PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.2 (2005) 28-44
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William Kentridge interviewed by Cheryl Kaplan
The South Africa artist William Kentridge has been working for more than three decades in visual art, animation, theatre, and film. He was a founding member of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company in Johannesburg and Soweto from 1975–1991 and collaborated with the Handspring Puppet Company on the multimedia productions, also directed by him, including: Woyzeck on the Highveld (1982), Faustus in Africa! (1995), Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), Monteverdi's opera Il Ritorno d'Ulisse (1998), and Zeno at 4 am (2001) which have toured several continents. The latter two productions, combining actors, musicians, puppets, and projections were presented at the "New Visions" series of New York's Lincoln Center in recent years. Solo exhibitions of the artist's work have been mounted in his native Johannesburg, several European cities, and in Asia. The first major U.S. retrospective devoted to Kentridge opened, in 2002, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., before traveling to the New Museum of Contemporary Art in N.Y., and Houston and Los Angeles. The Marian Goodman Gallery, in New York, regularly exhibits his drawings and films. Among his well-known animated films, which use charcoal and pastel drawing, are Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris; History of the Main Complaint; Felix in Exile. Kentridge has received the prestigious Carnegie Prize and he is a frequent participant in international art shows and fairs; his films have been shown in numerous festivals and museum retrospectives. Cheryl Kaplan, a New York artist, critic, and producer of Laurie Anderson's new high-definition film for the upcoming World Expo in Japan, conducted the interview over a two-year period, completing it during the New York run of Il Ritorno d'Ulisse, in 2004.
In your animated films and especially with the theatre work, Il Ritorno d'Ulisse, the protagonist is often in turmoil, either personal or political. An inner and outer upheaval starts as a parallel, reflective action and then becomes self-interrogating. I'm thinking of Soho Eckstein, the capitalist, lying in a coma in the History of the Main Complaint, done in 1996. Eckstein is utterly indifferent to political reality until he becomes consumed by disease and falls to pieces in a hospital, monitored by a group of doctors who look just like him and are useless. You wrote, "Surrounded by surgeons trying to rouse [End Page 28] him. How to find the weight keeping him unconscious, how to find the event to rouse him." The turmoil gets bigger until the character splits apart, physically and mentally, and mutates into someone else or something else. Sometimes your characters dissolve into a ground swell of underground tunnels. Part of this process is intrinsic to animation that is made up of cells or single shots strung together to form movement where one event leads to the next and so on until the accumulated transformations finally explode. Sometimes these events are humorous, other times, tragic. How does your use of animation change between work you do for the theatre as opposed to the process of development and viewing associated with your films seen in a gallery or museum context?
There's one similarity, the theatre pieces usually involve many months of drawing the animations. So that's not such a different activity. With some of the theatre pieces, the animation came first and the plot second. In almost all cases, for the theatre, the starting point is some formal idea. For the first collaboration I did with the Handspring Puppet Company, Woyzeck on the Highveld, in 1992, the starting point was their carved wooden puppets and their way of making puppets. They demonstrated some of their puppets to me.
Did they create the puppets before you did the animations?
I worked on a piece of animation and then they made a puppet that was going to be a witch, no, a woman covered with newspapers—that was the first puppet they carved and I...