Visiting William Kentridge at his Johannesburg studio.
My (longer) edit, with The Nose reinstated:
I knew I was at the right place because of the cats. Two sculpted, spiky creatures faced each other atop the gates in Houghton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthy, jacaranda-shrouded suburbs. I recognized them from drawings, etchings and films – in which cats emerge from radios (Ubu Tells the Truth), curl into bombs (Stereoscope), turn into espresso pots (Lexicon). Now they had become metal, swinging open to reveal a steep driveway and above it a brick and glass building perched on stilts amid foliage: the studio. A gardener directed me past some cycads to the right entrance and there an assistant ushered me in to meet William Kentridge. He was wearing a blue rather than a white collared shirt, but in all other aspects conformed to his self-appointed uniform: black trousers, black shoes, the string of a pince-nez knotted through a button hole, the lenses stowed in a breast pocket when they were not on his nose.
When William Kentridge arrives in one of the big world capitals these days, he arrives in force. In 2010 he took Manhattan, with a retrospective at MoMA and a staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. Since then: Berlin, Beijing, Rio, Oaxaca, Mumbai, Milan, Moscow (to name just a few). Earlier this year, a 550-metre long frieze of enormous figures stencilled along the Tiber’s embankment in Rome – his largest public artwork to date. And now London: a major exhibition titled Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery that opens later this month, and will coincide with a production of Alban Berg’s Lulu at English National Opera in November.
Compatriots, fellow Johannesburgers – we have watched with pleasure and perhaps pleasant surprise at just how big WK has made it in the art world. The surprise comes partly from how he has managed to be become genuinely global by remaining unashamedly local. Dürer, Hogarth and Daumier; the whole intellectual apparatus of the Enlightenment; the art of the Russian Revolution and other failed utopias of the 20th century; far-reaching mediations into the nature of space and time – all of the above have been filtered through the singularity of his Jo’burg. Or even more specifically, the three-kilometre radius that comprises Kentridge’s home, the schools he went to, the university of Witwatersrand where he took a degree in politics and African Studies, the Market Gallery where he first started exhibiting in the late 1970s, the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, for which he wrote, acted and directed. As part of a multi-racial community of artists trying to find a way of working through the worst days of the Nationalist regime, Kentridge has spoken of the challenge of addressing “the immovable rock of apartheid” without being limited or fixated by it. To escape the rock, he wrote in 1990, was the great challenge for the artist in those days, for “the rock is possessive, and inimical to good work”: “you cannot face the rock head-on; the rock always wins”. Continue reading