Drawing is a slow-motion version of thought

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Drawing is a slow-motion version of thought

Sunita Singh's extensive essay on contemporary South African artist William Kentridge.

"He does cross-fertilization between different forms and genres and through the impulse of image in his head as a phrase. The idea is to demonstrate emblematically the world which is real and making art a practical activity, and not something to be done on a computer," writes Sunita Singh.

"There is a desperation for certainty. The category of political uncertainty, philosophical uncertainty, uncertainty of images is much closer to how the world is" - William Kentridge.

William Kentridge, Act III, Scene g from Ubu Tells the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired.

William Kentridge is South Africa's most important contemporary artist, best known for his prints, drawings and animated films. William Kentridge is one of that small number of contemporary artists whose process is central to an understanding of their overall practice. Kentridge has a keen interest in composing the content and the form together, in which medium plays another actor position. In Kentridge’s phrase “the camera acts as a performer in his process.” The artist places an equal emphasis on the form, content, medium and the process and through this builds the narrative of his work. The narrative builds for the artist not as a bench work but as a process of interpreting and acting. He himself delineates himself from representation to presence in the work of art, which is a postdramatic conception. I’ve tried to deal with the works of Kentridge and the process of the creation of the artwork and its juxtaposition with postdramatic theatre.

The primary aim of his works is to interrogate, develop and contextualise the potential of a personal drawing practice associated with the immersive, spectator-centric space of postdramatic theatre, (Lehmann, 2006. p.6); in other words, to produce an embodied sensory experience, which incorporates elements of postdramatic theatre, partly through content and partly through its methods of engagement.

William Kentridge, Walking Man, 2000, linoleum cut, sheet 2,502 χ 978 mm (The Museum of Modern Art.)

Not knowing the answer

Theatre and many other art forms are broadly classified and fixed into systematic processes of interpretation, creation and execution. Initially in theatre the author and text had the authorial position and it was through the text the nature of the work and the process defined. However, twentieth century the role of the director observed a break away from this understanding and director emerged as the central figure in theatre making.

Theatre directors have fallen into similar patterns of codifying systems and characterising certain facets as essential in process. An ensemble method of creating theatre provided agency to all the participants of the process to be part of the meaning making process. Instead of working with a definite meaning, the inclination was towards improvisations and directors being able to facilitate the process through various workshop methods.

Kentridge, stills from Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris , opening sequence showing the incremental stages of Kentridge's additive drawn animation process, 1989, 16mm animated film, transferred to video and DVD, 8 minutes, 2 seconds (artwork © William Kentridge; photographs provided by William Kentridge.

In the contemporary world too, one observes various types of theatre, in emergent, dominant and residual situations, as characterised by Raymond Williams in his infamous essay Forms. The late twentieth century and the twenty first century sees an emergent form in the word uncertainty and avant garde forms. This uncertainty provides an unavailability of fixed answers and it is in the provisions of process of making and the process of reading/receiving of the spectators the meaning made. The uncertainty, presence the process of making are two important concepts of postdramatic theatre. William Kentridge is a person who emancipates himself from the chained process of fixed meanings and provides an area of doubt and improvisionality to his works. In Kentridge’s own words

"The strategy of working in best way is to flower - to not know the answer and to hang out to set of provisionality. (There’s always this guide which is back in your mind). Giving the benefit of doubt, and considering that it could be good or bad."

This position liberates the artist or the creator of him/her being the ultimatum of knowledge and understanding. An assumption which believes that the artist must be the best interpreter of his work. In a nominal sense, that is the most ideal condition but this emancipation is directed towards an unconstrained meaning making process. The shift is a grand shift in the discourse of the art, where readers/audience/spectators have been elevated to the role of participants in the meaning making process of the art. An instructor-director or an instructor-author are categories which are being pushed to residual positions through such interventions in art processes.

William Kentridge, drawing from "Zeno Writing' 2002, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York Landscape, text fragments, charcoal on paper, 31.5 x 47.75 inches.

William Kentridge’s process

"His interest is in seeing
how a drawing would come into being".

William Kentridge talks about the origin of his animated films with drawing in front of the camera. "It was from the charcoal drawing that the process of animation expanded". The charcoal is a live content in his process as charcoal can be erased quickly and changed into a different drawing as quickly one can think. It is interesting to note that the charcoal lived almost a performer’s life in his process. We can seek a fundamental point from the notion of utilising camera and charcoal as performers, is the ability of thinking of new performative elements in the performance making. He does cross-fertilization between different forms and genres and through the impulse of image in his head as a phrase. The idea is to demonstrate emblematically the world which is real and making art a practical activity, and not something to be done on a computer. He removes the passive participant categories for most of the material and makes the process come alive, which is a part of the meaning making, not as something aloof of the end product.

The Nose

William Kentridge is primarily interested in showing the process of thinking. It is a fundamental part of any of his project. The multi-media postdramatic projects he creates has an underlying notion of a presence of the mediums and materials he uses. For each tiny addition or deletion precipitates a lap across the studio from the drawing board to the mounted camera. The alteration is photographed, and Kentridge walks back to the drawing to add or erase a couple of marks. And then he returns to the camera. These circuits continue on and on for several months until the photographic record of the drawing is filmed in sequence to produce an animation five to ten minutes in length - a film that is a paean to the liquidity of change.

The camera and charcoal become characters, performers and meaning makers in this process. The objects are reflexive, post-dramatic strategies or meta-theatrical tropes which emphasise what Bleeker earlier referred to as ‘here and now-ness’ (Bleeker, 2008. p.65). We can take example William Kentridge’s melancholic film Zeno Writing to understand this conception.

The director takes Svevo's 416- page text - purportedly the journal Zeno keeps on doctor's orders to alleviate various modes of existential grief - and distills it into an eleven-minute filmic phantasm, one part reverie into two parts. This primordial and intrinsically messy art supply is key to Kentridge's style.

William Kentridge, Zeno Writing, 2002, single-channel video, joint acquisition of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, funded by Nina and Michael Zilkha; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. © William Kentridge

As he works, erases, and reworks the imagery, palimpsest smudges and ghosts of previous incarnations remain embedded in the paper - like a residue of the past waiting to be uncovered by psychoanalysis. Svevo's Zeno converts Freud's talking cure into a process that solidifies mental ephemera through the act of writing; Kentridge extends the procedure by taking something fixed (a drawing) and making it move. "Drawing is a slow-motion version of thought," he says.

"The uncertain and imprecise way of constructing a drawing is sometimes a model of how to conversion of montage: rather than clear-cut collisions between distinct shots, multiple layers of imagery can waver, destabilize, and then mutate or dissolve into the next sequence, like a yin/yang symbol inside a lava lamp."

William Kentridge, Zeno Writing, 2002, single-channel video, joint acquisition of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, funded by Nina and Michael Zilkha; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. © William Kentridge.

Object-Pressure Cooker, charcoal on paper, 31.5 x 47.75 inches.

Female Figure Lying on Stomach, charcoal on paper, 31.5 x 47.75 inches.

All of this back and forth, pushing and pulling, stopping and starting blatantly exposes the inherent uncertainty of the modern world. The process of the artist leads us towards a fragmented world and the self which helps in retrospection and the interpretation of the work.

William Kentridge himself classifies this fragmentation and reinterpretation as

“The way that one constructs a film out of these fragments that one reinterprets retrospectively - and changes the time of - is my sense of how we make sense of the world. And so the animated films can be a demonstration of how we make sense of the world rather than an instruction about what the world means."

This juxtaposition and sense of reflection brings to the fore the essential nature of Kentridge's practice, namely the layering of image, memory and time and the idea of drawing in all its manifestations as a means to challenge and animate discourse. This is an art that uses graphic language as a direct form of address. It is also an art that revels in jarring and stylistic collisions.

The meaning of the image is only through the need of making the images and the film. Since Kentridge's work carries a strong narrative motion, this can be disrupting and viewer is left hanging, having to imagine what has omitted. On the other hand, instead of a dry, factual of the works as one would expect from a raisonné, here the artist's pages serve to link and works together suggesting that the ideas are still flux and open. This flexibility which the artist extends towards the audience/spectator/readers is the real mobility in the postdramatic theatre. The process initiates the breaking away of the distance between the artist and the audience. Instead of an inseparable two entity, the artist and the audience, too come together to explore further the meaning making. As Bleeker argues:

‘Freed from his or her fixed position and no longer forced to see in one way rather than the other, the spectator is granted the freedom to see and give meaning at will – or not to attribute any meaning at all – to the experience there to be apprehended’ (Bleeker, 2008. p.65).

For Kentridge this itself is the real life component, where the world itself is guided by the principle of uncertainty, collaboration and participation of form, content, medium and technology. One can certainly comment on this uncertain art as employing post-dramatic scenographic strategies to create and exhibit their works.

Kentridge, page from Receiver ; New York: Dieu Donné Press, with Galamander Press, 2006, photogravure, 14 X 11V4 in. (35.5 X 28.5 cm), edition of 50 (artwork © William Kentridge; photograph provided by William Kentridge studio)


Fiery Temporalities in Theatre and Performance: The Initiation of History by Maurya Wickstrom takes up the urgent need to think about temporality and its relationship to history in new ways, focusing on theatre and performance as mediums through which politically innovative temporalities, divorced from historical processionism and the future, are inaugurated. One of the key features about William Kentridge's work is his relationship with temporality and the materials in his work. Lehmann’s paradigm of postdramatic theatre demands a reconsideration of how we teach and practice theatre. Rather than an analysis of “theatre” as primarily a text-based representation (“drama”), Lehmann forges a new language to analyze postdramatic theatre as a multimedia, immanently de-structured processional event that is “more presence than representation” (85).

This challenges all of us to question how our teaching and writing can address those contemporary practices of theatre that are nonrepresentational and no longer comprehensible through the critical language of either Aristotle or Brecht. Kentridge attempts to re-define the already established relationship of space, material, medium, spectators with his innovative process and the laborious techniques. Kentridge's practice is embedded in local histories, and the artist's physical operations in the studio become metaphorically embodied through his drawn, filmic, and sculpted processions: the ambulatory rituals of Kentridge's own peripatetic studio process are implicated in his ubiquitous processional imagery. Kentridge's drawing process is the politically charged subject matter of the South Africa's larger histories of change.


Works Cited :

  • Louisiana Channel. “William Kentridge: How We Make Sense of the World”, HuffPost, 6 Dec. 2014 .
  • Maltz-Leca, Leora. “Process/Procession: William Kentridge and the Process of Change.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 95, no. 1, 2013, pp. 139–165., doi:10.1080/00043079.2013.10786110.
  • Wickstrom, Maurya. Fiery Temporalities in Theatre and Performance: the Initiation of History. Methuen Drama, 2018.
  • Willcoxon, Jeanne. “ Postdramatic Theatre (Review) .” Theatre Topics, Johns Hopkins University Press, 6 Sept. 2008.
  • William Kentridge: Zeno Writing .” Artcritical, 21 June 2010.
  • Allara, Pamela. “Pamela Allara. Review of ‘Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now: Prints from The Museum of Modern Art’ by Judith B. Hecker and ‘South Africa: Artists, Prints, Community: Twenty-Five Years at the Caversham Press’.” Caa.reviews, 2011, doi:10.3202/caa.reviews.2011.125.

Sunita Singh  is a theatre practitioner based in Delhi. She graduated from the University of Delhi, and completed her Masters from School of Law, Governance and Citizenship, Ambedkar University of Delhi.

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