I went to see the William Kentridge exhibition, 'Thick Time' over at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester last week. Every time I go to see a Kentridge exhibition I find something new to think about and something else for me as an artist to aspire to. There are very few artists that I can revisit over and over again and still find myself engaged and thinking about how my awareness of the world changes as I look at it through his lens. This is not to say that his work is great or profound, just that the way he struggles to put together narratives about his own experiences of the world seems to chime in some way with my own. I'm older than he is, but only by five years, so my upbringing, although far away in the English Black Country, was in some ways similar. He was though from a very intellectual and well connected family; Clement Greenberg came to tea at Kentridge's family home when William was a young man, and I think it probably took some courage to not be directly influenced by Greenberg's powerful modernist doctrine. I had to reject Greenberg's ideas as anti-working class via a different route, but both of us needed to find a way of saying things about the world by using metaphor. Art for a long time seemed to reject narrative and analogy. These were things I always wanted art to include, but I spent many years having to fight for some sort of acceptance that what I was doing was ok, that it could be seen as legitimate fine art practice. Even now, I sometimes get accused of being too illustrational, but it doesn't worry me any more, I just get on with what I do.
From 'Thick Time'
Kentridge uses metaphor in a layered way and this time I made sure I sat in with his animated installations long enough to see them through and to get an idea of what they were like if you moved into different positions to listen to them as well as watch them unfold. In doing this you get a better idea of the correspondence between the processes of his making and processes we find in the world itself. He has said himself that drawing is analogous to thought, and that for him, "the activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world". More recently his drawing concerns have moved on from being a type of thinking, (epistemological research) to becoming much more about a state of being, about worlds that are places to inhabit, as well as a process out of which worlds arrive. (Ontological investigations). He has also commented that we "actively construct our world as we go through it", something that is also what we do when we draw.
The processes that Kentridge uses such as animation or printmaking are also metaphoric; animation moves through time and therefore appears to Kentridge as a medium ideally suited to dealing with history. Printmaking pushes information from loaded plates onto paper proofs, the press squeezing the ink into the papers operating as some sort of 'proving' process as well as 'proofing' process. The texts about his practice, all state that Kentridge is working through his South African trauma. I'm not sure what I'm working through, perhaps it's the British post industrial and post colonial loss of identity and the realisation of what it is to live in a multicultural society in a time of global warming. Or perhaps it's just that I have dreams and need to get them out of my head. When I make animations I'm not using them like Kentridge as metaphors for historical change, I'm trying to deal with change as a process that simply unfolds as part of the everyday, as well as realising that so much of what we do is repetition, this is why I try and make my animations looped.
A dog with eyes on its body
This dog was the first animation I ever made, I know it's really basic, but the fact that the dog keeps running, keeps trying to get to the edge of the frame, but never quite gets there, was what fascinated me and this was what I decided was the deeper metaphor for myself, not an ever changing history but a sense of Sisyphean activity endlessly repeated.
Neither man nor bird
In this case I tried to draw an animated image whereby man's aspirations, in this case to be able to fly, prevents the bird from taking its natural course. By one trying to catch or control the other, neither is able to do what they need to. The man endlessly stuck trying to hold on to the bird, hoping it will lift him off the ground, the bird struggling to fly, but being held down by the weight of the man. It's very crude, and I learnt this crudity from Kentridge, it seemed to me to be the only way to avoid having my work being compared to the sophistication of modern CGI animation techniques. This image is simply an animation made of a very quickly put down set of drawings, executed on several sheets of A4 tracing paper, with a dip in pen and a little ink wash. As the washes were added the paper crinkled up, and it is this crinkling that makes the background tonal changes. The drawings were not even laid on top of each other to ensure a smooth transition from one frame to the next, I just drew them in a line, one after the other. At the time of drawing this image I felt that the rough stupidity of human actions could not be over estimated and I haven't changed my mind. Kentridge's images are less pessimistic than my own and he has a sense of history leading towards a better life, something I'm not so sure about. Showing alongside the Kentridge at the Whitworth was another wonderful exhibition of Goya and Hogarth prints. Both artists were grim chroniclers of human folly and I see no reason to disagree with their take on things, we still repeat the same mistakes and I'm sure both Goya and Hogarth would recognise the base elements of greed, xenophobia and hatred that continue to exist, even when economic conditions are such that so many more of us now exist above the poverty line.
If you can, do go to the Whitworth to see this. Kentridge has used several different ways of installing video projections as well as using sound to add emphasis to his narratives. He also has large textiles and cabinets of drawings on display, so there are various ways of dealing with presentation for those of you interested in moving image and sound art, as well as excellent work using more traditional formats.
William Kentridge: tapestry