The Institute for the Less Good Idea

Visiting William Kentridge at his Johannesburg studio.


Profile for Financial Times magazine | 2 September 2016 | PDF

My (longer) edit, with The Nose reinstated:

I knew I was at the right place because of the cats. Two sculpted, spiky creatures faced each other atop the gates in Houghton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthy, jacaranda-shrouded suburbs. I recognized them from drawings, etchings and films – in which cats emerge from radios (Ubu Tells the Truth), curl into bombs (Stereoscope), turn into espresso pots (Lexicon). Now they had become metal, swinging open to reveal a steep driveway and above it a brick and glass building perched on stilts amid foliage: the studio. A gardener directed me past some cycads to the right entrance and there an assistant ushered me in to meet William Kentridge. He was wearing a blue rather than a white collared shirt, but in all other aspects conformed to his self-appointed uniform: black trousers, black shoes, the string of a pince-nez knotted through a button hole, the lenses stowed in a breast pocket when they were not on his nose.


When William Kentridge arrives in one of the big world capitals these days, he arrives in force. In 2010 he took Manhattan, with a retrospective at MoMA and a staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. Since then: Berlin, Beijing, Rio, Oaxaca, Mumbai, Milan, Moscow (to name just a few). Earlier this year, a 550-metre long frieze of enormous figures stencilled along the Tiber’s embankment in Rome – his largest public artwork to date. And now London: a major exhibition titled Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery that opens later this month, and will coincide with a production of Alban Berg’s Lulu at English National Opera in November.

Compatriots, fellow Johannesburgers – we have watched with pleasure and perhaps pleasant surprise at just how big WK has made it in the art world. The surprise comes partly from how he has managed to be become genuinely global by remaining unashamedly local. Dürer, Hogarth and Daumier; the whole intellectual apparatus of the Enlightenment; the art of the Russian Revolution and other failed utopias of the 20th century; far-reaching mediations into the nature of space and time – all of the above have been filtered through the singularity of his Jo’burg. Or even more specifically, the three-kilometre radius that comprises Kentridge’s home, the schools he went to, the university of Witwatersrand where he took a degree in politics and African Studies, the Market Gallery where he first started exhibiting in the late 1970s, the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, for which he wrote, acted and directed. As part of a multi-racial community of artists trying to find a way of working through the worst days of the Nationalist regime, Kentridge has spoken of the challenge of addressing “the immovable rock of apartheid” without being limited or fixated by it. To escape the rock, he wrote in 1990, was the great challenge for the artist in those days, for “the rock is possessive, and inimical to good work”: “you cannot face the rock head-on; the rock always wins”.

The way Kentridge managed to escape without being escapist – to evolve an artistic language that is private and playful while also saturated with the political – is also the continual surprise of his oeuvre. The range and ambition of his subject matter has kept pace with his growing renown, so that a cacophonous, large-scale work like The Refusal of Time, which will be the centrepiece of the Whitechapel show, takes on planet-scale questions of modernity and measurement. Beginning with the tick of a metronome, it builds to a swirling carousel of music, text fragments, drawings and filmed actors, pivoting around a moment in history when clock time was standardised, and the world became, in the artist’s words, “a huge dented bird cage of time zones, of lines of agreement and control”.

LONDON, as one of his early prints reminds us, IS A SUBURB OF JOHANNESBURG. And there is something undaunted and curiously free in the way he provincialises Europe, rummaging amid its great artistic traditions and splicing them on to the wreckage of imperialism and racial capitalism in Africa. The processions that wind through this work and so many others lead from the shadows of Plato’s cave via Goya’s disasters of war, through slavery and miners’ strikes and revolutionary parades to the long and growing queues of refugees and migrants that pass across digital screens in the 21st century. “My concern,” he says, “has been both with the existential solitude of the walker, and with social solitude – lines of people walking in single file from one country to another, from one life to an unknown future”.


William Kentridge is a dignified and gracious man, but with something comedic about him. There is a vaguely childlike, even clownish energy that sometimes stirs within his relaxed frame. Born into a family of famous lawyers, he remarks that speaking in public and thinking on his feet came easily – it was making art that seemed “a very unnatural and hard thing for me to do”. The artist’s father, Sir Sidney Kentridge (now 93), represented no less than three Nobel Peace prize winners during his career – Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu – as well as the family of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko during the 1978 inquest into his death. The son remembers opening a thin yellow box in his father’s study as a young boy, thinking it might contain chocolates. He was confronted with a series of shocking black and white photographs: of bodies stained with bullet wounds, lying spread-eagled across the veld. These were victims of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 – images his that father was using as evidence against the state.

Watching Kentridge the younger talk, you wish that more artists might have had failed acting careers. In one of the Norton lectures given in 2012 at Harvard under the title Six Drawing Lessons (they can all be watched online), he speaks about filming his eight-year-old son who is tasked with tearing up paper, scattering pencils and throwing paint all over the studio. Then the footage is run backwards: “There is a utopian perfection. The papers reconstruct themselves perfectly every time. He gathers them all. He catches twelve pencils, all arriving from different corners of the room in the same moment…His joy at his own skill is overflowing”.

To make his point in the real time of the lecture, Kentridge then starts to enact what he has just said in reverse, AS IF I COULD, walking backwards as he does so: DUK I FI SA. Forward again, AS IF I COULD SWALLOW, then backward: OLLAWS DUK FI SA. It is a silly moment (the audience laughs) but at the same time one treated with seriousness. All this (we gather) is simply a necessary ridiculousness, perhaps on the way to something insightful.

There are many lessons that flow from this deliberate backwardness, this measured playfulness. One is the importance of surrendering to an activity obeying its arbitrary strictures as assiduously as possible in order to see where all this will lead. The sheer urge to make things, he says, is experienced as a physical impulse that he can feel, almost taste in his pectoral muscles prior to drawing, a bodily overflow which must take arbitrary shape in the world. This excess, this anti-minimalism leaves its traces in everything from the early etchings and charcoal drawings to the shadow processions and multi-screen installations that form his more recent works: “messy, boozy, overlapping series of stories and films, dances and drawings”.

Buried within it all is an impulse to run not just film but also history backwards, to reanimate the socialist utopias of the early 20th century before they failed. The artistic language of the socialist Internationals, of inter-war modernism and Constructivism provides much of the lumber in his artistic universe. The studio itself is full of tripods and easels and ladders and other machines with legs that call to mind Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera. I looked at my inadequate notes of our meeting: THINGS ON STILTS.


When starting out as an artist in Johannesburg, William Kentridge recalls, there was the challenge of trying to hold in mind entirely different visual worlds. On the one hand, the tradition of European landscape painting that he had been schooled in, with its lushness, its incised V-shapes and receding planes. On the other, the scrub-coloured edges of his native city: a place of migrant labour hostels and political resistance, of casual violence and bodies lying in the veld. A place where the sublime only ever arrived in summer – in huge cumulus nimbus clouds that massed ahead of thunderstorms – and the only hills available were the tailings dams of the gold mines, tinted yellow by the cyanide that leached the metal from its ore.

So much about modern South Africa begins with the mines, and this strange, industrially remodelled landscape also provides an origin myth for Kentridge’s career. In starting to draw it in the 1970s, and then resuming in the 80s after a failed attempt to be an actor, he found it hard to know when the images were finished. And so he began to photograph them at different stages of completion, trying to pinpoint that moment when the marks on paper were no longer schematic or under-developed but not yet cluttered or too busy. As an unintended by-product, the experiment led to screen animations, or as he calls them, drawings for projection, a form of “Stone Age film making” in which minute alterations and erasures are made to the charcoal images, each one painstakingly recorded, frame by frame.

From the late 1980s, stretching across South Africa’s political transition, Kentridge’s deliberately anachronistic techniques proved utterly timely in engaging questions of social trauma and historical memory: in evoking a moment when so much of the past was made to vanish in plain sight but still hovered in the mind’s eye. Today there is still something uncanny and unresolved about these films, emerging as they do from an undermined, haunted city. In a sequence from one, Felix in Exile, sheets of paper blow across a semi-industrial landscape of burnt grass and mine dumps. They cover a fallen body, then lift off again toward the horizon, leaving behind a trail of imperfect rubbings out, where charcoal dust stays lodged in the paper fibres. It is beautiful, complex image that seems to reveal something secret about the artist’s brain. It keeps alive, in a ghostly trace, all the time and labour and judgement that have gone into those few seconds.


“As an artist”, William Kentridge has said, “my job is to make art, not to make sense.” But in fact, he makes a lot of sense, particularly when speaking about art. To all the mediums that he has worked in over the last four decades – charcoal, animation, metal, sculpture, puppets, theatre, opera and stage design, textiles and tapestry, collage and cut-outs – one needs to add language itself. There are not many artists who have given such hyper-articulate accounts of their own work. And in fact, one of the surprises in meeting WK and getting a tour of his Johannesburg studio was the extent to which his art begins in words.

Each day starts with the writing down of phrases in a notebook, one of which he was now paging through, with the matter-of-factness of someone explaining a complex dream that is entirely obvious to the dreamer.

“HISTORY ON ONE LEG,” he says, “that’s the 1980s and the toyi-toyi, of course, brought back from guerrilla training camps in Zimbabwe.” The toyi-toyi is a high-stepping South African protest march, or rather a dance, which rocks you from one leg to another: fearsome and playful at the same time. “The BOOK OF SLIGHTS, do you know the concept? From a Yiddish word: when you’re not invited to the barmitzvah, or not seated at one of the good tables – you keep a meticulous record of all these things. FUGITIVE WORDS, words that just won’t come, that go AWOL for a while. The other day it was, diorama, then sledgehammer, and so on. Where do they go?”

Seeing I was intrigued, he marched me over to a storeroom that contained a drawer of them –THERE WAS NO EPIPHANY, ANTI-ADVICE – a whole heap of word compost, waiting to germinate images. Some had even migrated to the walls: YESTERDAY’S GOOD IDEA hung behind a ladder.

“It’s taken on a new meaning, post-Brexit,” he acknowledges, “but what I meant,” he says, “is that there are very few projects that I have done, very few in which the first idea has carried through. Sometimes I think I’ve got this great idea and I think, damn, it’s too early. It’s the beginning of the project, so even though it seems such a clear good idea, just historically I know that it’s unlikely to be there in the end.”

He went on: “I want to start a small art centre, where people could do experimental art, productions, operas, things they wouldn’t get to do elsewhere. I’m thinking of calling it the Centre for the Less Good Idea, or the Institute for the Less Good Idea”.


Another of the pieces that will appear in the Whitechapel Gallery this September is 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès. It is a tribute to the French stage magician and conjuror who made some 500 short films when the medium was young and marvelling in its strengths. They explore the illusions that can be achieved by stopping time, running it backwards, splicing frames in or out. Tearing paper becomes mending, scattering gathering. Which raises the second order question: how to tear something so that (backwards) it will convincingly look like mending; how to scatter paper so that the re-gathering of it will look natural, easeful. Even the most ordinary, automatic things – like walking – must be meticulously choreographed and rehearsed.

The Fragments are also a tribute to the utopian space of the studio itself: a laboratory for conducting mock-serious experiments in creative process, then meticulously logging them, so that the artworks emerge less as precious artefacts in themselves than as by-products or residue or some other, more important impulse that has already moved on. The studio should be a safe space for stupidity, a place where conditions for fortunate accidents are to be maximised and good ideas in the abstract mistrusted. LEAP BEFORE YOU LOOK.


William Kentridge’s studio is a generous, high-ceilinged space: an airy hangar full of unfinished drawings, linocuts, etchings and stage set models. The cameras trained in different directions make it feel slightly like a laboratory; an upper balcony lends a touch of the theatre. A time lapse of the two hours I spent there would reveal us moving back and forth between different micro-locales in the space. Here we are looking at a cardboard set design for an Alban Berg opera, Woyzeck, and then a charcoal drawing for it, made from a photograph of the First World War. A German soldier crouches in the trenches, using a huge ear trumpet to listen across no-man’s land for the enemy: a backwards megaphone. Now we are clustered round his assistant’s iMac, looking at images of the huge frieze of figures that had been power-hosed into existence along the banks of the Tiber. “Because it’s Rome, there were strict limits on the amount of pressure we could use, and the shape of the nozzle,” Kentridge explains. “So you could get the wall much whiter, but that was as white as we could, and in fact it’s a nice gentle hue. They’ll disappear again, of course, in time.”

Now are watching footage of a man playing the theremin, a musical instrument that translates hand positions into a keening electronic wail. This comes into the sequence in O Sentimental Machine, a work premiered last year in Istanbul, where Kentridge impersonates footage of Leon Trotsky making a speech: speech translated into gesticulation, then gesture into sound via the electromagnetic waves of theremin. “A sentimental but programmable machine – that was Trotsky’s definition of the human being,” he explains, “The human as ‘a semi-manufactured product’.”

Now we are paging through an exhibition catalogue in German with drawings that come alive when you look at them through a smart phone: the copperplate type weaving and unweaving itself in and out of existence. Is this an enhanced book?

“No, this is just a book. But the software in the phone – you know. Augmented reality, I think they call it. We pre-empted Pokémon”.

It’s tempting to see Kentridge’s art as a refuge from, or a refusal of, digital imaging: a primitive, analogue laboriousness in the very teeth of the digital onslaught. But I sensed that he was not one of those people to get stuck on arbitrarily championing one kind of technology over another. That he was (wielding an iPhone with great dexterity) that refreshing thing: an older person with time for gadgets. He spoke with admiration about how the photographer Zanele Muholi had arrived with not one but two assistants, who began live-tweeting from the moment they arrived – “and of course it’s doubly important if you’re an activist.”

We broke for lunch but the restless migration of images followed us into the main house. In the kitchen where we sat down his family, bronze figures processed along a top shelf: men with megaphone heads, walking corkscrews, a Bialetti on the move. Some had passed in turn into a large tapestry in the next room. Two black, stilted cardboard cut-outs (sextants, compasses?) had become woven shapes obscuring a page of an atlas: a translation into textiles of the artist’s insatiable desire to draw over text. Disembowelled encyclopaedias, defaced accounts ledgers and liturgical tracts: on the hundreds, if not thousands of pages that Kentridge has marked, naïve shapes dance across the oppressive knowingness of Enlightenment rationality, and everything that it became when exported to the rest of the world – a humanism that was not extended to all humans.


The first thing I did on meeting William Kentridge was to show him a picture of Cecil Rhodes without a nose. In 2015, the removal of the mining magnate’s statue from the university campus where I work had made headlines around the world. It was an uncanny moment to watch, when something that had been so still for so long began to move, jiggling unsteadily in the harness of a crane. There is a picture of that day now hanging in the South African National Gallery, already an iconic image of the country’s uneven, unfinished, unpunctual transition. The performance artist Sethembile Msezane seems to be lifting the trussed-up empire builder with her wings (an illusion created by a canny photographer), turning her back on History while everyone else is saluting it with their smart phones.

But I had a different picture. There is another statue of Rhodes, the one in his overbearing Egypto-Roman memorial further up the slopes. At some point last year (in a much less well-reported part of the decolonizing process), its nose disappeared. This must have been done with an angle grinder (the statue is solid bronze – not hollow like the Soviet ones put out to pasture in Monument Park outside Budapest).

I showed the image I had snapped to Kentridge: the languid, slightly bloated face, but now with a flat patch of luminous, uncorroded metal in its middle. A “ridiculous blank space” in the words of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose”, which Chekov called the greatest short story ever written. The bureaucrat Kovalyov wakes up to find that his nose has disappeared from his face, leaving a flat patch “like a freshly cooked pancake”. The Nose (he soon learns) is gallivanting around Moscow, wearing a uniform of a higher social rank than its erstwhile owner, looking down (his nose) at him. “No, I don’t understand it, not one bit!” the narrator cuts in at one point, “But the strangest, most incredible thing of al is that authors should write about such things. That, I confess, is beyond my comprehension. It’s just… no, no, I don’t understand it at all! Firstly, it’s no use to the country whatsoever; secondly – but even then it’s no use either … I simply don’t know what one can make of it…”

Kovalyov gets his back by the end of the story, but Rhodes’s nose is still at large: a nodule of solid bronze roaming Cape Town, or perhaps gone to ground in a safe house?

“Very interesting shape,” said Kentridge, inspecting the picture, “A cross-section”.

He then went and yanked some books off shelves to demonstrate the various noses that he had trialled when producing Shostakovich’s 1930 opera based on Gogol’s tale. We looked at rehearsals of actors putting on full-body noses, then trying to perfect their footwork. Are those your legs, I asked, pointing to the Nose jumping in the air with nimble en pointe feet below?

“No, but this must be me”, he flipped to a more stolid, black-trousered pair of legs marching the Nose across the stage.

It seemed like a pleasant way to inhabit the role of world-famous artist.

For the projections used in the opera, nose-shaped etchings and cut-outs were made – some have now become mural-scale tapestries in a current exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery. They ride horses and ascend monumental pedestals, trying to be grand; they get around on Constructivist stilts. For the opera singer playing the nose-less Kovalyov, however, there were some more difficult artistic decisions. Asking him to use a handkerchief or paper to cover his face just made him look like Hannibal Lecter, Kentridge recalls. The make-up artist at the Met Opera argued for a prosthetic extension around the nose that could reproduce the shocking flatness at the centre. But eventually, they decided to allow him to keep his nose as normal “and hope that no one would notice.”

The experience, Kentridge goes on, revealed a lot about absences, and about masks. About how when someone puts on a mask, what you really see is the body around it: something you now become intensely aware of, its presence and movement. “The red nose of a clown is really just the smallest mask. What the tiny mask does is magnify what the rest of the clown’s face is doing”. Not unlike the group photographs of the Soviet era, from which Trotsky may or may not have been airbrushed out, magically disappeared. “Instead of trying to make us forget Trotsky, it makes us remember him 15 times more – either because he has literally been airbrushed out, or because he might have been, and we’re trying to track any possibilities of that”.


In all of William Kentridge’s studio, I noticed just one rectangle of pure abstraction. It was a grey void, a wash of charcoal dust that was (he explained) the remnant of an animated explosion – part of a series of drawings of the First World War for Woyzeck. Kentridge has become one of the world’s most recognizable artists by deliberately refusing the conceptual and non-representational languages of so much modern art. “Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America during the 1960s and 1970s,” he says, “seemed distant and incomprehensible to me”. Its images were familiar from exhibitions and catalogues, “but the impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa” given its political situation. Yet at the same time, his work stretches the definition of that last phrase: “I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay”.


At a recent exhibition of his in Berlin, he told me, an actor had given false tours of the show, a kind of Dadaist walkabout in which “explaining” the pieces just consisted of stacking up more cryptic phrases and non-sequiturs.

“She took the group up to an artwork and used a script generated from these phrases I have been working with. So she would point at this one and say ‘Here we have THE INVENTION OF AFRICA, which of course can be explained in terms of SEVEN CORPSES IN THREE MINUTES and DEFINING THE SHORELINES’. Or then: ‘Here is LOOKING AT THE SUN, which of course refers to SHARPEN YOUR PHILOSOPHY, and is in dialogue with A SINGLE VOICE LOOKING FOR A CONVERSATION’, and so on.”

I liked the idea of an anti-tour, and thought that more of those audio guides that people walk around with in galleries should contain productive misinformation.

What are they, these textual bits have begun to float through more and more of his works, summoning but also undercutting their own authority? Maxims, adages, axioms, epigrams, apothegms, aphorisms? They flash up on the walls in The Refusal of Time, punctuating without explaining: IN PRAISE OF PRODUCTIVE PROCRASTINATION, PERFORMANCES OF TRANSFORMATION, ANTI-ENTROPY.

Perhaps they are anti-aphorisms. An aphorism, that rather unlikeable genre, seeks to condense wisdom into a single line, to distil the world into a fragment of text. These anti-aphorisms seem to reverse the process, working like an index of unrealized ideas, as co-ordinates or mnemonic prompts to a private world that can never be, or should never be, fully explained.

When writing about Kentridge, and struggling to manage the range and centrifugal force of his oeuvre, I tried a similar tactic. I pinned up a list of phrases, not quite sure what order to put them in or where to begin. It went: CATS, GATES, UNIFORMS / JOHANNEBSURG IN 2D / REPROCESSING THE MINE DUMPS / REVERSE ENGINEERING. (True to form, all my initial good ideas fell out of the final edit.)  THINGS ON STILTS / SOMETHING CLOWNISH / POKÉMON AVANT LA LETTRE / A PARTICULAR PRESSURE, A PARTICULAR NOZZLE / ANTI-APHORISMS.

Perhaps I could begin several times over? Stop whenever an error had crept in, whenever the pen sketch got too busy and over-reaching, then rewind and start afresh?  Hold on to that utopian moment of beginning, before too many marks on paper have been made and too many possibilities foreclosed. (I now realize that I have it backwards: that I started with the question of endings, and am now ending with the question of beginnings.) Undoing, unmaking, unwriting, CTRL+Z, CTRL+Z… Spooling backwards to the point when everything is still pure potential, the document flickering and blank.

“I’m working on a lecture on the body in art now”, said Kentridge as he walked me out, “In making art, I mean. How it moves, how it performs”.

We had been looking at “non-existent sculptures” through a stereoscope: 3D images made with time lapse and a torch. A horse outlined brightly in thin air, the artist lurking behind it as a ghostly presence.

“To the outsider it’s just someone making a series of disconnected gestures – it’s only through here that you see the horse.”

Here he dropped down and did a horse dance, tracing it invisibly in the crisp Johannesburg air.

“At the beginning of a drawing, I find I use my whole body. Then it’s from the whole body to your shoulder, then to your elbow, then your wrist, until you’re just using your knuckles. I’m not good with using just my knuckles – then I know it’s time to stop”.