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Artist William Kentridge Honored In San Diego


We'll speak to one of this year's Kyoto Laureates. Visual artist William Kentridge is being honored for his innovative and haunting "drawings in motion."


As part of the celebration for the 26th annual Kyoto Prize, artist William Kentridge will speak at the University of San Diego's Shiley Theatre, at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, April 6.

Last year in New York City, it was hard to miss the many talents of artist William Kentridge. A major exhibition of his work opened at the Museum of Modern Art, Kentridge directed and designed a production of the Shostakovich Opera "The Nose" at the Metropolitan Opera and he performed a theatrical monologue before an overflow audience. Kentridge's innovative visual work, his "drawings in motion," became well-known outside his native South Africa more than a decade ago. It's then that William Kentridge began receiving international recognition including this year's Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.


William Kentridge, visual artist, is a 2011 Kyoto Prize Laureate for outstanding contributions to society.

william kentridge: anything is possible (2010)

Watch the full episode. See more ART:21.

William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible gives viewers an intimate look into the mind and creative process of William Kentridge, the South African artist whose acclaimed charcoal drawings, animations, video installations, shadow plays, mechanical puppets, tapestries, sculptures, live performance pieces, and operas have made him one of the most dynamic and exciting contemporary artists working today. With its rich historical references and undertones of political and social commentary, Kentridge's work has earned him inclusion in Time magazine's 2009 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Last year in New York city it was hard to miss the many talents of artist William Kentridge. A major exhibition of his work opened up at the Museum of Modern art. Kentridge directed and designed a production of the Shostakovich opera the Nose at the Metropolitan Opera, and he performed a theatrical monologue before an overflow audience. Kentridge's innovative visual work, his drawings in motion, became well known outside of his native South Africa more than a decade ago. Since then William Kentridge has been receiving international recognition and honors including this year's Kyoto prize in art and philosophy. It's an honor to introduce my guest, William Kentridge, good morning.

KENTRIDGE: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: In your animated films, your charcoal drawings, they seem to come alive. They -- they introduce us to a world of dreams that change and dissolve and reappear. So I'm wondering, do you start with a story line or basically do the images dictate with the film goes?

KENTRIDGE: An important of it is that the films are made without a script or a story board. And the belief that the physical act of making the drawing, and that the mind, sort of walking back and forth between the cameras and the walls in the studio, is the process in which the mind works, in which ideas happen. New images are suggested, connections between different images emerging so that gradually over the 8 or 9 months of making a film, a structure will emerging. And the hope is that it is always going to be a more interesting structure and film than that would have been the case if I had written a script in advance.

CAVANAUGH: When I look at these an mated film, they are very dreamlike, they are like a dream, in that an image will appear and change and fade and come become. And you don't quite know what it means. You have to sit and ponder afterwards.

KENTRIDGE: Some of the strategies, I suppose, of dream work are there. And you're right that the films absolutely require a generous viewing by the audience. And I suppose there's a polemic in that, in that I do believe that the way we make our world through the world is in constantly completing conflicting incoherent clues that we get from the world around us. And we believe at the end of the day that we've had a relatively coherent day. And with films it's the same way, there are elements and fragment, but enormous gaps between those fragments which on the one hand you can say is a generosity of an audience or of a viewer to complete. But I think it's more of an inability to stop ourselves completing meaning. We are meaning making machines. That's one of the things we do. Give us any two images or sentences or words and we will try to make a possible, not necessarily the original meaning, but a possible meaning. And so I'm always very interested in productive misunderstandings and productive mistranslations.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you described at least your early animation as stone aged film making. Of why?

KENTRIDGE: I suppose because when I understood that, one of the things I had to work with was not a script, not a story board, that is to say, not clarity and not certainty. If you're working with a team of technicians or of other people in I studio, you have to know what you're doing. You have to be able to give them instruction of but if you're working with one of your primary pieces of uncertainty and doubt, then you really need to be on your own. And so it had to be a way of making films that I could do entirely on my own. So it's very simple charcoal drawings, and instead of thousands of different drawings to make a film, which does need a studio of people making those drawings, it's a few drawings which are endlessly altered and redrawn. So in this, I suppose it's a very primitive technology, it's charcoal, which is like stone age coal, so to speak, and it uses an old 35 mill movie camera from the 1940s, and is very -- and it's basic also in the sense that in the morning, you find I want to start a flew project in a film, by lunchtime, there's film going through the camera, and the film has begun. It's not what is the case of most film making that 90 percent of the work is convincing other people of the need for your film. If you think of all the Hollywood films, the last six weeks of the actual making of the film, practicing your art, and the previous six years are jumping through different producers' hoops of so at a certain point I made a decision that I will never write a proposal, ever. I will never try to explain to people in advance what it is that I want to do. I need to be in a position where I can practice the technique, the discipline, my art, without being dependent on the good will or the whim of some producer.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting because I know that you -- I believe that I know that you started out as a young man wanting to be an actor. ; is that right?

KENTRIDGE: I mean, I wanted to be many things. I wanted to be an artist and at the same point I did not have the right to be an artist. I did not have anything to say. And I decided I would an actor. So I went to theater school in paris for year. And I found that whatever I was doing, it was always exactly the same. So whatever character I was meant to be, it always felt the same as the person I played last week, and the same project I'd done two weeks before. So I became interested in directing but had a sense that I'd failed as an actor. Then I came back to South Africa and tried to work in the film industry, designing other people's films for television series, but failed at that also. And then in the end kind of by default was reduced to being an artist again.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you speak about South Africa, your father was a prominent antiapartheid attorney in South Africa. You came from a politically active family. How did growing up in that environment shape the art that you made?

KENTRIDGE: Well, it did, I think in key ways of the first was in understanding that there was a huge gap in understanding the way society described itself, as a naturalized society and the way it actually was with these extraordinary illogical anomalies of white privilege and restrictive laws against the black population. It also made me understand society as unstable. And there was such an illogic in it that even though there was such a repression, it was not a society that could continue. And so it made me understand I think that movement and process rather than fact was interesting. That the world can be described as fact, this is I table, here is a table, but you can also understand a table as one moment in the transition of something that starts as a tree, gets cut down into planks, goes through this moment of being a table, but in ten years time, it's going to be scrap wood and eventually ash. So that way of understanding the world as process rather than fact was one of the things that came tout of the instability of living in South Africa.

CAVANAUGH: And one reviewer said that a lot of your art, a lot of your output as an artist is not able to be fully understood without the historical context of South Africa. Would you agree with that?

KENTRIDGE: Well, I don't. I think that one of the great things that we have as human beings is an extraordinary flexibility of understanding contexts that are not our own. And maybe we understand them incorrectly, but as I said before, I'm very interested in productive misunderstanding. So to give a very easy example, I've never been to Dublin, but I've read James Joyce's Ulysses, and so in my head, I have constructed a possible Dublin. If I go to Dublin, I'll maybe discover it's a completely different city. But it's the coherence of what I've been able to construct from reading the novel is such that it feels a very vivid place, and the novel extremely vivid, so I would say many people would not understand some of the specific Johannesburg or south African references in the film, but that does not stop people from being able to imagine a South Africa, a possible context. And usually those misunderstandings are more interesting than the view of the place from someone who has been there.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I mentioned in the opening that you do direct and design operas, this production of the Nose at the metropolitan opera, and other operas. And you it's interesting the way that give these operas your own stamp, your own particular look. Where did that notion come about for you?

KENTRIDGE: Well, I mean the -- the roundabout answer that everything starts as drawing, sometimes a drawing stays simply as a static, two-dimensional drawing. Sometimes that drawing moves through time when it gets animated so you can say it's two dimensions plus time. And sometimes that projection and animated projection gets put on a stage with actors or puppets in front, which is a kind of drawing in four dimensions then. So the form, the fact that it ends up as an opera or that it's on stage is secondary to the fact that it's a continuation of the process of drawing, of finding connections between images, and through that activity constructing a final meaning.

CAVANAUGH: It's interesting to me that -- to learn that in some of your exhibitions where your animations are shown, the original charcoal drawings are on display as well. And I'm wondering how important is it for you for those drawings to stand on their own?

KENTRIDGE: Well, are the drawings, there's no hierarchy in the work. So there's a film which you would see, and there's maybe an opera that you see, and there are the drawings which arrive in the making. So they're applied drawings. Drawings made often in the service of something else. And what happens is that within a film or an opera, for example, there are often narratively images needed which I would never get to as images if I was simply setting out to make a drawing. And very often those images which are arrived at in the service of the narrative of the story or the needs of the film are more interesting as drawings than the other drawings I have made. So in some ways, I think of the film or the opera as a very recondite complicated way of arriving at a suite of drawings. And in fact when the opera production is finished which it's done after 5 or 10 or 20 performances, what you're left with for various other artifacts, whether they're drawings or sculptures, and I don't ever say this is the final end point. So the opera is a big event, it involves hundreds of people to realize it. But the drawings or videos or other things left in its wake are in many cases that which resides longest.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you a bit about the international recognition that you are in the process of receiving now as the recipient of the Kyoto prize, and also. I know that you were, a year or so ago, among time magazine's most influential people in the world. When you wake up in the morning and you get that phone call, what's that like?

KENTRIDGE: Well, it's always good to temper the kind of the response of my family whose response would be much more, oh, what are they talking about? We know you. You're not that. It does feel as if it's happening to someone else. I know the person it's happening to, and sometimes we have coffee together, and it's familiar enough. But it's most of the time it doesn't -- it's not me. It's someone else.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when you are named one of the most influential people, do you also think about your own influences? Who are your influences?

KENTRIDGE: I think one has different -- if you think of all the advice one's given in the world, in one's life, the thousands of pieces of advice, there may be 3 or 4 that ever stick with you of the 23000. And those pieces of advice usually correspond to things you know already or things you need to hear. But it's -- none the less, I feel extremely close and influenced by those people that gave me particularly good moments of advice at the time when I needed to hear them. So the south African photographer David gold blat is one of contemporaries of people.

CAVANAUGH: What did he share with you?

KENTRIDGE: He shared with me at one point, saying, well, what he said was -- at one point, I was in an agony about what should an artist be doing, the Leninist question, what images are needed in the world? What is to be done? And he said it really doesn't matter what the subject matter is, whether it's a drawing of a riot or a bowl of apples. In the end what comes out in your work is you. Your fears, your desires. So stop the anxiety about what should you be doing, work with what you like, with what you know, with what interests you, and in the end, you'll discover who you are. So that was, in terms of a relief, a perspective that gave me -- it took a huge wait off my shoulders in terms of saying, all right, the whole world is open as subject matter for images.

CAVANAUGH: And we do have to leave it there. But thank you so much. I've been speaking with William Kentridge, he is this year's recipient of the Kyoto prize in arts and philosophy. Now, as part of the celebration for the 26th annual Kyoto prize, William Ken contributory negligence will speak at the yesterday of San Diego's Shawnee Theatre tomorrow at ten in the morning. Thank you.

KENTRIDGE: Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment, please go on-line, Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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