William Kentridge on turning his drawings into films, being inspired by dreams—and catching Covid-19

The South African artist talks about his new animation City Deep, now on show at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg

A still from William Kentridge's video explaining his new film City Deep (2020) Courtesy of Goodman Gallery

A still from William Kentridge's video explaining his new film City Deep (2020) Courtesy of Goodman Gallery

When you are an artist as in demand as William Kentridge, an international lockdown is a bittersweet scenario. Normally busy travelling and working on numerous projects, the coronavirus pandemic has meant that the South African artist has been able to spend eight months undisturbed at home. "I haven't had this amount of studio time for probably 40 years and it has been very rich," he says.

One of the fruits of this bountiful period of production has been a new animation, City Deep, which was finished this year. The 11th film in the artist's Drawings for Projection series, it continues to follow the main character Soho Eckstein, a middle-aged businessman in Johannesburg. In the animation he surveys post-industrial South Africa, with depictions of a crumbling Johannesburg Art Gallery juxtaposed with scenes showing the phenomenon of the Zama Zamas—illegal "artisanal" miners in South Africa who search old mines for remnants of gold. The film is on show alongside other recent works in his exhibition City Deep at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg (6 October-12 November).

Here, we speak to Kentridge about his new animation, how he goes about making his unique films and how his studio all caught Covid-19.

The Art Newspaper: It’s been almost a decade since you made a film in this series. Why has this one been so long coming?

William Kentridge: I wish I could answer that easily. I think one of the things is that you need clear months ahead to make a film and the last years have been very broken up by a mixture of exhibitions, opera productions and theatre performances that each have very specific deadlines. So the work on the animated films, which don't have a deadline, have to fit in between other work. About two years ago, I decided this was nonsense and I needed to clear some months away in which to work on City Deep. Of course, this year, I've had months and months and months, but I've been working on a different project, not another Soho film.

In the first years when I was just developing the animation technique there were a flurry of films and then gradually it settled into a different rhythm. Suddenly I’ve come back to it and I’ve had to ground myself in the technique, in the way of working, and in the constraints of the of the form. In a way, each film becomes a long self-portrait.

An installation view of City Deep (2020) at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg Courtesy of Goodman Gallery

In your Drawings for Projection series there are two main characters: the ruthless white capitalist Soho Eckstein and his sensitive and artistic alter ego Felix Teitlebaum. What or who inspired these two characters?

The two lead characters came from dream images. In 1988-89 I was keeping a dream diary. When I started making the first animated film Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (1989) and I needed to populate it, I remembered these two different people who arrived in my dreams. I put them into the film, without any expectation that the film would be part of a series and certainly not that it would go on for 30 years. If I'd had that knowledge, I'd have been much more anxious about who the characters were, what their representation was, whether there were enough white people and black people, men and women; all the kinds of questions that come when you're embarking on such a long project. But the film began by drawing and seeing what happened. There was none of that thinking and, in retrospect, that's been the virtue of the series.

Do dreams often inspire your films?

I suppose there are a few occasions in which dreams have had an effect on work, but very few. The most noticeable was an exhibition in Italy, for which I had to make a new work. The deadline got closer and closer and I had less and less of an idea of what to do. Then I had a dream in which I was at an exhibition of works by other artists and every piece of work I saw, I said: “damn, if only I thought of that myself, I could have done that for this exhibition that I have to do now”. And when I woke up I decided that for the exhibition I would recreate all the other artists’ works that I'd seen in my dream. In the became one work called Sleeping on Glass (1999).

I think one goes through phases of remembering and noting dreams and other times we just remember them briefly. Most of the time you are holding on to a dream as you come to wakefulness, and at the last moment it slips out of your grasp and as you reach the surface of wakefulness, you just have a sense of the dream receding into the depth behind you.

A still from City Deep showing the Johannesburg Art Gallery Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

You choose to use quite basic animation techniques. How does the process work and what makes you choose this method?

The films initially started as a record of drawings that I was making. The charcoal drawings came first and the technique of erasure and redrawing was a way of arriving at a static drawing. Then I started filming the process. So the films arrived rather than being decided upon. Today, the drawing technique is still the same [charcoal drawing] but I used a digital camera for the first time for City Deep instead of a 35mm camera. This is partly because of the absence of film stock and laboratories to process film in South Africa. But certainly all the editing is done on computers.

I'm not interested in the computer doing the animation, in filling in between and using techniques of drawing on a screen—there's something about the feel of paper and charcoal that is essential, and that a mousepad and a pressure pen or stylus doesn't begin to approximate. The analogue basis at the heart of it all is essential. It makes it much slower, there's no doubt, but the length of time it takes to make a film is part of the process of thinking about it—it is an essential element. City Deep probably took six months of drawing and a few months of editing.

City Deep juxtaposes a museum and the mining industry, with the paintings in the gallery depicting mining scenes and the back of a canvas even morphing into a mine shaft. What connection are you making here?

Gold mining is the basis of the existence of the city of Johannesburg. In the early days of mining and the first 30 years of the city from the 1880s, it was certainly the fastest growing city in the world. There were large numbers of people who came mostly from Britain, who opened mining houses, made a fortune in the gold mines, and then went back to live in London. There was a period of time when there was a sense of shame about this, which I suspect doesn't exist anymore. And the wife of the mining magnate Lionel Phillips apparently made a statement that unless some contribution was made to the city, the names of those mining magnates would go down in infamy for simply having extracted what they could and having left. That was the basis of the collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, so that is the connection. Now, the gallery is neglected, partly because of where it is in the city centre, but also because of a lack of interest from the city and from the curators who have been working there. In a way you can say there's been a parallel in the shrinking of the mining industry and the collapse of the art gallery.

A still from City Deep showing a Zama Zama, which translated from Zulu means "try your luck" or "take a chance" Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

At the end of City Deep the gallery falls in on itself. Could this be a metaphor for our current times?

I'm not sure if the gallery in itself is a metaphor for our times, but it is certainly a description of what's actually happening in that gallery. It's an elegy for the museum that was so close to me in my childhood and so much of my adult life. It is still painful that it has collapsed in this very helpless way. The desperation of a lot of the Zama Zama miners and the importance of the informal economy—people just trying to stay alive in South Africa—is a very present element of life here at the moment.

What have you been doing during the pandemic?

There's a paradox here. I do a lot of work with performers, dancers, actors and so for those colleagues and friends it has been a calamitous time—there's been no work, no income, and no possibility of even rehearsing with studios being closed. I'm very aware of the huge distress this has caused. I'm also really keen to get out to visit my granddaughter, whom I haven't yet seen, and to visit my 98-year-old father.

But for me, I've had eight months in Johannesburg in my studio—day after day, week after week—which has been fantastic. It's been a blessing. For part of the lockdown our children also stayed with us for the first time in many years. So, it was definitely not entirely a period of gloom.

For the first extreme lockdown, it was just me in the studio. Then when the lockdown ended, more people came back and we started filming and then 13 of us got Covid-19. Fortunately, we all recovered. I'm very aware of the difference between the local richness of being in the circumstance and the broader public calamity that this is making. But then paradox is always, for me, a such a central category in understanding the world.