Conversation: William Kentridge

Premiering nationwide Thursday on PBS is Art21’s latest film, “William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible.” Kentridge, a South African artist, is well known for his wide, dynamic range of works: charcoal drawings, animations, video installations, sculptures and performance pieces.

Here’s a trailer for the film:


Earlier this week, I spoke to Kentridge about his work and the film:

A transcript is after the jump.

“William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible” airs tonight in New York at 10:00 p.m. and nationwide on Thursday. Please check your local listings to find out when the program will air on your PBS station.

For more about the film, visit this website.

Last year, Art Beat looked at “William Kentridge: Five Themes,” a major survey that showed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown and joining me today is the artist William Kentridge. He’s the subject of an art:21 film that will air on PBS. It’s called “Anything Is Possible.” Welcome to you.


JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that you talk about in this film is how you found yourself an artist without ever having made a conscious decision to become one. Explain that.

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: I’d been at art school after I finished my undergraduate degree, and then after a year or so of doing that decided in my terms, I had no right to be an artist. So I gave that up and went to study theater in Paris and discovered after three weeks one thing I should not be is an actor. And after that course, came back to South Africa thinking I would become a filmmaker. But the film industry in South Africa was so terrible at the time that in spite of myself after a couple years I found I was back in the studio making drawings, always under the assumption that I was doing this while waiting to see what I would become, what I would do. And at certain point it was in fact what I was doing. I wasn’t going to be doing anything else, so I reduced to being an artist.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your show and your art and the way you talk about it in this film, the engagement that you have with the world around you, and of course that begins with apartheid in South Africa, but I was interested to hear you talk about comparing being an artist to being a lawyer, which I guess from the film both your parents were, but in terms of that kind of engaging the world.

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: Well, I think there are different ways. My parents were both very, very good lawyers, so in one sense, in an immediate way it seemed impossible to follow their footsteps. Those were too large. But it also it became important for me to find my own voice and the only way to do that was to find an opinion or a meaning that was not subject to cross examination, that could not be demolished through rational argument because its rationale was different, its way of being didn’t have to do with the same analytic arrival of premises and conclusions. It had to do much more with intuitions of images and seeing where that once an image was made it was sets of associations that was sparked by that image and hoped that that was a way of arriving at a view of the world. So there was a connection to my parents doing law and me doing art, but not a very clear one.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this film we see you going from trying to take the charcoal drawings and bring them to life through animation, to this very large scale production of the opera, “The Nose,” by Shostakovich. And I’m wondering as you are looking back now do you see this as a kind of natural progression, a natural development to something that large scale? Is it due to a growth in the ambition of your work and your thinking about yourself as an artist?

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: Well, there are two answers. One is that as I remember when I was at high school when I was about 15, we were asked what we wanted to do when we left school. And somewhere in my head I had the idea that I would like to be a conductor of orchestras and to conduct opera. And then somebody said, But you have to be a musician to do that, you have to be able to read music. And I said, You really have to be able to read music to be a conductor? And I’d been very good at conducting the gramophone with a chopstick. And when I realized, No, actually, you have to. I suddenly had to retailor, recalibrate my thoughts around being a musician — it was not an option. And in a way this was the closest I’ve got back to the early ambition of working with opera as a director rather than as conductor. But there’s also a way in which as soon as one works with projection, whatever your scale of drawing, even if your initial images are very small, there’s a possibility of very large expansion. It’s not like the extraordinary skill and activity you would need to do a huge painting or even a huge drawing. There’s a way in which you can fill whatever size wall you like, just depends how bright your projector is. So in that sense the shift of scale is not such a dramatic thing as it looks on stage. And I’ve worked with theater a lot,‘ve done a lot of work with theaters over the years, so the sense of working with actors and performers was not new, either, but the scale of orchestra, of team around, of prompts, of repetiteurs, of all the technical sides, that was the most intimidating shift of scale for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, we also see you doing live performance yourself. I’m sort of curious about that since you were joking about making an attempt to have a life in the theater, which lasted all of a couple of weeks and now you are out sort of doing occasional live presentations. Do you enjoy doing that?

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: I love it theory and then five minutes before I have to start doing it, I think, What on earth did I agree to do this for?

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the answer to that? Why are you doing it?

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: I think there are ways of working with double images of projections and live performance that are — and also I suppose as many artists I have to give a lot a lectures, invited to give a lot lectures, and there are lectures and projections and films that I show, and I thought, for goodness sake instead of muddling, putting together the lecture and the words, try to do something coherent, which uses this form of something that I was doing already, which is lecturing. And I have to think of the lecture performace as a lecture not as acting or it becomes impossible. And in fact as long as I think of it as lecturing it is all right as acting; as soon as I think of it as acting it becomes very bad acting. So there are a lot of lies one has to tell oneself all the time to keep making sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And the art:21 film is called “Anything is Possible.” William Kentridge, thanks for joining us.


JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m Jeffrey Brown for Art Beat, and thank you all for joining us once again.