“It wasn’t a choice, being an artist was what I was reduced to”

In a new film, William Kentridge talks frankly about his early lack of creative direction and evolution as an artist

Casting his eye: production still from "William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible", 2010

Non-profit producers Art21’s contributions to American channel PBS’ autumn season begin this month with a video portrait of South African artist William Kentridge, “Anything Is Possible”, 2010.

Kentridge’s art consists of painstakingly animated charcoal drawings, sculpture, automata and performance. He has also been involved with theatrical productions and puppet theatre, and more recently he has directed and designed three opera productions: Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses”, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, and Shostakovich’s “The Nose” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York earlier this year.

In Charles Atlas’ film, Kentridge talks about his early lack of creative direction and evolution as an artist, interspersed with a selective history of his time-based work, and we watch as he creates and rehearses his production of “The Nose” in New York.

Kentridge’s work is keenly sought after and his impressive exhibition history includes the recent survey at the Museum of Modern Art (2010), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004) and two Documentas (1997 and 2002). Yet, despite his status as one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world”, there is something refreshingly non-art scene about him. It could be that his continued residence in his home country keeps him at a safe remove from the excesses of art world fashion and gossip, or it might simply be that he is a serious and self-deprecating man.

“I ended up as an artist,” he says to camera. “It wasn’t a decision I made, it wasn’t a choice, it was what I was reduced to.”

After university, where he studied politics, Kentridge took a fine arts diploma, followed by courses in mime in Paris. He was an actor (by his own account not a very good one) and theatre director in Johannesburg from the mid 1970s until the early 1990s, supplemented by work as an art director for South African television in the 1980s. It was while working on television productions that he realised that he needed a change of direction.

“When I was lying awake at four in the morning, worrying if I had the right period matchbox for the shoot the next day, I thought ‘No, no, no…this isn’t what I should be spending the rest of my life doing’.”

His art is strongly rooted in the traditions of European absurdism, with clear nods to the theatre of Antonin Artaud and Alfred Jarry, as well as Russian constructivism and Russian and German expressionist cinema. His witness to apartheid and its dismantling (his parents were activist anti-apartheid lawyers) give his work a politicised, if not overtly political, narrative that also reflects much of European art and theatre of the early 20th century. And while there is much to be amused by in his jerky automata, overdrawn animations and distorted sculptures, he is quick to warn against misunderstandings of the comedic aspects of absurdism.

“The absurd [is] not…a peripheral mistake at the edge of society,” he says, “but a central point of construction. The absurd, for me, is a species of realism rather than a species of joke or fun…”

Later he tells a theatre audience: “I am only an artist. My job is to make drawings, not to make sense.”

Kentridge’s production of the “The Nose” throws into sharper relief the sometimes fuzzy boundaries that emerge when established practitioners in one field transfer their vision to another. So strong are the moving images and stylisations that the artist brings to the opera, that it is almost like watching two pieces in one: a Kentridge work informed by Shostakovich and Nikolai Gogol (who wrote the original short story, The Nose), as well as an extant theatrical piece under his particular control.

Credit must also go to the director, Charles Atlas. A distinctive and celebrated creative voice in his own right, here he takes an effective and clear-sighted approach to his subject, creating a well-wrought portrait without ever straying into the light himself.

“William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible” airs on 21 October at 10pm EST on PBS. Local listings may vary

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