And it’s rare that people who don’t like it do. Sometimes they do in detail to tell you exactly chapter and verse what was wrong. But on general, if people don’t like it, they’ll go off or they’ll moan to their companions and friends about how bad it was. And it’s rare they take the trouble to write or let you know.
And so it’s an anecdotal sense of … I mean there’s one sense inside, the making of it where there’s an energy from the people making and you have a sense, yes, it’s good, but that can be false. There are many terrible projects which everybody making them were convinced to a wonderful. But so far it’s had a terribly very warm response where we’ve done it in most spaces. It doesn’t feel like a failure. The other pieces I’ve done, we think, “Whoof, we survived, but not much more than that.” But this isn’t one.
Audience 7: Thank you. First of all, thank you for that introduction to the piece. At the beginning you found hope in a somewhat strange place, the late 1960s. And at the end, as the pages flipped, the word hope and joy jumped out. Are you hopeful?
William Kentridge: I’m giving a series of lectures next year and there’s a whole suite of them. And the last one is called “A Defensive of Optimism.” And that makes the argument saying it’s not a question of being psychologically optimistic or pessimistic about the world. In the studio, there’s an unavoidable optimism in the activity of making. And in the same way here, even if in the end it’s a bleak prospect, there’s a kind of a life force of people working together of making it.
Who can say? Is one pessimistic about the state of the world? Yes, climate change seems insoluble. The movement from liberal democracy to authoritarianism, don’t know how it stops. All of those things. But having said that, in South Africa we grew up under apartheid, I grew up under apartheid, which it seemed would never end. And at a certain point it did. So the one thing I know is never to trust my predictions. Those are always … I mean like everyone, I was one of those who absolutely predicted that Trump would not win, that Brexit would not happen, that Sweden would not get a right-wing government. And sort of so far I’ve got a perfect three out of three wrong. Day-to-day, I’m hopeful. Yes, yes. That’s what it is.
Audience 8: So in this talk and in previous talks you’ve made a lot of the distinction between being inside the studio and being outside the studio. And one of the things I’ve wondered for a while is whether you’ve ever encountered a situation in which you were inside the studio and found it difficult to get outside the studio again, or where you found yourself encountering the studio and locked out and unable to get back inside. So I wonder how do you, if you have encountered these situations, navigate that barrier, that door between in and out of the studio?
William Kentridge: I mean, when I started making work as a student and after a student, a lot of sort adjunct prop work, theater productions for trade union organizations, posters for political organizations. Outside the studio kind of work. And at a certain point I lost confidence in what I was doing. The audience was always more intelligent than I was giving them credit for. It was always a kind of patronage in it. And so at a certain point to keep working as an artist, I knew I needed to be in the studio where things could make sense for me or my collaborators, but didn’t have to think on behalf of a broader public.
So the work is often in the studio, but when I’m pulled out of the studio, there are often interesting things that happen. I’ve been working on a series of films, a series of nine films of what happens in the studio. It is a big lockdown COVID project and it’s all filmed entirely in the studio claustrophobically in Johannesburg, it never goes out. But in the very end of the last episode, a brass band comes into the studio, somebody picks me up by the scruff of the neck and pulls me into the street. But there’s another of me who stays in the studio. So it’s a question that I do ask myself about the protection, the safety of the studio as opposed to taking on the world, yeah.
Audience 9: My friend and I were joking before the talk started that it would be hard to bring my children here because they’re quite wild and make a lot of noise. But when we got to the Calder and I think of the mobiles, I have to … I think of them, I think of their twirling and whirling and spinning around. And then when I saw the pages of the book, of course it’s hard to not remember being read to myself or reading to them.
And then of course with the kind of conversations of death, it’s hard to not detach the childlike sense of death that when we see it where it’s hard to not see a child, that death as well, even in someone who’s lived a long life. And I just wondered how, it seems like there’s a lot of childishness in your work, a playfulness, a curiosity, and maybe a little bit of that unknowing comes from that. And I just was wondering if there is that kind of childlike spirit in your work.
William Kentridge: I mean, I have two grandchildren and I have a 2-year-old and we talk in Ursonate -Dada speak together and have long conversations with full of all the inflections of meaning without any meaning. And I think she understands now she’s humoring me to do it. And my older grandson, my oldest grandchild is now 9, stopped this several years ago of indulging me with this. And it just looks a little bit foolish to him. But yes, children are often good audiences in the exhibitions where the projections are on and stayed. But I think they would’ve been so bored by all the talking. Yeah.
Susan Oxtoby: Let’s see. We have a question here.
Audience 10: Hi. I saw your show at the Royal Academy and it’s fabulous. I really, really enjoyed it and I’ve been a huge fan for years. My question is somewhat related to a one before the last. I’m wondering how you went from being an artist working alone in your studio to having such a big production all around you and was that difficult? Was it something you welcomed? Was it hard to navigate?
William Kentridge: Well, for a long time I had a double activity of working in my studio on my own, but also working with a theater company, initially as a designer. Then at a certain point, apropos the introduction before I was advised by good friends that I needed to do one thing. If I was going to do drawings, just do drawings. If I was going to do theater, just do theater. Don’t try to mix and match. You’ll fall between the two stools. And so I went to Paris to study theater and stopped being an artist, and came back and seven years later found I was back in the studio making a drawing. So I was kind of, my failure in theater reduced me to being an artist again. And since then there’s been a kind of a sine curve of periods when it’s fantastic to work on one’s own, just doing drawings or animation on my own in the studio.
And after a while, it’s really wonderful to have 15 other people working around you. And after a while, it’s great that they’re not there anymore, so they both do. But it was a very natural one from making drawings to animating them to working with a puppet theater company to more people coming into the studio. So there’s a section of the studio, the main room, which is for drawing, which doesn’t help to have anyone else in. And then there’s a bigger, more industrial studio, industrial studio in town where sculpture happens, rehearsals, filming if there are lots of people. And a lot of work that happens at night or on the weekends when the studio is empty.
Susan Oxtoby: How are we doing with hands? I see the microphone is on this side. Yes?
William Kentridge: And then there’s a question down here.
Audience 11: Hi. I love what you said about that impulse to make art that doesn’t compute and that image of the algorithm as this sort of beast. I was curious if you have had the impulse to experiment with the beast, with the algorithms. And I was just curious.
William Kentridge: Not specifically with the algorithms, but we did the studio. We did spend many months, about two years ago with an American company trying to see what happened. They were saying we can scan and digitize the studio, the drawings, the sculptures you’re making, you’ll be able to put on a headset and navigate your way through it. Do live performances inside. And I didn’t, I spent a lot of time with editors and other people in the studio, spent a really long time before we understood it was really not going to work for us. That one needs a kind of an industrial, huge factory of engineers for the images not to look hideous.
We were trying to see, was there a way to do something using it, low tech that would move through? And the low tech didn’t work. What I have done, which I’m interested in, is shooting analog but with a camera that films all around it. So instead of a performance being films from in front, you have the camera in the middle of a performance and in your headset you can hear what someone’s saying. You turn around, there’s someone talking behind you. And that for me is the edge of an interesting theatrical kind of work, but not the digitizing and avatars and … not ’cause it can’t be, but because the amount of time left in a lifetime is not enough to really take that on for me.
Audience 12: Thank you so much. When I think about your work, I have to think about what it means to show the hand. So for example, you had the chairs scooching across the floor, but you showed the strings. It wasn’t like you were going to hide how the chairs were scooching off the floor. And there’s a kind of delight in showing the hand, you have the dancing figures, but we understand how you did it. It wasn’t like a secret projection business. And so I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the sort of joy in the hand, how you did the tricks.
William Kentridge: OK, so I’ll give you, for me which was a kind of revelatory example, I think from my student years. There was a small theater in Paris, and maybe we’ll stop after this, called Theatre Cirque Imaginaire. I think it was Two People Under a Trained Goose that was the … but there was one scene in which one of the two performers had bubbles, that in soapy mixture with the wiring. He was blowing bubbles and he had a little hammer. He’d blow the bubbles and he’d take the hammer and he would hit each bubble. But the extraordinary thing is that somehow they were turned into glass and as he hit them, they shattered. They didn’t burst, they shattered. And it was kind of astonishing. And then he lifted up his waistcoat and you could see his hand here. In fact, it was just on a little bell. And every time he tapped a bubble, he rang the bell.
And the extraordinary thing was that you could see what he was doing. You could see it was a bell and a soap bubble, but you could not stop yourself still believing it was glass. And so it was about … it made me understand the pleasure of self-deception we have where you see how it’s done, but the thing being done is stronger than you are and you are still … So even you see someone pulling a chair, it has the effect of a chair that is moving. And so that, I think that gave a big example of not being the art of trying to hide the technique. It would also be much harder in the kind of theater we’re doing to really do that hidden. The one radio controlled chair was as much as we could. And you see a person, if you look to the side, you can see someone in the wings operating it. Good. I think that’s a good place for us to stop. Thank you very much. Thank you.
[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]
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