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Gesamtkunstwerk: an interview with William Kentridge / text Olivia Anani

in something we Africans got issue 7
February 2019

« Even in the simpler productions there are at least eight different things to watch. So one has to understand it is always about an overload, and even in the face of this overload you force your way through, to make sense of a story with its images and all the emotions. And this is something that I would rather celebrate than refuse. »

– William Kentridge

Since the nineties, South African treasure William Kentridge has been engaging with this “total art form,” Gesamtkunstwerk, that is opera, first as an extension of his film practice, then as a stylistic parti-pris in itself. In productions such as Mozart’s The Magic Flute, presented at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in 2005, The Noseat the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2010, The Refusal of Time, and most recently, Notes Towards a Model Opera, presented at the occasion of his retrospective at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Kentridge keeps exploring and pushing the form into the 21st century.

We met the artist in 2015, to discuss his approach and recent attempt at making a piece of art total. The piece was first published in Afrikadaa Issue #10: Politics of Sound.

Olivia Anani : Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Could you please tell us how your practice in film, drawing and theater, eventually came together into this comprehensive medium that is the opera?
William Kentridge : Theater started with workshops that I was doing while in university in South-Africa, before eventually moving to France as a student and realizing that maybe acting was not for me. After returning, I got involved with a puppet theater company in Johannesburg, where I became the artistic director. The question was how I could integrate the animations I was making with the puppets on stage, and create a four-dimensional drawing by combining projection and live performance, all moving through time. This eventually expanded from the theatric form to the opera, namely chamber operas like Monteverdi’s Il riturno d’Ulisse in patria, and a contemporary South African opera with composer Kevin Volans and writer Jane Taylor. From then on we got invited to several festivals, which eventually turned into a full-scale opera in Brussels; the work was called The Confessions of Zeno, and it was previewed at the Documenta in Kassel, with Okwui Enwezor. This was followed by The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and several other projects.

How long is the process to create these operas, and how do you go about working on them? For example with The Magic Flute, both the score and text (libretto) are already known, so how do you approach these predetermined factors? Each piece takes three to five years to make, with only the last six weeks devoted to rehearsal. The rest is happening in the studio. On top of the actual performance at the opera house, with the ensemble, choir and the whole machinery of it, they also take different forms, like exhibitions. The process in all of them really has to do with finding the formal vocabulary that the piece will be built on. With The Magic Flute, which is a story about darkness and light, it took the form of a metaphor. I was thinking about the photographic negative and positive, both as a way of drawing, and as an ongoing investigation into the nature of shadow and light, and the imbrications of both. It is a subject which I explored in previous works like the Shadow Procession.

William Kentridge « Drawing lessons and what to do alone with oneself », Courtesy Goodman Gallery
Could you tell us a little more about Notes Towards a Model Opera, the project you did in Beijing over the summer? The project was born first as part of the ongoing collaboration that I have with Dada Masilo, with whom I worked on The Refusal of Time. I wanted to keep working with her on a new project, and on the other hand I’d seen some videos of model operas conceived during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I found interesting the idea to take a late nineteenth century balletic form and infusing it with a revolutionary, communist subject. There is such an interesting clash between the form and content.
So we first had a workshop in Johannesburg, which led Dada to come back to dancing on pointe, a thing she hadn’t done in many years. So the piece is infused with several elements of dance and movements specific to classical ballet, the language of Dada’s dance, which richly references South African and southern African dance, and elements of the Chinese revolutionary operas.
William Kentridge,  » Notes Towards a Model Opera « , Courtesy Goodman Gallery

William Kentridge,  » Notes Towards a Model Opera « , Courtesy Goodman Gallery

I also had in mind the date of 1968, the year in which the Cultural Revolution began, and all the things happening during that period in various places: you had the student uprisings in France, Algeria to a certain extent, which in the early sixties was fighting for its independence, and seeing what these meant for me as a thirteen-year-old boy in South Africa. Bringing all these elements together also put in perspective the relationship between more and less powerful countries, and what China represents in South Africa now, in Africa at large and its implications. By that I mean large amounts of primary resources and commodities leaving the countries, among other things. These can also be linked to the Paris Commune in 1871 and the formal qualities of revolutionary movements in general. So we take something that you think of as a very specific moment in Chinese history and culture, and show its connections to all of us around the world, at different epochs. It’s about the impurity of moments.

The work currently exists as a video installation. It contains brass bands, Dada’s dancing, drawings, slogans, all those things happening around a revolution. It functions more or less as a video notebook of what a revolutionary opera today could be made of, in terms of content. Maybe, it would be about the chaos of finding a simple interpretation of it all.

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo in  » Notes Towards a Model Opera « , Courtesy Goodman Gallery
William Kentridge, Dada Masilo in  » Notes Towards a Model Opera « , Courtesy Goodman Gallery

What was your experience presenting this work in China? I was surprised to see that many people who came to the exhibition had seen my work before, if only on Youtube. And artists and writers came as well, asking very interesting questions. I think that most people were intrigued by “the piece on the cultural revolution.” The essay I wrote on the subject was denied permission to be printed in the Chinese catalogue, so a few days before the exhibition we had to print it as a brochure, which we handed out at the opening.

William Kentridge,  » Notes Towards a Model Opera « , Courtesy Goodman Gallery

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William Kentridge,  » Notes Towards a Model Opera « , Courtesy Goodman gallery

This is quite surprising, as such issues are not as frequent as people might think. I was surprised, and so was Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center. But I guess it happens.

You have talked about the deceptive character of images, and how they influence what we see and hear. How do you think the operatic form, as a synthesis of several different art forms, comes into that? There are a lot of elements coming in at the same time… Some people think there are too many! But I guess rather than be panic-struck to see everything, you see what you see, it’s more about constructing your own view of it.
Yes, I also think that way. And if we take the context of your work emerging at a time of a complex political history in South Africa, it makes sense. This is also what we see in the world today in terms of political history: so much information, all of it biased, coming to us at the same time, and us trying to make sense of it. Right. For some previous operas I think there was a complete overload of images, so at some point you give up and fall asleep. (laughs) I think we’ll simplify some of the images for the next productions, we’re really watching and judging at the same time; but the thing with opera is that it is a form of excess. You have the text, the singing, the translation of the text, the actors, the set, the musicians… you are not simply closing your eyes and listening to pure music. Even in the simpler productions there are at least eight different things to watch. So one has to understand it is always about an overload, and even in the face of this overload you force your way through, to make sense of a story with its images and all the emotions. And this is something that I would rather celebrate than refuse.

I find it interesting that we talk about this question of confusion and overload of information, because the operatic form itself, starting from the various languages operas are written in to the way the songs are interpreted, is somehow inevitably sure to induce confusion. Which is the reason why one needs a translation at all. Is it the ultimate form for this information age? I find that even with songs that are in your native language, there is a difficulty to actually follow the words. Most of the time you hear some of the words, and then you drift off and only listen to the music. And the same goes in opera with the libretto. But ultimately, these are theatre plays set to music, so you have to follow the story, or it loses its purpose and interest. I think there’s a difference between the singer, who has to know the words, and the audience and its relationship to the text..

William Kentridge, « More sweetly play the dance », Courtesy Goodman gallery

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William Kentridge, « More sweetly play the dance », Courtesy Goodman gallery
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I had one more question regarding the habit that you have to insert yourself in your work. Some artists like to retreat form the work, but not you. Why was it important for you to engage with your pieces that way? I think it’s a recent trend, that we have seen in the past fifty or maybe one hundred years, of artists talking about their work. I found early on that I was invited to give lectures about it, which forced me to reflect on it. And I also had to be the one performing the result of that reflection, in the form of the lecture. So eventually the lecture grew into the work, and this became The Refusal of Time. Sometimes an actor is playing my part in the lecture. There is another body of work that is set in the studio, so I was in it as well. I am not a novelist, I cannot project myself into someone else’s head. Some authors can imagine what it might be like to be, say, a 14 year-old girl living in Arizona. Now that is an impossible task for me. So it keeps coming back to the self, ultimately it is an examination of oneself.

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William Kentridge « Drawing lessons and what to do alone with oneself », Courtesy Goodman Gallery
William Kentridge « Drawing lessons and what to do alone with oneself », Courtesy Goodman Gallery
What is your relationship to classical music, and what are key figures in music today that influence your practice? Classical music is the music I grew up with as a child, and it is often on in the studio, sometimes as a sound barrier to block out noise coming from the surroundings, as a non-listener. I was also recently re-listening to music from Congo, the former Zaïre, like Papa Wemba, or Greek sentimental songs from the 20s for a project in Istanbul, and South African brass bands.
in something we Africans got issue 7
Olivia Anani 
February 2019