November 28, 2018


William Kentridge at the Art Gallery of NSW

By Miriam Cosic

William Kentridge, Telegrams from the nose (world on its hind legs), 2007, Indian ink, found pages, coloured pencil and collage on paper, 25 x 23.5cm. Collection of Naomi Milgrom AO © William Kentridge

This exhibition gives rare insight into the boundlessly curious artist’s process

The child of activist anti-Apartheid lawyers, South African William Kentridge continues to fight the good fight, even as he is preoccupied with his art. His work manages to be thought provoking without being didactic. It can be humorous, or sombre. It is gestural, suggestive, perplexing. It reminds me of Baudelaire’s 19th-century definition of modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”.

And it is multidisciplinary – running the gamut from drawing to painting, to collage, to sculpture, to installation, to brief videos made of hand-drawn frames that look nothing like cartoons, to puppetry in the operas he directs – as though he needs all the tools he can muster to begin to make the contents of his monkey mind material. His work is mostly in black and white, with the odd surprising stroke of bright colour. It is concrete and symbolic at once. “My work,” he has said, “is about the provisionality of the moment.”

Kentridge himself curated his current show at the Art Gallery of NSW. Called that which we do not remember, it gives visitors insight into his private studio and, through that, into not only what he makes but also how he makes it.

The woodcut print that lends its inscription in Italian – Quello che non ricordo – to the title is the starting point. It is in monochrome and full of the many registers Kentridge deploys: reminiscent here, to this journalist at least, of newsprint. Its complicated making is outlined in his gem of a catalogue: a wooden block, a slab of glass, black printer’s ink, rollers. The original elements – a tree, a man, a boat, wheels – are manipulated, deleted and highlighted by spreading ink. The central black square, despite its contrasting inflections, is a nod to Malevich, who plundered bits of cloth from old costumes to make his famous square.

In the catalogue, Kentridge remarks on the “inauthentic origin even of that iconic image”. Malevich’s square, he writes, also recalls “the use of printer’s ink to obliterate images, to force a dismembering of people, to cover over people who were no longer personae gratae in the Soviet Union and whose very names and memories needed to be destroyed”.

Kentridge connects, disrupts, dismantles and rebuilds. He reveals the inner workings of the world, whether that be about power, or psychology, or geometry. He once told me that politics and art don’t blend easily together. “When I tried to marry the two, I didn’t really like the art at all,” he said of his early years as an activist and an artist. He is now 63. “It was only when I relaxed that need that there started to be a fruitful relationship between the two. When I said, ‘Let’s see what the picture is,’ rather than, ‘This is the Leninist message that must be conveyed.’”

In Kentridge’s work, the political is personal. His body, balding and portly, often stands in for universal man.

The Over-Determined Branch (2013) and The Hope in the Charcoal Cloud (2014) are collections of pages from a putative book. The background of each is a yellowing page of a dictionary. Over some of these pages, Kentridge has drawn pictures of himself walking, standing on a chair, dismounting from the chair. Over others are words, such as “THE BLOOD ON THE BLOOM” or “WHILST PEERING THROUGH DARKNESS”, or drawn images of a globe or a man carrying a load on his back. In Telegrams from the Nose (2007) similar backgrounds are overlaid with collages of phrases made of newspaper headline cut-outs like anonymous notes sent in a thriller, or with drawings of a man in a shower, or a horse, or a globe walking on long legs that resemble the pylons of an oil rig.

It is difficult to use words to describe images that are so elliptical they draw you in precisely because you’re not sure what they mean. Knowing the background helps. A bronze sculpture, Nose I (Scissors), from 2007 depicts a large nose balanced on thin legs that look like secateurs, standing on two antiquarian books, representations of the collected works of Macaulay. This is a reference to Gogol’s short story “The Nose”, and to the opera that Shostakovich based on it, which Kentridge has designed and directed on stage.

Although everything that Kentridge produces seems to emerge from the passing parade of thoughts in his own busy mind, the works often have an ulterior purpose. Bird Catching, for example, came out of his 2005 production of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute for La Monnaie, the Royal Opera House in Belgium. Similarly, some poignant mournful drawings of burnt-out destruction in a rural landscape, made in 1992, come from the sketches for his first collaboration with the world-renowned (thanks mostly to Kentridge) Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa: Woyzeck on the Highveld, an adaption of George Büchner’s famous play.

In the 2006 series of etchings called Bird Catching, he has drawn images of South African birds over parabolas and splotches with those recognisable silhouettes of himself intervening from time to time. In one, a large, black and predatory cat’s head on a man’s suited body peers out of the frame while a birds sit nonchalantly on a line above him.

In another installation, called What Will Come (has already come) from 2007, Kentridge has built a turntable with a mirrored cylinder in the centre. On the turntable is a messy mass of drawn curves that, only when viewed on the mirror from a specific vantage point, resolve into orderly lines. “In order to draw what appears as a straight line on the mirror, a corresponding curve must be drawn on the sheet of paper,” he writes in the catalogue.

Kentridge’s curiosity becomes our curiosity. Visitors to the show shift their proximity to the work, testing the angles, the parabolas and the intended results. The thoughts that remain when one has walked away, however, are about perspective and the trustworthiness of our senses in real life.

Reaching for words to describe Kentridge’s highly intellectual work is an ironic exercise. The imagery cuts precisely through chatter, with visceral surprise and enigmatic beauty. His genius is his ability to reach for myriad aspects of the world, to dismantle them and to present them new to jaded eyes. After an hour with Kentridge, we can no longer take anything for granted.


William Kentridge: that which we do not remember is on now at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, until February 2, 2019.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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